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Writing the Outlaw: Maria Venegas Recounts Stories of her Fugitive Father in a New Memoir

06/27/2014 03:40 pm ET | Updated Aug 27, 2014

"Can you tell I'm wearing a vest?" he asks us as he turns to one side, then the other.

"Sort of," we say, pointing to his horseshoe belt buckle, which appears to be pressing on the bottom edge of the vest. "Maybe you should pull your shirt out a bit," we say.

He retucks his shirt, making it a bit looser, and throws on a black leather vest over it.

"Now can you tell?"

"Not really," we say.

He slips one of his guns into the back of his Wranglers, grabs his black cowboy hat and goes out the door: metal, leather, bulletproof -- indestructible.

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Shortly after getting fashion advice on how to better hide his bulletproof vest, Jose Venegas, a violent, gun-shooting, ballad-loving, swaggering outlaw escapes to Mexico "in the dark hours of predawn," leaving behind his young family in Chicago -- and initiating a 14-year familial estrangement that takes a lifetime to fix.

Haunted by a father she barely knows and troubled by rumours of his impending return, theatre artist, playwright and writer Maria Venegas, tells the story of her strained relationship with her fugitive father in her newly-released, and highly-anticipated memoir, Bulletproof Vest: The Ballad of an Outlaw and His Daughter. As Maria drifts into adulthood -- graduating from college, moving to New York and starting an acting career -- she begrudgingly reunites with her father and the two begin a long and uncomfortable process of repairing their relationship against Mexico's starlit, desert backdrop, where her father tells outlandish stories akin to spaghetti westerns and telenovelas. The stories not only form the basis of the memoir, they are the primary conduits Jose uses to communicate with his estranged daughter:

In sharing his stories with me, perhaps he's trying to explain why he lived such a violent and self-destructive life, or maybe he's trying to make sense of what road led him back to the same dusty corner of the world where his life began, and so, too, would come to end. Twelve years after the ambush, the feds will find him near the same curve, at the foot of the huisache, his skull crushed in.

Despite locating the pastoral story-telling at his picturesque cattle ranch, tensions fluctuate between Jose and Maria, as trust is tested, betrayed and rebuilt over and over again. Emotions are scratched raw and bubble right onto the skin of the page -- her father after all, was Maria's "biggest secret," proving that reconciling oftentimes is more bitter than sweet.

What makes Bulletproof Vest a stand-out piece of writing and a current favourite among critics is that it reads more like a novel than a standard memoir navigating on a clean, linear timeline. The shifting time periods and settings -- Mexico, Chicago, New York and back again -- enables the narration to split into two very distinct voices: the author, and the author's larger than life father. Like a multi-layered plot rife with conflict, love, life, death; a fugitive on the run, Mexican drug cartels, and assassins thrown in, Maria Venegas demonstrates her literary talent by seamlessly writing from the point of view of her father in one chapter, and as a scrappy, angry, young woman determined to succeed in another.

As the memoir progresses, both Jose and Maria are running -- or rather, gunning -- almost as one voice: as Maria transmits her father's stories to the reader, it's tricky to distinguish the truth from fiction. Like a novel that bounces from one voice to another, the narrators are unreliable, yet the readers are under the spell of memoir's enigmatic story-tellers. Jose and Maria are mischievously conspiring against the reader, mythologizing gun-fights, near-death escape moments and family feuds. They take you in for a ride, and the only thing readers can do is fasten their seatbelts and hang on tight.

It's precisely this father-daughter collaboration that makes Bulletproof Vest shine: it draws readers to witness acts of reconciliation by way of mythologizing the outlaw life.

For an interview with Maria Venegas, check out my podcast, MsRepresent: Behind the Face, a Fierce Woman, right here.