Ladies and Gentlemen, the Next Cormac McCarthy

No fiction written by a Texan these days is as violent as James Carlos Blake’s. He likes it that way, and he’s not the only one.

May 1999By Comments

ON A WINDY DAY IN MARCH the hottest Texas writer you’ve never heard of strolls into an El Paso hotel bar with a broad smile on his face. James Carlos Blake has upright posture, and his hair and mustache are closely cropped. Just five foot seven, he takes pride in being a little guy. As we chat he tells me that he trained as an Army paratrooper, and that later he was a “tunnel rat” in post-war South Korea. A labyrinth of crawlways lay under the demilitarized zone that divided the country from hostile North Korea. Wearing nothing but boots and shorts and carrying a .45 automatic and a flashlight, the smallest members of his unit would wriggle in there looking for spies and saboteurs.

Back then he never would have dreamed where life’s maze of options and orders would lead him. As a writer he was a late bloomer. His first novel, The Pistoleer, a multi-voiced take on outlaw John Wesley Hardin, was published in 1995. Next came The Friends of Pancho Villa (1996), followed by In the Rogue Blood (1997) and Red Grass River: A Legend (1998); the last two won coveted literary awards. His new book, Borderlands (Avon), contains a novella, short stories, and a haunting memoir. His pace wouldn’t be so astounding if he were writing formulaic, genre Western shoot-’em-ups. His fiction is polished and well researched, and the execution of his talent has grown with each book. Literary westerns have enjoyed a vogue in recent years, and Blake already stands among the best explorers of our lost frontier. Now, with the ink on Borderlands barely dry, Blake informs me that this afternoon, right before I called, he finished the revised draft of his next novel, which concerns the Civil War. As we drink to its success, I wonder if he ever sleeps.

“Almost every book I write,” he says, “is about a guy finding out who he is. I think that’s the crux of everybody’s life.” The unsolved question has certainly preoccupied Blake, who turns 51 in May. In the autobiographical piece that precedes the fiction of Borderlands, he writes, “I’ve always been an outsider, a stranger in every tribe. That’s neither boast nor complaint nor plea for sympathy. And it’s certainly not a condition uncommon to others. It’s the sense of remove from the world around him that defines the outsider, but this feeling of apartness goes beyond mere geography. Even in his own country, among his own fellows, in the midst of his own family, the outsider feels himself a stranger, a keeper of an alien heart.”

A reclusive writer moves to El Paso because its proximity to Mexico immerses him in the culture and themes he wants to convey in his fiction. Violence often erupts in his books. He sets his novels largely in the past, and his prose style moves to archaic beats and rhythms. Sound familiar? Ladies and gentlemen, meet the next Cormac McCarthy.

IN BORDERLANDS BLAKE WRITES THAT one of his forefathers, an English pirate, was shot by a firing squad in Veracruz. Before that rude end the pirate had married a woman of paper-milling wealth in New Hampshire; their son arrived in Mexico as a U.S. consul and loved it enough to stay. The diplomat’s son was a patrón who was stabbed to death on church steps one Sunday by an aggrieved foreman. The Mexican Blakes were prosperous and well educated. Blake’s father, Carlos Sebastían, was a civil engineer who had a chip on his shoulder about America. Once, in Arizona, he went on a date with an Anglo woman, and the police threw him in jail; they accused him of violating the Mann Act by crossing a state line to commit crimes of moral turpitude. Years later he was informed by the U.S. State Department that his lineage qualified him for citizenship. He contemptuously tore up the letter.

Blake’s mother, Estrella, was the child of a horse rancher and a woman who hated the rural isolation of Tamaulipas. They had a townhouse across the border in Brownsville; Estrella’s schooling and social world were that of a 1940’s Rio Grande Valley Chicana. After she married Carlos, his work took them all over northern Mexico. She wanted their first child, James Carlos, to be born in the U.S., which would automatically qualify him for citizenship. But early labor placed his birth in the Mexican port of Tampico. Growing up in Mexico, his English name and fair skin set him apart. When he was going to private school in Brownsville, his Anglo peers didn’t know what to make of him either. If he was Mexican, why didn’t he look and sound like one?

It must have provided some psychological relief when his father’s work moved the family to Florida, at the edge of the Everglades. In time, Carlos agreed that they could have a better life in the U.S. Blake tells me that when he was a teenager smitten by the great swamp, he captured and sold poisonous snakes. As I listen to these stories and reflect on his memoir, I find myself thinking my ancestry and boyhood were awfully dull. Shot pirates! Stabbed patróns! No wonder violence is a domineering theme of his fiction.

What Blake says about the next three decades of his life is fairly mundane. He mutters something about “various marriages” and then brushes over his years teaching English at Florida community colleges. “In college I was encouraged by my writing professors,” he says, “but I was hyperconscious of what they consider literature. I was thirty-six or thirty-seven when I issued myself a challenge: ‘Before you reach forty, become the serious writer you always wanted to be.’”

He started writing short fiction, and not long after, in 1986, he returned to Texas for the first time since leaving the Valley with his parents. “When I crossed the Sabine and saw that big rock map of Texas they put up at the border, a thrill went through me,” he recalls. “I was visiting a friend who had moved to the Hill Country, and I came to think, ‘Damn, this feels like home.’” He started visiting Texas two or three times a year, and the tug of his roots was even stronger in towns near the Rio Grande. In 1997 he quit teaching and moved to El Paso.

True to his nature, he has remained the outsider, though he is part of a club of sorts. As yet no one talks about a salon, but El Paso has become a remarkable center of literary activity. Rick DeMarinis turns out stylish, darkly comic novels while teaching creative writing at the University of Texas at El Paso. Dagoberto Gilb now lives in Austin and teaches in San Marcos, but his fiction and essays are still strongly identified with the border city he called home for many years. Abraham Verghese practices medicine in El Paso and writes acclaimed nonfiction. The novels of Benjamin Alire Sáenz consistently draw rave reviews. The papa lion of all this, of course, is McCarthy. Blake seems to treasure his one brief conversation with him and respects him to the extent of trying to write like him in one of his novels. That is a minefield of a chore, yet the novel, In the Rogue Blood, won Blake his most prestigious notice: the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction in 1997.

Still, Blake is pretty much a stranger in El Paso’s tribe. He tells me that his only writer friends in the community are Western historian Dale Walker and essayist Elroy Bode. Apart from his writing and the company of women, the only pleasurable activities he talks about are runs along the Rio Grande with a view of the Franklin Mountains.

Thinking that his books must require a good deal of research in Mexico, I ask Blake if he often returns to the country of his birth.

“Not in about ten years,” he replies. “Last time, I went to Tampico to get my birth certificate.”

Blake sees my look of surprise and confusion: We sit about a quarter mile from an international bridge. “Oh, I love Juárez,” he says, “but I don’t mistake it for Mexico. Border towns are their own world. The border country is about two hundred miles across, and culturally it’s a completely sovereign entity.”

AFTER MCCARTHY MOVED FROM TENNESSEE to Texas, but before All the Pretty Horses vaulted him to national prominence, he published a grisly novel called Blood Meridian, Or, The Evening Redness in the West. It is an extravagantly written tale of a young man who drifts through Texas during the 1840’s and falls in with maniacal killers who plunder northern Mexico while killing and scalping Apache for bounties paid by raid-weary Mexican towns. The novel came out in 1985, the same year as Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, but unlike that mass-marketed western, Blood Meridian reached only a few thousand cultish readers. By then a MacArthur grant had proclaimed McCarthy a genius, and Blood Meridian introduced him to Texas readers who had not known of his work, but in those days his reputation carried a tacit warning: Not For Everybody.

The debt of Blake’s In the Rogue Blood to Blood Meridian is obvious and striking. After two brothers murder their raging father, who has been trying to kill their whorish mother for castrating him, they flee 1840’s Florida and get separated in New Orleans. One brother drifts through Texas and falls in with maniacal killers who plunder northern Mexico while killing and scalping Apache for bounties paid by raid-weary Mexican states. Blake’s stylistic tribute even extends to McCarthy’s subtitle; a sentence early in the book reads: “He continued to search for Maggie until the vermilion evening sun glanced redly off the roof tiles and eased behind the palms and then the streets were in deep shadow and the first sidewalk lamps were being fired.” Blake owns up proudly when I ask him if he has read McCarthy’s novel. “Blood Meridian reminded me of the power of nineteenth-century literary style when it’s combined with biblical diction and tone,” he says. He adds that he wanted to exceed the master’s bloodlust: “I wanted to write the most violent book in American literature and for it to speak to the nature of violence.”

In the Rogue Blood offers little philosophy about violence—other than that the curse of it seems to run in families; hence the title—but Blake certainly has a gift for describing it. One of the most gripping and darkly funny scenes unfolds in a bar in frontier San Antonio. An angry rattlesnake is coiled up in a large jar, and men wager they can keep a finger on the glass when it strikes. Impossible, it seems. An American tough comes up with a solution: Close your eyes. Suddenly everybody is yelling at once in English and Spanish. There are accusations of a cheat and then they’re all shooting. The rattler lunges from broken glass and strikes one man’s leg. Another man shoots at the snake and destroys his own toes. Another’s brains fly from his head “in a crimson streak.” When the bar just as quickly falls silent, the American rises through the smoke and inspects his wounds. “God damn it,” he says. “Didn’t nobody miss me?”

Blake’s notions of nineteenth-century dialogue grate at times, and his admiration of McCarthy’s prose results in numerous overwritten passages. For instance: “In the gathering darkness he looked out upon the empty waste and could feel the world spinning under him as it had been spinning since before time was measured and as it would spin long after time ceased to exist for lack of anyone to mark its passing. A lone wolf howled in the timber.” The book’s characters are always howling like wolves and standing silhouetted against the void. While reading it I started a body count but soon gave up. And like Blood Meridian, the novel is flawed by its lack of even a single substantial female character. The tone for that element of human experience is set by American savages looking for female companionship who bang on the table at the governor’s palace happily chanting, “Gash!.…Gash!.…Gash!”

Whether In the Rogue Blood is literature is open to debate, but without question Blake conceived a serious book. The panorama is the Mexican War, and the excesses and obscenities are swept aside by overwhelming force of story. Scalped and left for dead by Comanche, one brother winds up with a colorful gang of Mexican bandits who are pressed into fighting alongside the Americans. The other brother deserts General Zachary Taylor’s U.S. Army and fights under the Mexican flag with an Irish-American unit called the Saint Patrick Battalion. The twists of plot and turning of coats are utterly convincing—and based on fact. That war was not the breeze to Mexico City that is commonly presented in U.S. histories. It was a real and horrid conflict that cut Mexico’s territory in half and set ablaze the Mexican humiliation and resentment that smolder today.

The Los Angeles Times’ literary awards are a rarity because all writers who work in English—not just Americans—and all English-language translations are eligible. By the time Blake was honored for In the Rogue Blood, he had finished a novel that is not so strained in style and, as a result, is more polished and lyrical. Set in the Everglades and newly born Miami, Red Grass River is based on the story of a family of bootleggers and killers who attained legendary status in Florida early in this century. That book won Blake the 1999 Chautauqua South Fiction award, which is judged by the Library Foundation of Martin County, Florida. It contains plenty of violence too; in one prison scene the protagonist beheads an attacker with a shovel. But Red Grass River is richer than its predecessor, in part because of Blake’s love and feel for the Everglades’ exotic natural world. He also presents the first compelling woman in his fiction: a blind prostitute with extrasensory powers.

ES LO QUE MACHISMO ES.” BLAKE is reflecting on the Mexican tradition of masculinity—what it is, or at least, how it began. “Machismo is supposed to be the best of manliness,” he tells me. “It implies total honor concerning women. It’s very much like the tradition of Southern honor in the United States.”

His new book, Borderlands, delves farther into relations of the sexes than any of his novels. The stories and novella demonstrate an ease with contemporary settings and themes, and the memoir is by far his most revealing work. He writes about the loss of his familial ties to Mexico and the loss of comfort with his native tongue. Both make the elegance with which he writes about Mexico all the more poignant. “Set on a tableland flanked by high jagged sierras,” he says of his mother’s favorite place in Baja California, “it was more of a hacienda than a town in those days, and in later years she often described to me the region’s spectacular golden sunsets and blood-red cactus flowers, its strange mountain winds, its richly green vineyards so beautiful in their contrast to the surrounding desert and mountain rock. In that old borderlands estancia I was conceived.”

Some of the stories connect the magical realism of latinoamericano writing with the gothic devilments of Edgar Allan Poe. A patrón rants in the asylum where his lust for revenge has left him. An earthquake opens a chasm and swallows an old man clawing at the sand and stone; by day’s end the villagers are smashed on pulque and laughing at the possibility he might be falling still. In the novella “Texas Woman Blues,” a doomed South Texas barmaid wakes up one morning in bed between two naked men whose acquaintance she can’t remember. With her young daughter elsewhere in the house, she pulls a .38 and blasts a hole through a wall to get rid of the thugs. “The girl would never again appear to Dolores as vulnerable as she did at this moment, nor would her voice ever again quaver as it did now when she asked, ‘Momma? The party over?’”

As we part company, Blake tells me he may be leaving El Paso soon. He only intended to stay a year. He thinks his next stop may be somewhere on the Gulf Coast. “Every book gets harder,” he says of his work, then quotes his agent: “‘They’re supposed to be hard. Easy is for no-talent bums.’” Blake’s conversation is often spiced with that hint of manly bluster. Squeamish readers will recoil from his choice of subject matter and fixation with blood and gore and killers, but he navigates it all with absolute assurance. Cormac should approve.

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