Book Review

Hard-Boiled, Soft-Boiled in Galveston


Under the Skin

Isle of Misfortune

I’ve always been an outsider, an alien, a stranger in every tribe.

— James Carlos Blake, “The Outsider,”

Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 17, 1998

James Carlos Blake writes novels and short stories that deal with macho types engaged in violent and generally illicit pursuits, living on the margin of society. His outlook is grim, his plots far-fetched, and his main characters congenial criminals–cynical and amoral–who, as a general rule, die young.

In the hands of a writer less skilled, books such as these might be relegated to the potboilers on the back rack of the corner drugstore. But Blake, like his predecessors, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, is a master of hard-boiled fiction. Like them, he depicts turbulent times and the vicious ambience of the criminal underworld. (True, the sex is raunchier, the language more direct.)

Under the Skin, his latest novel and eighth work of fiction, recreates an early 20th-century setting and a mood reminiscent of those grainy B-films starring Edward G. Robinson. The story takes place in Northern Mexico and in Texas, mainly Depression-era Galveston: “Thirty miles long and some three miles across at its widest point, had long been a haven to pirates and smugglers, to gun runners, gamblers, whores, to shady characters of every stripe.”

The novel often reads as if it were written in another century. The women—broads, babes and dames—are “good girls,” motherly types, or hussies with a heart of gold—the projections of a male fantasy and about what one would expect given the novel’s time frame, settings, and protagonists, as well as its author. Ultimately, Blake’s command of the language, as well as his ability to faithfully render historic detail and portray minutely drawn characters against the backdrop of the Mexican-American border, keep his work from degenerating into sensationalism and gratuitous violence.

Blake, who currently divides his life between Texas and Florida, knows the borderlands well. His father was a Mexican civil engineer who traveled throughout Mexico building roads; his mother came from a Tamaulipas ranching family and was educated in Brownsville. In an article for the Los Angeles Times several years ago, he wrote that the place of his birth was the subject of much dispute between his parents, with his mother insisting that he be born in the United States, while his father—who had suffered one too many unpleasant encounters with the Border Patrol—was adamant that his first child be born in Mexico. In the end, his father chose such a haphazard route north, that nature took its course and Blake was born in Tampico. The family traveled continuously the next few years, and Blake spent his early years in school in Brownsville before they moved to Florida. Today he claims to belong to neither one country nor the other. He is, rather, a product of both, having inhabited the regions in between, which he tends to regard as a nation apart. Thus, his status as an outsider results from birth, geography, and, no doubt, from choice.

James Rudolph Youngblood, the narrator of Under the Skin, identified as a “pistolero with gringo eyes,” is also an outsider. But he feels right at home in Galveston. A hit man and body guard for Rose and Sam Maceo, the big guns who call the shots on the island, Youngblood is endowed with the qualities of a romantic hero: He is sharp, attractive, a good shot, first rate boxer, fine pool player, and a lady’s man. He is also cynical, unscrupulous, and a born killer, predestined for a life of crime.

As suggested by its title, Under the Skin deals, but only partly, with love and obsession. (Remember the song I’ve Got You Under My Skin?) When Youngblood falls in love with a young Mexican woman who is fleeing the clutches of a wicked Mexican landholder, his life changes course. In an attempt to liberate her from her captors and exact vengeance, he sets out on a mission that will return him to his roots.

His fundamental makeup—the way he is “under the skin”—determines the final outcome. Blake is fond of quoting the ancient Greek adage that character is fate. “If there is a common thematic engine in my work, that idea is it,” he says in a publisher’s press release. The reader is made well aware of this from the very beginning of the novel. We know far more about the main character than he does about himself, and soon recognize how, true to his nature, he will be driven to follow his father’s footsteps. While Youngblood’s awareness increases in the course of the book, he will never know as much as the reader does because he is surrounded by people—his stepfather, his mother and the woman he loves—who will invariably lie to him—as he, in turn, lies to them.

We know, for example, that Youngblood is the product of a union between a prostitute, known to him as his “Aunt Ava,” and Mexican Revolutionary leader Pancho Villa’s sanguinary executioner, the aptly named Rodolfo Fierro (“fiero” means iron in Spanish):

…El Matador, they called him, El Señor Muerte. Manos de Sangre. El Carnicero—the Butcher. He had a dozen such names… The border Mexicans spoke of him in the same tone they used in speaking of Death itself.

Despite his bloody trade, Youngblood and his colleagues are engaging, highly convincing, and, at times, vastly amusing. In one of the novel’s more tense moments, his two side-kicks, Brando and LQ, discuss the targets of their next hits:

“Be nice if Healy was home when we got there,” Brando said. “And if there wasn’t nobody with him but Parker.”

“Yeah, that’d be nice, all right,” LQ said. “And it’d be nice if they got killed in a car wreck today. Or if they both came down with a case of the blues so bad they shot theirselves and left a little note saying they just couldn’t stand it no more and we heard about it in the radio as soon as we got to Dallas. That’d be nice.”

Throughout the novel crisp dialogue, timed to provide comic relief, is interspersed with fast paced action and graphic displays of savagery. (I counted sixty murders by knife, ice pick and a wide variety of firearms—and that’s not counting near misses, brawls, and mutilations. Blake’s knowledge of firearms and other weapons is astounding.) The rapid shifts in mood, combined with the author’s displays of morbid wit, help overcome the excesses of violence:

“Now Angel leans over the bar and looks down at Luis Arroyo. He says for Luis to have a drink and pours a stream of tequila into Arroyo’s upturned bloody face and open unseeing eyes, onto his head, comically angled on the broken neck.”

Grotesque and morbid situations dealing with suffering, anxiety, and death are the author’s trademarks. He is also a stickler for detail, with an ability to recreate authentic characters and events without deviating from historic record. This sets his work apart. In describing a group photo of Pancho Villa, seated in the president’s chair in the National Palace with Fierro off to one side, Blake relied on an actual snapshot taken by Agustín Casasola, the preeminent photographer of the Mexican Revolution. But if there is one aspect of history that particularly intrigues him, it is the role its outcasts, unscrupulous characters like Fierro, play in the larger scheme of things. Besides Fierro and Villa, whose fictionalized story he told in the 1996 novel The Friends of Pancho Villa, Blake has written about the Confederate guerrilla, Bloody Bill Anderson, (Wildwood Boys) and the outlaw John Wesley Hardin (The Pistoleer).

In Under the Skin he has produced a carefully researched novel that draws on the history of Galveston and its Mexican community during the ’30s, as well as life on the frontier between Mexico and the United States. This is not the mythical, romanticized West, a world where redemption and honor is always a distinct possibility. In Blake’s world there is no room for redemption and, in the end, a grim determinism governs: The book’s true scoundrels, violent sadists who kill innocent victims for sport, come to a bad end, and so eventually do its “heroes,” professionals who are only “doing their job.” Character, as the author likes to say, is fate.

You’ll find no gangland style executions, not much bloodshed and just a smidgen of scintillating sex in Geoffrey Leavenworth’s riveting Isle of Misfortune. (This thriller is “soft-boiled” rather than hard-boiled.) Instead, what you will find is a fairly ordinary American couple living in Galveston, engaged in earning a living, participating in their community, tending their garden.

Gordo, short for Gordon, is a freelance writer, who also does the cooking in the family. His wife, Ana, is a successful attorney, and his two sons, Sam and Jake, ages six and nine respectively, attend private schools, belong to the Cub Scouts, and own a rabbit named Pete. Highly regarded by friends and neighbors alike, they are certainly not the sort one expects to be targeted for violence. Yet, from the first line, Leavenworth hints at upheavals to come: “The night Gordo’s life spun out of control he made pasta. An unwitting last supper in the big old house on Batavia Boulevard.”

Behind the façade of domesticity, menace rises like the tide surrounding Galveston, and events appear all the more ominous because they are beyond the understanding of the protagonists. At the beginning, a peaceful domestic scene is interrupted by an unthinkable act of violence: Gordo is bathing his sons—Ana has gone to a board meeting—when the doorbell rings. He opens the door. A stranger, whom he recognizes from one previous encounter, pulls a gun, shoots him, and vanishes, an act so incongruous, so incomprehensible he has difficulty believing he’s been shot. “I think I’ve been shot,” he tells police. Once Gordo’s incredulity gives way to the realization he and his family are at risk, they abandon their home. But over the next few months, as they move from one locale to another, danger stalks them.

Leavenworth, who works as a special assistant to the president of the University of Texas, is the author of more than 500 articles and has written the text for Historic Galveston, a photographic collection. Isle of Misfortune, his first novel, is a psychological thriller in the classic style of Alfred Hitchcock. Like Hitchcock, Leavenworth focuses on the psychological reactions of a persecuted hero and punctuates scenes of domestic tranquility with dark humor. For example, at the same time Gordo struggles to stay alive, he is under pressure to meet a deadline on a story about funeral parlors. In addition to providing some comic relief, Leavenworth releases the rising tension with, for lack of a better term, sexual relief. (It is impossible to ignore what is probably one of the most flagrantly sacrilegious sexual exchanges in American literature.)

Such moments are interspersed with more serious concerns. To create an atmosphere of foreboding, the author employs such familiar tactics as the mysterious telephone call, police incompetence, the unexpected visitor, a break-in, an unreliable phone line, and characters who are other than what they seem. While some events are fairly predictable, they are no less eerie. And they are, for the most part, credible. In fact, the similarities between Leavenworth and Gordo go far beyond the fact that they both write about food, health, and travel articles with an accent on history. “I will always be grateful to the people who helped us, sometimes putting themselves at risk during the dark days that inspired this book,” the author writes in the preface to Isle of Misfortune. In 1994, while living in Galveston, he was the target of a man who tried to kill him. According to the jacket text, the attacker was never caught; Leavenworth never found out why his assailant had singled him out.

His own experience inevitably explains the author’s uncanny insight into human behavior and his ability to portray the reactions of ordinarily rational human beings in the face of danger or what they perceive as danger. For example, Gordo, from whose point of view the story is told, is essentially a family man—easy going, mild-mannered, witty. In the course of the narrative he becomes jealous, self-doubting, suspicious and hypocritical. “He felt that some strange permutation of his character had emerged completely beyond his control as a result of what had happened.” Gordo holds himself responsible for having brought misfortune down on his family, and that, in turn, “Made him feel like a penitent husband, guilty of some transgression….”

When Gordo is forced to evacuate his stately old home—the theme of house and home figure prominently here—Leavenworth describes how it had weathered the deadliest storm in Galveston’s history:

…Captain McManus watched as his neighbor’s houses were swept down Batavia Boulevard like dinghies. With the wind howling, the captain chopped a hole through the floorboards with a double-bladed ax. Black water spewed upward through the fissure like a sea-water geyser. He knew the rising water would fill his home with bilge, making the house more stable on the tall brick piers of its foundation. Captain McManus used seawater to anchor his home.

The captain kept his home, and by extension, his family, intact—something Gordo believes he has failed to do.

While Isle of Misfortune skillfully probes the depths of human behavior and works extremely well as a psychological thriller, the author’s attempt to add another layer of meaning that justifies the title proves to be less successful. He equates Galveston with “the isle of misfortune,” in reference to the Spanish conquistador, Cabeza de Vaca, who was shipwrecked on an island off the coast of Texas in November 1528. In his chronicles Cabeza de Vaca referred to the place as “Isla de Malhado”–most likely a modification of the word malhadado, which is equivalent to unfortunate, unlucky, or wretched. More recently the island’s identity has been subject to debate, with some claiming that “Malhado” actually refers to San Luis Island and the Oyster Bay Peninsula west of Galveston. Such discrepancies are minor in the overall scheme of the novel. But Leavenworth’s attempts to use “Malhado” as both curse and leitmotif and to cast Gordo in the role of a modern day Cabeza de Vaca, forced to flee his “isle of misfortune” comes across as forced and contrived.

Moreover, he has a tendency to underestimate the reader and sometimes provides more information than is absolutely necessary, violating the writer’s cardinal rule: show, don’t tell. Consequently he takes some of the joy out of solving things for oneself. (This was particularly true near the end of the book, and I couldn’t help but imagine Leavenworth pounding away at his computer and muttering under his breath, “Let’s finish this damn thing up already.”)

Yet despite its flaws, the writing is often first-rate, the historical material is fascinating, and Leavenworth’s portrait of a man whose world comes undone for no apparent reason will keep you turning the pages.

Diana Anhalt is a poet and writer in Mexico City. She is the author of A Gathering of Fugitives: American Political Expatriates in Mexico 1948-1965 (Archer Books).