Above: "Trust Me" by Richard Z. Santos. Arte Público Press. $17.95; 312 pages
Never become the story. This is the cardinal rule for political campaign staffers, at least according to Charles O’Connell, the protagonist in Richard Z. Santos’ debut novel, Trust Me.
We learn right away that Charles has broken his own decree: the supposedly shoe-in senatorial candidate he was working for has just landed in prison and Charles, who was himself investigated, has accepted a Hail Mary position in New Mexico working public relations for a new airport under construction on indigenous land. It’s a corporate gig—which to Charles feels like selling out—but he’s desperate. At rock bottom, Charles has lost his professional reputation, is drowning in debt, and is struggling in his marriage. Yet, if he succeeds in this new role, perhaps he can mount a comeback and thrive again in politics. Maybe he can even find the next great candidate out West. His wife, back at home in D.C, is rightfully suspicious of this strange, seemingly out-of-nowhere opportunity. She gives him two weeks to assess its viability, a clock that ticks throughout this literary thriller.
Almost immediately, the airport project becomes a fiasco when a construction worker digs up a skeleton on-site. The brokered deal, dependent on taxpayer support and public approval, is suddenly shaky. A local Native American tribe believes the body belongs to Geronimo, the Apache leader from the 1800s. Two different nearby tribes—both who’ve been exploited for hundreds of years by those in power—claim rights to the land. Meanwhile, Charles learns that the ultra-rich, politically connected developer behind the project has ulterior motives, as does his wife, a woman Charles discovers he knows intimately from his past.
This novel—with enough speed and twists to make you feel like you’re flying on the edges of the Sandia mountains—not only follows Charles, but also three other characters: Gabe, the struggling laborer who unearthed the remains; Olivia, a painter and the wife of Cody Branch, the shady developer; and Mallon, Cody Branch’s heat-packing, right-hand man who values loyalty above all else. Nearly everyone in the book seems to be motivated by one concern: money. With money comes power, and perhaps freedom, but at what cost? One’s authenticity? One’s safety? The characters, all angling to get ahead, grapple with these questions as they play each other again and again.
These scheming games—which make the pages turn like those of a John Grisham novel—offer enough fascination to fuel the story. However, Santos pushes further, deftly complicating nearly every character. Yes, these people want money, but what if it’s to cover child support? What if it’s to pay for treatment for your best friend’s cancer? What if you’re tired of watching everyone around you bank while you sink further into the hole?
It’s these themes that make the novel feel especially timely. With campaign season in full swing, candidates up and down the ballot are standing on their soapboxes to call out America’s shameful economic inequality. The top three richest Americans own nearly as much wealth as the bottom half combined. Yet, what’s new in this novel is the delicious behind-the-scenes look at development dealings that we rarely have access to. Santos, who lives in Austin, used to work as a political campaign operative, and his firsthand experience shines through the text as Charles reflects on his past and considers his future. The same questions swirling around individual characters also apply to those currently in power. Is it ever okay to lie to the public? Do the ends justify the means? Where is the line? Who decides? Charles reflects:
Everyone’s a hair away from corruption at all times. There’s a way of doing politics, of governing—same thing—that happens everywhere. Everyone thinks their race, their candidate, their policy initiative is more important than anything else. You fall in love. How could you not? You spend seventy, eighty hours a week working with the same people for the same candidate, and you lose focus.
Every novel about politics is also about perception. In Trust Me, the literal truth often matters less than what people believe, or what the press and social media decide to give attention to. About the Apache tribe, one character posits, “But if they believe it’s Geronimo, and if the press wants to believe it’s Geronimo, then it is, right?” The best scene of the novel comes when Gabe, the down-on-his-luck construction worker, realizes his short TV interview regarding his discovery of the skeleton has been transformed into a viral YouTube remix. He’s horrified of how bizarre he comes across and how his teenage son might perceive him, yet when a friend suggests he find a way to profit from the video, he’s all in.
Along with Kirstin Valdez Quade’s short story collection, Night at the Fiestas, and Leigh Stein’s memoir, Land of Enchantment, Richard Z. Santos’s Trust Me is another fascinating contemporary literary work set in the deserts of New Mexico. Whether you’re seeking escapism or illumination, it’s the ideal book to read this election year.