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Robert Vega A Hard Night’s Work BY BRYCE MILLIGAN WHITE LEG. By Max Martinez. Arte Ptiblico Press. 253 pages. $19.95. Virtually every one of Max Martinez’s books has been a tour de force. The Adventures of the Chicano Kid, his 1982 collection of short stories, is a punchy, sardonic, tough-minded tour of the Chicano experience. A Red Bikini Dream ing collection of erotic tales. In between came Martinez’ s first novel, Schoolland South Texas farm life in the late 1950s. A finely crafted and lengthy novel, Schoolland should be required reading in any course on Texas letters. Now Martinez has undergone another transformationhe has become the Chicano Jim Thompson. In his new novel, White Leg, he has taken the bull by the horns and, well, ripped off its head. This is a bloody tale of amoral violence that verges on the lurid, but escapes that fate by maintaining a solid intellectual underpinning. Martinez gets inside the mind of a killer who lacks any redeeming values whatsoeveryet somehow he leads the reader to become, if not exactly on the anti-hero’s side, then at least relieved that he doesn’t finally take a fall. Gil Blue is a small time thief who takes his work seriously. Other folks have jobs that demand certain hours and certain uniforms. Gil’s happens to require 3 a.m. visits to isolated convenience stores with a pair of his wife’s panties over his head, a loaded .44 magnum in his belt, and a different windbreaker for each job. He describes the details of his work with the appreciation of a true craftsmanpointing out the best methods for casing a probable location, the best times which allow him to avoid using force, the best getaway schemes. And like any other blue collar laborer, Gil Blue only goes to work to earn a living wage. When the bills are due, or when his wife, Hildy, puts too much on the credit cardthat’s when Gil goes to work. He’s not in the game because he is attracted to violence; he’s not even in it to get rich. He’s in it to pay the rent and buy groceries. “I’ve never been afraid of work, mind you,” Gil tells us. “Ain’t nobody can look you in the eye and say that Gil Blue ain’t a good worker.” But “having to go to the same place every day, seeing the same people, doing the same thing” is beyond his capacity. When day labor is not available or sufficient, then night labor is required. What makes this character fascinating is that he truly cannot see any difference between the two. ut White Leg is more than an inter esting psychological study; it is a fast-paced thriller. The fun, so to speak, begins when Gil gets caught between a night clerk he has just tied up in a convenience store’s back room and a Texas Ranger who walks in unexpectedly. Gil tries to bluff his way out of the situation, pretending to be the night clerk himself. But when a family enters the store as well, he makes a calculated decision: the odds are too high, so he opts for violence over guile. Without the slightest qualm, he blows away the Ranger, the family, and the still-bound clerk. “So long as I stayed calm and didn’t lose my nerve, I’d be all right,” Gil tells us as he drives away. Of course, all hell breaks loose the next day, as the pursuit begins, bringing into play the local law, the FBI, and even hired hit men. But the convenience store murders are only a starting point for this tale of mayhem, which eventually includes kidnapping, blackmail, fraud, a rape, and more blood. A lot more blood. White Leg, Texas, is a typical small town that has seen its locally owned businesses go under in the face of huge chain stores. Its population has shrunk to a collection of the wicked and the powerless, who spend their time either preying on each other or trying to ignore each other’s existence. As Gil puts it, White Leg is a “ghost town with people living all around it.” In the end, we are not at all certain that Gil Blue was not exactly what the town deserved. White Leg is hardly a satisfying book, despite its spoof of a Perry Mason, tell-all ending. Gil Blue is guilty of shedding innocent blood and any balanced sense of justice demands that he be punished. At the same time, he has served justice by becoming the executioner of some of the town’s other evil characters. We are not left with a moral quandary; rather we are left stranded in a moral bogfrom which only a sequel can extract us. Bryce Milligan is a San Antonio poet, novelist, and critic. He currently directs the literature program of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, where Max Martinez will be reading at the Inter-American Book Fair, Friday, November 1 at 4:30 p.m. For more information, call the Arts Center at 30 THE TEXAS OBSERVER SEPTEMBER 27, 1996