Made in El Paso


David Duhr

A version of this story ran in the January 2012 issue.

There’s an old Pace picante sauce commercial in which a man named Cookie hands a jar of “Mexican sauce” to a bunch of cowpokes who all swaller their tobaccy when they learn the salsa isn’t from Texas. “This stuff’s made in New York City!” says one. “New York City?!” the others repeat, incredulously.

So it goes with literature. Publishing’s “Big Six” are all headquartered in New York, and most fiction writers—even those down here, writing about the Lone Star State—aspire to publish with one of the Big Six. That’s where the money is, and Big Six titles get the lion’s share of review coverage.

It’s refreshing, then, to see James Carlos Blake take a book to a smaller press after finding success with the big boys. “Country of the Bad Wolfes,” Blake’s 10th novel, is slated for January release by Cinco Puntos Press in El Paso. In his first nine novels, Blake wrote, to great acclaim, about Texas, Mexico, and other points west. All were Big Six books, including “In the Rogue Blood,” which won a Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

At 456 pages and spanning more than a century, “Country of the Bad Wolfes” is sure to be labeled an epic saga—which is part of the reason Blake chose Cinco Puntos. He told me over email that when it came time to shop the book around, few large publishers were taking on dense historical fiction. “I thought a small house might be able to give “Bad Wolfes” the kind of careful attention that the New Yorkers don’t,” he said.

Enter Cinco Puntos, a small outfit that has published Texas- and Southwest-themed books by heavy hitters like Dagoberto Gilb and Luis Alberto Urrea. Cinco Puntos had already approached Blake about reissuing two of his early books, so the decision to send the publisher “Bad Wolfes” was a logical step.

Spanning three generations, “Country of the Bad Wolfes” spins the tale of a family “cursed by twin passions.” Some in the Wolfe clan are “in thrall to the passions of the flesh,” others “to a passion for risks of blood,” and many are “damned by both.” Love and violence rule the day, and are parceled equally between the sexes.

Progenitor of the cursed is London-born Roger Blake Wolfe, who “loved the sea but abhorred regimentation.” Hanged as a pirate in Veracruz, he leaves behind twin sons John Roger and Samuel Thomas in New Hampshire. Samuel Thomas yearns to run away to sea like his father, but after killing a constable in self-defense he enlists in the U.S. Army. It will be decades before John Roger learns any of this, but Samuel Thomas is sent to battle in the Mexican-American War, is humiliated in front of his squad, and deserts to join the Saint Patrick’s Battalion, which fought as part of the Mexican Army against the U.S. After the war, most of the San Patricios are sentenced to death, but Samuel Thomas manages to escape with a brutal whipping and branding in the novel’s first of many violent scenes.

Meanwhile, John Roger, showing his father’s wanderlust, accepts a job running the Veracruz branch of an import/export business. Over the following decades, he has three sons (including twins identical in appearance and stubbornness), builds a thriving hacienda, reunites with his brother’s side of the family, and, through a family connection to Edward Little (protagonist of In the Rogue Blood), is caught up in the uncertainty and bloody violence of the reign of Mexico’s nation-building President Porfirio Díaz.

The trick for the writer of a multi-generational story is to keep a reader’s interest once the initial generation dies off and the story transfers down the genealogical line. Blake lays enough groundwork to make a seamless transition. John Roger’s twin sons, James and Blake (note the names), take over the narrative in the book’s second half, and the rest of the novel details their various (mostly illegal) adventures along the border—until the family curse catches up with them at the book’s vivid and bloody conclusion.

Violence and brutality have always played a large role in Blake’s writing; many have compared his work to that of Cormac McCarthy and legendary director Sam Peckinpah. Relating the death of Porfirio’s brother Felix Diaz at the hands of villagers, Blake writes, “They gouged out one of his eyes and knocked out his teeth and fried his tongue with a hot iron […] As is the way with mobs, the more they did to him the more they wanted to do, became frenzied to do, until they finally lost all control and tore him apart as a dog pack does a hare.”

Country of the Bad Wolfes is an engrossing novel. Readers will take comfort in the fact that Blake is working on another Wolfe novel. In Blake’s words, the new one is “Set in our own time and center[s] on a young Wolfe’s very serious trouble with a Mexican crime cartel.”

I’ll be pleased to see this book, too, find a home in Texas.

Duhr is fiction editor at The Texas Observer and Fringe magazine, and co-founder of Austin-based writing center WriteByNight.