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Tucson Weekly Nothing Borderline Here

Fourth Generation Mexican-American Writer James Carlos Blake Delivers Short Fiction That's Long On Style And Substance.

By Jim Carvalho

JUNE 21, 1999: 

Borderlands: Short Fictions, by James Carlos Blake (Avon). Paper, $12.50.

JAMES CARLOS BLAKE'S middle name isn't just a gimmick to garner border cred. He was born with both. In the autobiographical essay opening his fine new collection Borderlands, Blake outlines this colorful family history.

Robert Blake, the author's great-great-great-grandfather, was an Englishman who fathered a child in New Hampshire before heading to the Gulf of Mexico to become a pirate. He was captured and executed by the Mexican government in 1826. His son, John Blake, became U.S. consul to the Mexican state of Jalisco. He liked the country, stuck around, and established a successful mill named Hacienda Americana, which was run by the family until the revolution of 1910.

John Blake fathered three sons before being stabbed to death on the steps of a church. One of those sons, Carlos, married a Creole (a Mexican of pure Spanish blood) and was the quintessential patrón. One of Carlos' sons, Juan, married a Creole and was a colonel in the Mexican army. One of Juan's sons, Carlos, was a civil engineer who built roads all over northern Mexico and married a Mexican girl from Brownsville, Texas. Their first child, James Carlos Blake, was born in Tampico and raised in Texas; the family later moved to Florida. Not surprisingly, Blake's family history has had a profound effect on his writing style and his choice of subject and setting.

Blake first placed himself on the literary map with two acclaimed historical novels, The Pistoleer and The Friends of Pancho Villa. His third novel, In the Rogue Blood, is an unabashed homage to Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian; it also won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction. Blake once said he wanted to write the most violent book in American literature, and with Blood, he may have succeeded. A fourth novel, Red Grass River: A Legend, also garnered critical praise.

Now a resident of El Paso, Blake describes himself as an outsider, neither Mexican nor American, but a product of that nebulous third country, the borderlands between the U.S. and Mexico. His writings are packed with the influences of that region. Especially noteworthy is his command of regional language, whether it comes from a Sonoran hacienda or a Brownsville barrio, an orange grove or a boxing ring. The stories in Borderlands are narrated by a gang of characters from different places--geographically, culturally and historically--and Blake pulls off their integration with aplomb.

"Under the Sierra" is a comic depiction of rural Mexican life involving an earthquake, a lost old man, and a pulque bash. "Referee" and "Runaway Horses" share the common theme of revenge. "Referee" is a contemporary saga of the strained, long-term friendship between two barrio boxers; "Runaway Horses" is about a patrón who sustains his miserable existence with grandiose plans of revenge against the men who destroyed his family. In "Referee," the revenge is sweet; in "Runaway Horses," it's anything but.

"Three Tales of the Revolution" and "La Vida Loca" are strikingly similar structurally, and best display Blake's mastery of the very short story. ("La Vida Loca" was originally titled "Small Times," and that is the better title, especially now that Ricky Martin has turned the phrase "la vida loca" into a cliché.)

"Aliens in the Garden" and "The House of Esperanza" are so similar they could be chapters of a longer story. Both are tales of illegal Mexican immigrants, their arduous journeys from Texas to the agricultural fields of Florida, and the sometimes comic, sometimes tragic results of ignorance.

But the true ace in this deck of high cards is the novella "Texas Woman Blues," which chronicles the rough life of the tragically doomed Dolores Stock. Dolores is tough, sexy, enterprising, tenacious, and as colorfully complex as the female leads in Jim Harrison's best novellas. And she's utterly believable. Academic feminist types may bristle at some of Dolores' confessions, but they'll get over it. Dolores is just too compelling.

The climax of "Texas Woman Blues" contains what may be the most beautifully written and grimly enthralling depiction of violence ever conceived. Its impact on the reader will dispel any concerns about Dolores having taken the easy way out; and because Blake's deft hand forces us to invest so much in Dolores, the final grisly act is all the more powerful emotionally.

Blake's borderlands are gritty and glorious, and his Borderlands collection is a work of brilliant style and remarkable substance. "Texas Woman Blues" alone is worth the price of admission.

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