Matt Mendez’s emotionally demanding Barely Missing Everything (2019) explores the lives of working-class Mexican Americans living in El Paso, TX. A teenage boy named Juan anchors the text, which focalizes his experiences as well as those of his mother, Fabi, and his best friend, JD.
Juan and JD are high school seniors planning life after high school, but just barely. They both have hazy visions of the future. JD, a film enthusiast, aspires to make movies and carries a camera wherever he goes. Juan, a high school basketball star on a mediocre team, doesn’t imagine himself doing anything else. Additionally, Fabi, a teen mom turned 30-something mom of a teenager, tends bar to make ends meet.
Mendez brings his characters to life slowly. It’s as if you don’t notice them taking shape until you’re a few chapters in and can feel them beside you. He lays them bare: the self-consciousness about a crooked smile, ambivalence about religion, sheer exhaustion from poorly compensated labor. He builds them into multidimensional beings that can’t help but remind readers of human complexity and vulnerability.
There is a painful and relentless “stuckness” to the characters that challenges the US myth of meritocracy and reveals the reality of structural inequality and cyclical poverty. It puts the careful reader into a position like the characters themselves; we have no reason to suspect things will get better. Intergenerational and intersectional pain fuels the sense of futility enveloping the text.
That’s not to say there is no hope to be found. There is, but it’s precarious and bitter-sweet. It’s hard to recognize as hope through the pain that twists around it.
This is a beautiful book. It’s full of lines that read like poetry and cut so close to the truth it feels like the page will bleed.
This is a deep book. It tells so many stories even the minor characters will haunt you.
This is a necessary book. At a historical moment marked by a crisis in empathy this book will make you feel.
This is an uncomfortable book. It will remind you art is important. It can do the work of revealing the world, in this case through perfectly chosen words.
I recommend this book for school and public libraries. It is a teachable text sure to prompt thoughtful discussions. Mendez doesn’t shy away from exploring gender dynamics, sexual shame, and double standards through Fabi as well as other characters. Other socially significant themes include police brutality, social mobility, racism, and the normalization of anti-immigrant rhetoric (as well as its material effects). It is the perfect novel for high school and university classrooms. I certainly plan on teaching it in future classes!