Everything is backward, convoluted here. It’s like the third world,” he said to me.
“The third world is simpler. This is the border,” I replied.
Brash Books – 2016.
The small Texas town of Presidio is a wild and desolate borderland, as border patrol agent Dolph Martinez knows—a few years back he was shot in the gut and left to die, saved from death when the town’s nun, Sister Quinn, found him. Sister Quinn is rumored by the locals to be a curandera, a witch doctor, something Dolph is inclined to agree with given the charm she gave him while he was being nursed back to health. Now, Dolph’s finding similar charms on on dead bodies—illegals in fancy clothes who took .22 slugs to the head. Somehow, these corpses are connected to Sister Quinn—a smuggling operation across the border, which one Mexican colonel is all too eager to see cleaned up. Dolph, with his tortured past unraveling before his eyes, must unravel the mystery and blow the smuggling operation wide open.
Jim Sanderson’s career has been quiet but distinguished, with two award-winning novels and two award-winning collections to his name. His first novel, El Camino Del Rio, won the Frank Waters Southwest Writing Award, and it’s easy to see why: his prose is sparse but precise, bringing beauty to the gritty, desolate landscape. The prose captures the landscape of Texas’ Big Bend, with the plot reflecting its stark isolation. Sanderson also created a great cast of screwball characters, the odd, desperate, and lonely people who end up in places on the wrong side of nowhere like Presidio. Take Dolph’s pal Pepper, who dreams of turning his delapidated hot springs and cabin complex into a profitable tourist resort, but whose main accomplishments are bringing home Mexican prostitutes every night. Or Tommy, who owns the local trading post and a beer-guzzling goat. Or the enigmatic Ariel Alves, resort manager and recent arrival; her relationship with Dolph becomes obvious, unlike her mysterious connection to Sister Quinn.
What makes Dolph Martinez interesting is that he’s in the middle of his own midlife crisis, dealing with his mixed-race heritage. There are plenty of flashbacks to Dolph’s present and past, often taking the reader out of the current plot to focus on Dolph’s love-life or the strained relationship between his parents. It’s a bit distracting with its chronological leaps—in one case, we start out watching the Border Patrol close in on some suspected drug mules, only to jump back to Dolph’s romantic camping trip from two days ago, which then jumps back to the death of Dolph’s drunken father. Combined with the fact that each chapter feels like its own, contained short-story, early chapters in the novel wasn’t always engaging. Once the pieces are in place, the plot start moving at a steady clip. And I have to applaud Sanderson for trying something new—I’ve seen plenty of haunted, alcoholic protagonists before, but having one struggle through midlife crisis and race issues is a unique twist.
El Camino Del Rio has its imperfections, but I think it makes up for some of those with its literate and detailed look at a moral and political borderland. In our post-9/11 world, a border town on an open, porous border seems almost improbable, but Sanderson’s novel gives the reader a vivid portrayal of an isolated Texas town caught somewhere between the border, mirrored by protagonist Dolph, also caught between two sides of his life. A well-realized novel rich in natural beauty, El Camino Del Rio is a smart, capable novel. If you like literate mystery-thrillers from the ’80s/’90s, especially those with strong western themes, El Camino Del Rio is worth a look.
Title: El Camino Del Rio
Author: Jim Sanderson
Publisher: Brash Books
Release Date: 23 Feb 2016
First Published Date: 1999
What I Read: ebook
Price I Paid: $0 (copy provided via Brash Books’ Priority Reviewers Circle)
MSRP: $11.99 ppb / $2.99 ebook
ISBN/ASIN: 978-1941298909 / B019YRTNG6