“Zapatos” by T.C. Boyle

I’ve been struggling all day with “Zapatos.” I find it very difficult to write about short stories—which frustrates me even more because I really like the form. But I will not capitulate; I will do my work. (I swear, I will give up on the work jokes soon.)

T.C. Boyle opens the story with the enigmatic sentence, “There is, essentially, one city in our country.” The country is never specified explicitly, but it’s pretty clearly Chile.

The point about this country, regardless, is that the people there really like to wear Italian leather shoes. “Oh, you can get by with a pair of domestically made pumps or cordovans of the supplest sheepskin, or even, in the languid days of summer, with huaraches or Chinese slippers made of silk or even nylon,” the narrator admits. “But the truth is, what everyone wants—for the status, the cachet, the charm and refinement—are the Italian loafers and ankle boots, hand-stitched and wtih a grain as soft and rich as, well—is this the place to talk of the private parts of girls still in school?” Let me just take a moment to say, I want these shoes.

Anyway, the narrator’s uncle sells them, or tries to. The margins are not good—imported shoes are heavily taxed, along with most other imported consumer goods. People are always walking by the uncle’s shoe store in their fine Italian footwear that he knows fell off the back of a truck, or whatever happens in China (we do find out). And he is determined to compete.

So we learn that the country has two free ports, where you can buy things duty-free—but to get them back into the city, you have to pay duty, “the same stultifying duty merchants like Uncle Dagoberto were obliged to pay.”

And why then had the government set up the free ports in the first place? In order to make digital audio tape and microwaves available to themselves, of course, and to set up discreet banking enterprises for foreigners, by way of generating cash flow—and ultimately, I think, to frustrate the citizenry. To keep us in our place. To remind us that government is unfriendly.

But Uncle Dagoberto does what businessmen everywhere do, when they can: he finds a way to thwart that unfriendly government and get his hands on some duty-free shoes. Or at least, ones that are almost duty-free. And he needs his nephew’s help to do it.

So the narrator, a student of hermeneutics and deconstruction who takes his Derrida on a business trip, heads to Freeport. And he has to become a businessman, his uncle telling him about a lot of shoes going up for auction the next morning, and that he must “[b]uy them or die.” He does, and Uncle Dagoberto has pulled off a magnificent trick, too good to spoil in a blog post.

That was two years ago.

Today, Uncle Dagoberto is the undisputed shoe king of our city. He made such a killing on that one deal that he was able to buy his way into the cartel that “advises” the government. He has a title now—Undersecretary for International Trade—and a vast, brightly lit office in the President’s palace.

I’ve changed too, though I still live with my mother on La Calle Verdad and I still attend the university. …I no longer study semantics, hermeneutics, and the deconstruction of deconstruction, but have instead been pursuing a degree in business. It only makes sense. After all, the government doesn’t seem half so unfriendly these days.

So where’s the work, you ask? It happens fast; you could almost miss it if you blinked. Two customs-house auctions and the work is done—although, of course, Uncle Dagoberto does have 30,000 pairs of Italian shoes to sell at the end of it, and presumably keeps selling more, at least for a while. But I find the example very interesting: Dagoberto’s work is thwarted (his real work, of simple shoe-selling), so he comes up with a clever plan to get ahead. He’s a businessman, and the only way to expand his business is to get out from under these restrictions (which, of course, don’t apply to everyone). But once he does this, those same restrictions are what enable him to stop working. Now he has his big bright office, dispensing “advice.” For a price, the price of just a bit of work, Dagoberto ensures himself the luxury of not working forever after.

2 comments to “Zapatos” by T.C. Boyle

  • I’ll bet T. C. Boyle, somewhere along the line, got sick of hearing people say “I’m a consultant.”

    A tangentially related anecdote: a friend’s twenty-something daughter, on her first trip to Europe, called from Italy sobbing on the phone. Her mother’s reaction: should I book a flight immediately, what’s wrong, are you okay, what is it? Daughter: But mom, I’m just so ashamed, so underdressed. The shoes…people’s shoes…they’re so…beautiful….
    Scott W. recently posted..A Post about a Book about a Film about a Journey to a RoomMy Profile


    I’d like to share my thoughts. I thinks there is a lot to this short story–I mean a lot!

    First, we see political corruption and the oppression hindering the lower classes, but later the same oppressed class rises as “adviser” to the government. So when TCB says: “the government doesn’t look so bad nowadays” he is highlighting the injustice of a fixed government that only awards the rich.

    But this story reminds me of an important classic that came out of the Latin American Boom: By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño. The story talks about an oppressed chilean shoemaker that struggles with the government.

    What of it?! Well if the two are linked then what was happening in Chile during By Night in Chile that can add clarity to TCB’s work. First, major corruption–check–then there were a sanctions placed on Chile from the US–more corruption. The sanctions forced Chile into lower export duties causing more economic problems. This started with corruption. So what if it?!

    Well there is something interesting regarding the small details… they can be bigger than you think. The movie that Tomas as watching in his travels Death Wish VII…. Yeah that doesn’t exist. But there is a pentalogy of Death Wish movies that planned on making more movies…. THIS TAKES PLACE IN THE FUTURE… maybe…. or at least indicates future events while being influenced by past events.

    Here is the money question… What can we use from the past to improve the world in the future?

    That is what he is getting at! How can the United States learn from the corruption in Chile during the LA Boom that caused terrible economic plague to prevent similar corruption that is current in the US from destroying our economy?! Mind blown!

    No. Seriously. The LA Boom wanted to do the same thing–bring to light the corruption and improve the lives of the lower and middle classes… but the movement dies young. TCB is trying to light it up and pass it around.

    Jokes aside… check my facts. It’s a good argument either way.