By James Carlos Blake
Published by William Morrow
January 2003; 0-380-97751-6; 292 pages
A chill desert night of wind and rain. The trade at Mrs. O'Malley's house has been kept meager by the inclement weather and the loss of the neighborhood's electrical power since earlier in the day. Rumor has it that a stray bullet struck dead a transformer. For the past two days errant rounds have carried over the Rio Grande -- glancing off buildings, popping through windowpanes, hitting random spectators among the rooftop crowds seeking to be entertained by the warfare across the river. Even through the closed windows and the pattering of the rain, gunfire remains audible at this late hour, though the latest word is that the rebels have taken Juárez and the shooting is now all in celebration and the exercise of firing squads.
The house is alight with oil lamps. Its eight resident whores huddled into their housecoats and carping of boredom. Now comes a loud rapping of the front door's iron knocker and they all sit up as alert as cats.
The houseman peers through a peephole, then turns to the madam and shrugs. Mrs. O'Malley bustles to the door and puts her eye to the peeper.
"Well Jesus Mary and Joseph."
She works the bolt and tugs open the door. The lamp flames dip and swirl in their glass and shadows waver on the walls as a cold rush of air brings in the mingled scents of creosote and wet dust.
Mrs. O'Malley trills in Spanish at the two men who enter the dim foyer and shuts the door behind them. The maid Concha takes their overcoats and they shake the rainwater off their hats and stamp their boots on the foyer rugs.
"Pasen, caballeros, pasen," Mrs. O'Malley says, ushering them into the parlor.
They come into the brighter light and the girls see that they are Mexicans in Montana hats and suits of good cut. One of the men has appeared in photographs in the local newspapers almost every day for the past week, but few of these girls ever give attention to a newspaper and so most of them do not recognize him.
"Attention, ladies," Mrs. O'Malley says, as the girls assemble themselves for inspection. "Just look who's honoring us with a visit." She extends her arms toward one of the men as if presenting a star performer on a theater stage. "My dear old friend -- "
"Pancho!" one of the girls calls out -- Kate, whom the others call Schoolgirl for her claim of having attended college for a time before her fortunes turned. Only she and two of the other girls in the house -- a small brunette they call Pony and a fleshy girl named Irish Red -- were working at Mrs. O'Malley's last winter when this man regularly patronized the place. The three waggle their fingers in greeting and the man grins at them and nods.
"General Francisco Villa," the madam enunciates, fixing the Schoolgirl with a correcting look and poorly concealing her irritation at being usurped of the introduction.
The girls have of course all heard of him and they make a murmuring big-eyed show of being impressed. He is tall for a Mexican, big-chested and thick-bellied without conveying an impression of fatness. His eyes are hidden in the squint of his smile. The madam hugs him sideways around the waist and says how happy she is to see him again. He fondly pats her ample bottom and repositions her arm away from the holstered pistol under his coatflap.
"Hace siete o ocho meses que no te veo, verdad?" the madam says. "Que tanto ha occurido en ese tiempo."
Villa agrees that much has happened in the eight months since he was last in El Paso, living as an exile in the Mexican quarter with only eight men in his bunch. Now he commands the mighty Division of the North. He is one of the most celebrated chieftains of the Mexican Revolution and a favored subject of American reporters covering the war.
Would he and his friend like a drink, the madam asks. Some music on the hand-cranked phonograph?
Villa flicks his hand in rejection of the offer and returns his attention to the women, a man come to take his pleasure but with no time for parlor amenities. The girls have thrown open their housecoats to afford the visitors a franker view of their charms in negligee or camisole, but Villa already knows what he wants. He has come with the express hope of finding the Irish girl still here, and now beckons her. He much admires her bright red hair and lushly freckled skin as pale as cream -- traits not common among the women he usually enjoys. She beams and hastens to him.
Mrs. O'Malley pats his arm and says she just knew he'd pick Megan again.
"Y cual prefiere tu amigo?" she says, and turns to the other man.
"Pues?" Villa says to him.
He is taller than Villa, leaner of waist but as wide of chest, his mustache thicker, his eyes so black the pupils are lost in their darkness.
"Esa larguirucha," he says, jutting his chin at a tall lean girl with honey-colored hair and eyes the blue of gas flames. The only one of them able to hold his gaze, her small smile a reflection of his own.
"Ava," Mrs. O'Malley says. "Our newest." She turns from the man to the girl and back to the man, remarking the intensity of the look between them. "My," she says to Villa. "Parece que tu cuate se encontró una novia."
"Otra novia mas," Villa says with a laugh. Then says to the redhead, "Vente, mi rojita," and hugs her against his side and they head for the stairway. The Ava girl takes the other man by the hand and they follow Villa and Irish Red up to the bedrooms.
The rest of the girls resettle themselves, some of them casting envious glances after the couples ascending the stairs, chiefly at the Ava girl, who has been with them but a week, the one they call the Spook for her inclination to keep her own company and her manner of seeming to be elsewhere even when she's in their midst.
With his previous book, A World of Thieves, acclaimed historical novelist James Carlos Blake made a smashing debut in crime fiction with a thrilling tale of armed robbers and desperate lovers in late 1920s Louisiana and Texas.
Now, in Under the Skin, he presents an underworld saga with historical roots on both sides of the Rio Grande. While much of the story takes place in Galveston, Texas, during the first few days of 1936, its real beginning is in an El Paso brothel twenty-two years earlier, and the path it follows to its stunning conclusion in the Mexican desert is as inexorable as fate.
James Rudolph Youngblood, a.k.a. Jimmy the Kid, is an enforcer, a "Ghost Rider" for the Maceo brothers, Rosario and Sam, rulers of "the Free State of Galveston," the most wide-open town in America, prospering through illicit pleasures in the midst of the Great Depression. Raised on an isolated West Texas ranch that he was forced to flee at age eighteen following the violent breakup of his foster family, Jimmy has found a home and a profession in Galveston -- and a mentor in Rose Maceo. The town's bohemian character suits his own, and his natural talent with a gun is in keeping with his true father's legendary and violent proficiencies.
The specter of this fearsome father looms over Jimmy's story like an ancient curse. Their ties of blood, evident since Jimmy's boyhood, have drawn tighter over time.Then a strange and beautiful girl enters his life and a swift and terrifying sequence of events is set in motion. Jimmy must cross the border and go deep into the brutal and merciless country of his ancestors -- where the story's harrowing climax closes a circle of destiny long years in the making.
Populated with an enthralling cast of characters, smoky with sex, prickly in its humor, and unflinching in its violence, Under the Skin both wrestles and dances with some of the darkest mysteries of the human heart.(back to top)
James Carlos Blake was born in Mexico and raised in Texas. He writes novels about violent men living in violent times. Among his literary honors are the Quarterly West Novella Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Chatauqua South Book Award, and the Southwest Book Award. He had been living in El Paso, Texas, and DeLand, Florida and now currently resides in southeast Arizona.