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