"Under the Skin"
(Reviewed by April Chase APR 20, 2003)The border between the United States and Mexico has always been a region of uncertainty and danger, sharp contrasts, and contradictions. Perhaps any place in the world where such an easily crossable border separates two cultures so vastly different, amazing dark things can happen. In Under The Skin, we see how the violence and changeability of this volatile frontier combine in one young man to create a being at once terrifying and beautiful, a killer with a poet's soul.
James Randolph Youngblood is the lovechild of a Texas prostitute who calls herself Ava, and the formidable Mexican soldier, Rodolfo Fierro, Pancho Villa's legendary "enforcer." The mating of these two combines the violence and roughness of the Texas frontier with the horrors of the Mexican Revolution. There is no denying the culture of Texas and Mexico (indeed, the entire American West) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a bloody and hard-edged thing. Only the strong survived, as a general rule - the ills of everyday life quickly wiped out everyone else. Diseases such as cholera were epidemic, starvation was not unheard of, and death by the gun all too common.
When she learns she is pregnant, Ava consents to marry a local cowboy who has been pestering her for her hand. The cowboy, Cullen Youngblood, agrees to raise her child, who they will say is his nephew, the son of Ava's deceased sister. Young Jimmy is never told of his true ancestry. When he is forced to flee the ranch after killing a neighbor in a fight, he learns that his father is the infamous Fierro, but he never realizes that Ava is his mother and not his aunt. Ava herself, in one of the most unsatisfactory scenes in the book, simply disappears, selling the ranch when Jimmy leaves. Blake never tells his readers where she came from, and her fate remains a mystery.
She passes some of her traits on to her son, though: rootlessness, restlessness and a certain inability to connect with others. He inherits other characteristics from his pistolero father, including an inexplicable, preternatural facility with a gun, a propensity to violence, and thankfully, a quickness of reflex that saves him many times. He also looks very much like the old desperado.
Jimmy makes his way to Galveston, the seat of Texas highlife, where gambling and prostitution are rampant, but well-organized thanks to the guiding hands of the Maceo crime organization. The Maceos control all aspects of the island's underworld. Their influence extends far into the surrounding mainland counties, in fact, and Jimmy works for them making collections and enforcing their rules. He is, in short, a thug; yet he is a sympathetic character, too. Full of youthful enthusiasm, fun loving, kind to his neighbors, loyal to his employers, and a faithful friend, Jimmy is truly an enigma - the bad guy, but our hero.
When Jimmy falls in love, savvy readers can easily predict that no good is going to come of it. Tender love and a violent lifestyle are generally incompatible. The dodgy past of his girlfriend, Daniela, is a warning in itself. Kidnapped at a young age, forced into a loveless marriage to a brutal old hacendado who still believes that the best way to keep the peones on his estate in line is by whipping, she escapes by bribing a stable boy to drive her to the train station. Her husband, Don Cesar, simply cannot allow this breach of discipline; his prize must not escape him. So he sends his bodyguards after her, and they cut a swath of violence from Matamoros to Galveston, leaving all who dare help the girl dead.
Daniela and Jimmy's brief happiness is shattered by the killer's arrival. They re-kidnap her, and Jimmy predictably follows them to the don's estate in Mexico. The carnage that results has equally predictable tragic results. That repetition of "predictable" is not necessarily a knock against Blake, because the fact is that sometimes, life does follow recognizable patterns. We have all seen couples, and said to ourselves, "Oh, that will never last," or "He's no good for her, she'll be sorry." Just because everybody but them can see it coming doesn't make it any less poignant, and such is the case here.
Blake's language is the authentic Tex-Mex Spanglish mix that has been spoken along the border for over a hundred years now. His quick-paced narrative is enjoyable and utterly believable. He clearly knows his stuff, in regard to both Texas and Mexican history and human nature. Under The Skin is a little bit Western, a little bit romance, and just a tad hard-boiled noir - tough to classify, but easy to read. Recommended!
- Amazon readers rating: from 4 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Under the Skin at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The Pistoleer: A Novel of John Wesley Hardin (1995)
- The Friends of Pancho Villa (1996)
- In the Rogue Blood (1997)
- Red Grass River (1998)
- Borderlands: Short Fictions (1999)
- Wildwood Boys (2000)
- A World of Thieves (2002)
- Under the Skin (2003)
- Handsome Harry (2004)
- The Killings of Stanley Ketchel (2005)
- The Country of Bad Wolfes (2012)
- The Rules of the Wolfe (July 2013)
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- Wikipedia page on James Carlos Blake
- GQ&A interview with James Carlos Blake
- Read an excerpt from Borderlands, La Vida Loca by James Carlos Blake
- Reading Guide for The Killings of Stanley Ketchel
- the Washington Post review of The Rules of the Wolfe
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About the Author:
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 has lived in El Paso, Texas, and DeLand, Florida and now currently resides in southeast Arizona.