November 17, 2010
Once Stephen Graham Jones has you, once you’re invested, and want to see what’s going to happen next, that’s when he elevates his game. He’s one of those rare authors (like Brian Evenson, William Gay and Cormac McCarthy) that can write, and publish, and exist in two worlds: the land of genre fiction, with the horrific, the fantastic; and also the high towers of the academic, the language and focus raised to a literary intelligence, the lyrical voice an evolution, the poetic unfurling of the land and emotion beyond the typical read. Jones can publish in the dark recesses of Cemetery Dance and Asimov’s just as easily as the literary landscape of Black Warrior Review and Southeast Review, or the contemporary hotbeds of Juked and Hobart.
It Came From Del Rio (Trapdoor Books) is not your typical chupacabra story. And how often do you hear that? Maybe you’re still eating candy from Halloween, a bit of the macabre lingering in your flesh and bones. Or maybe you just enjoy a pulpy novel, something that grabs you by the shoulders and doesn’t let go. Either way, It Came From Del Rio is a book that I knew I wanted to read, having been a long time fan of Jones, committed to his work since the haunting, innovative serial killers in All The Beautiful Sinners (Rugged Land) melted my brain back in 2003. As the blurbs on the back of the book from two of the best in contemporary neo-noir (Craig Clevenger and Will Christopher Baer) state, “…Jones crosses into the noir badlands…” and writes a book that “…anyone else would have rendered as kitsch.” This is more than the history of a desert myth, this is the lyrical language of a border runner; this is a love story about a father and daughter, and her commitment to him no matter what has happened, what he has changed into; and this is a story of revenge, the terror of some mutated creature on your tail, its heightened sense of smell your sure demise, the extended rabbit ears high in the sky, the radioactivity leaking from its bloody pores, destroying everything in its path.
It would be easy to laugh at this urban legend, a novel about a bigfoot, a sasquatch, or in this case, the Mexican version, the chupacabra, half man, half rabbit. Except, Jones is quick to suck you into the humanity behind the grotesque, the emotion that drives this story, the motivations behind the violent deeds. The book is split in half, the first hundred pages focusing on Dodd Raines, the second hundred on his abandoned daughter, Laurie. And it is with an early sense of things to come that we are introduced to Dodd:
Which is four of the vowels, yeah. She’d started to write the fifth, but then, seeing the end of it, stopped. Standing there in the kitchen that morning, it was funny, an accident, a sick joke.
She should have just kept writing.
If she had, maybe this all would have fallen out differently. Maybe the ink in this pen wouldn’t be bubbling out onto the back of my hand.
So it goes. The seed has been planted, and we see that at the heart of his illegal activities, running packages back and forth across the border, Dodd is just another father doing the best he can, trying to provide for his family. He’s just trying to keep food on the table for his daughter, having already killed his wife, her mother, in a bank heist gone bad. The weight of the world sits on Dodd’s back, and it is heavy, for sure. But he’s up to the task, relishes the game of hide and seek in the eternal darkness of the desert around him, always one step ahead of his pursuers.
Once Jones has your heart, he has to take your mind as well, and he does that with the authority of his voice. He grew up in Texas, so every weathered post, every bit of rusted barbed wire, every detail about burying photos in the dirt, chewing on cactus pulp, eluding coyotes, hanging out at the bottomless Jacob’s Well, it has the sincerity of a personal history behind it, the truth in every action. From the author’s note at the end of the book:
“…I gave Del Rio to Dodd and Laurie, let them come up through the area codes I knew, places I’d sat with goats that had been pulled down by dogs, places I’d climbed trees to see if the mistletoe was really poison or not. Places I’d chased deer into cactus, places I’d buried snakes, places I’d carried five-gallon buckets full to the top with horny toads. Pastures I’d seen these small parachutes drifting down into, before I even knew what getting stuff across the border was about. Storage units I’d painted for weeks. Convenience stores I’d lived in. Old broke-down houses I’d found in the middle of nowhere, with elaborate floor plans drawn on the walls with fresh blue ink, and little X’s there that were guards, walking.”
When you’re already invested, when you already believe, this voice coming to you from the pages, telling you how to do it, how to get away, how to not get caught, it isn’t much of a leap to moon rocks, and radioactivity, and dying of gunshot wounds, only to come back to life, altered forever, mutated and deformed, but focused on revenge, seeking out those that wronged him, a singular frame of mind.
“I…started to understand that, in a way, while I’d been infecting this yard of rabbits, mutating them into what they were now, my memories had leeched into them too, somehow, into the simple, instinctual stories that coursed through their veins, so that, though my body was dead all those years, I’d lived on still, in generations of blind litters.”
So you’re surfing the waves of the hypnotic voices of Dodd and Laurie, but what’s keeping you here, what’s making you turn the pages? Well, you’re rooting for the bad guy, the anti-hero (or is he really the hero?) to square it all up, him just a messenger, really, a struggling widower, just a man trying to do his best to survive, while taking out those responsible for the injustices, those behind it all, the real evil doers. Maybe you’ve seen Thelma and Louise, so you get it, the ending, the car and the cliff the only decision they can really make. Or maybe you’re a fan of F. Paul Wilson’s “Repairman Jack” series, or the television show Dexter. You get it. You want to see the justice dolled out, even if it means torture, even if it means more killing. Especially the killing. Because those men, those minds behind this all, they knew what they were doing, they started it all, and now, it has to be finished. Balanced, yeah?
“…and then there was the fast desperate shuffle of feet, the sound of a thin glass breaking, a shell being chambered, then a silence…
Now, from inside, there was just a deep ragged breathing. And then someone using a piece of furniture to pull himself up from the ground, it sounded like. Starting to breathe all at once, sudden, gasping.”
It Came From Del Rio is not just for fans of horror or noir. Like great realist fiction, it touches a place in us all where we ask ourselves, “How far would you go? What would you do if you were wronged? Or your family – your father, your wife or your daughter.” Vengeance. Jones serves it up cold in this captivating story of a man who becomes less of a man and more of a legend. It’s about the love of his daughter and what lengths she’ll go to in order to clear his name, to embrace what he’s become, swallowing her fear in order to give him peace. The full title of this book is It Came From Del Rio (Part 1 of the Bunnyhead Chronicles). So whatever happens on page 209, know that this story isn’t done. And that makes my heart beat just a little bit faster. The anticipation. The unknown. I want to do it again. I like being a vigilante.