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Tucson Weekly Rough Road

'El Camino del Rio' is a bumpy ride.

By Randall Holdridge

MARCH 1, 1999: 

El Camino del Rio, by Jim Sanderson (University of New Mexico Press). Cloth, $21.95.

FIRST WINNER OF the Frank Waters Southwest Writing Award, El Camino del Rio is subtitled "a mystery." Set in the barren wastes of the Texas Big Bend country, this first novel by Lamar University English professor Jim Sanderson is most notable for its evocation of the Chihuahuan desert and for the colorfully hard-bitten, slightly crazed minor characters which populate those vast ocotillo scrublands.

The mystery involves an obscure smuggling scheme in which American arms are carried south across the Rio Grande in exchange for Mexican pharmaceuticals packed into Texas. On the case is U.S. Border Patrol special agent Dolph Martinez, led by buzzards to the body of one of the smugglers who has been shot between the eyes. Martinez must navigate turbulent waters to unravel the crime, contending with jurisdictional and ego disputes among the INS, the DEA, the Mexican army and local police forces. He confronts also the various claims of Mexican poverty, liberation theology, regional forces for tourist development, and the anarchistic resistance of dropouts who like this empty hinterland just as it is.

The characters who represent these viewpoints are as engaging as the landscape. Sister Quinn, who mixes equal parts of passionate Catholic nun with a quirky voodoo curanderismo, wants to be flogged with ocotillo wands to share the pain of the poor. Col. Henri Trujillo is the creepily suave Mexican double-crosser. Tommy Socorro is a tattooed wrangler who literally blows smoke in the face of the law. Dolph's friend, Pepper Cleburne, dreams of turning his jerkwater hot springs cabin units with a cracked, homemade swimming pool into a fashionable resort destination. Ariel is a leggy sophisticated blonde divorcee and Dolph's romantic interest, dispatched from Houston by the big money to create a real tourist destination in the desert. Clay Henry, a beer-drinking goat, is reassuringly normal in this company.

Sanderson employs the likable old-fashioned device of naming each chapter, and a couple of the chapters have great individual appeal. "Ano Nuevo" brings many of the principal characters (including the goat) together for a drunken New Year's revel, dancing under desert starlight in the street in front of the Lajitas general store. In unlikely combinations, Dolph swings Sister Quinn in a happy dosey-do while Pepper and Tommy on the wooden porch lean against the hitching rail swilling sotol, and the enforced companionability of life in the boondocks is pleasantly conveyed. Onlookers encourage the dancers with their trilled "Ayyi, Ayyi" yells, and at midnight pistols are fired into the air. In "Nieve," Sanderson effectively describes the effect on both the landscape and the inhabitants of snow in the desert.

With all these strengths, El Camino del Rio has serious weaknesses. As suggested by the chapter titles, the book reads not as a novel, but as a series of stories written over a number of years and then roughly cobbled together. The result is confusion about Dolph's age, obscurities and redundancies which rob the plot of clarity and tension, and thematic heavy-handedness.

As the first person narrator of El Camino del Rio, Agent Martinez is preoccupied by his mid-life crisis. At the expense of the story, he spends excessive energy in lengthy repetitious diversions unraveling internal conflicts of childhood loyalty divided between a drunken, macho Mexican father and a formal, upper-class Anglo mother. His confused rebellions have somehow coarsened all the bright promise of his youth to bring him to a dead-end job in a brutal environment. Also, Dolph (if not the author himself) has a shaky command of such grammatical niceties as the perfect tenses and the principal parts of verbs, of pronoun reference, and of sentence structure. One example will demonstrate the leaden consequences: "I got my phone call from Trujillo late at night two nights before. I heard him say over the typical Mexican static that the crossing would take place on this night, at a place east and south of Redford but west and north of Lajitas. Like their other groups, they were on foot and would cross over rough country, where fewer people would be looking for them." Where was the editor?

The phrase "typical Mexican static" points to an ideological indecisiveness which is another troubling aspect of El Camino del Rio. Either Dolph or Sanderson (or both) mouth all the sympathetic platitudes about the social, cultural, geographic, political and economic challenges presented by the porous U.S.-Mexican border, but a sneering tone underlies the depiction of character and the stereotyped details intended to add authenticity. The effort expended to make Dolph Martinez seem like la migra with a heart of gold simply fails to convince, and as a character with potential for extension into a series of Big Bend detective novels--a possibility hinted in the book's closing scene--he's a flop.

When it comes to landscape-loving mysteries set in the Southwest, for the time being at least, Tony Hillerman and Michael McGarrity are safe.


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