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Scott Bonasso is a music teacher and musical conductor at an independent college preparatory school in Houston, TX. He is a husband, father, musician, coach, outdoorsman, movie buff, and voracious reader. He also loves to write fiction whenever he gets a chance. He is the author of "Juarez," "Snow Stories," and "The Tree of Knowledge."
on Oct. 24, 2013 :
Hats. That’s really the only difference between a noir mystery and a western. Fedoras or Stetsons. The rest is just academic.
Okay, maybe that’s a little simplistic. But you know what I mean—the western and noir genres share a lot of the same elements. Like the titular border town, this book straddles two worlds: in Ciudad Juarez, U.S. high-rises cast their shadows over Mexican barrios and shanties. There are cowboys and there are vaqueros, feds and federales. Here is a collision of Old World and new, of poverty and excess, desperation and corruption, innocence and experience, heaven and hell.
Scott Bonasso blurs the lines deliciously between all these things and more. He gives us gorgeous dames, good men with tarnished souls, lawmen with questionable motives and some truly monstrous criminal masterminds, all served up with a south-of-the-border flare. Oh, and there’s also scads of illicit funds at stake, and a wide-eyed moppet caught in the cross-fire.
One of the very great virtues of Juarez is, pretty much what you see is what you get. There’s nothing fancy in these pages, nothing terribly deep or original. But what we have here is such an outstanding example of genre literature, and Bonasso spins a hell of a good yarn in the bargain. It proves the old adage that sometimes it’s not the story, but how well it’s told. Honestly, it’s better than it has any right to be—this is top-shelf pulp fiction. It goes down smooth like a shot of good tequila. And it’s so damn well-written, too. Bonasso clearly knows these styles, these tropes-- he’s at home with them. Juarez inhabits them, comfortably and completely, as do its characters.
Our lead protagonist is John Teague. In this story, even the names are staccato, unremarkable, almost anonymous, just like Sam Spade or The Man With No Name. There’s not a lot in the way of characterization, and none is really called for. We know our white-hat when we see him—or at least, the closest this tale’s going to get to a white-hat. A common name allows him to become more of an Everyman, an archetype-- in John’s case, the wounded hero. We know that John lost his young son in a tragic accident, that his marriage to Anastasia has crumbled as a result. So, at the beginning of the book, John sets out to find the lowliest, meanest death possible, as befitting his guilt. I was reminded of Leaving Las Vegas, in which Nicholas Cage’s Ben Sanderson decides to drink himself to death in Sin City. Juarez certainly gives Vegas a run for its money in terms of seediness. But Vegas seems like fucking Disneyland, a fluffy, candy-coated confection, compared to the underlying nastiness of the notorious Mexican border town, where the bodies of drug war fallen are hung from trees, where dogs tear at a severed human heads like a chew toy. John strikes out for Juarez with the same intention: to imbibe as many substances in as much quantity as possible, to fight, whore and gamble until he’s a stain on some lonely highway. And what better place to do that than Juarez?
But the best-laid plans, eh?
Westerns have other literary cousins—fables and allegories. They share the same brutal, almost primal simplicity. A man goes into the desert stripped of everything, all his earthly possessions, all hope, even his identity. With a set-up like that, one can only expect to witness a spiritual journey, with epiphanies, awakenings, even absolution. John’s epiphany comes in the form of Marco Espinoza and his mother, Marcela. Marco and Marcela are, indisputably, on the side of the angels. Marcos’ father, Juan, had worked for the narcos until he ended up really most sincerely dead. Now, the cartel has shown up, demanding fealty from Marcela.
All three people are caught in an unspeakable limbo. They are harmless and helpless, swept along by events greater than themselves. Their lives are worth nothing. But when people have nothing to live for is when they become the most dangerous. People with nothing to lose become fearless. Their priorities suddenly become very clear. Yet, none of these characters are victims-- something else I found very admirable in this book. In Juarez, death isn’t necessarily the worst thing that can happen to you, and they all know it. The threat of torture, rape and terror are constant. Yet, they face the world head-on. They’re decent people trying to do the best they can. I especially like that Marcos is a useful kid, and not simply the MacGuffin other works would've made him—he and John become quite the team.
Aside from the main trio, there is the expected supporting cast—bartenders, hookers and henchmen. Like the setting, the characters are extreme, even over-the-top. El Mago is the local cartel boss, a spidery, cornrowed, effeminate creep. In a lesser work, that might seem wildly improbable, but Bonasso writes with such self-assurance, that it works.
From the opening pages, Bonasso’s talent with prose is shown to quiet but stunning effect. His descriptions of the city, of dreary motel rooms, of crumbling Catholic structures and cemeteries, all make me feel like I’m there—it’s a fully immersive, sensory experience. I would love to see this made into a film. A good director would have a field day with its colors and textures, the invariable psychedelic palette inspired by the Mexican locale.
For readers who, like me, wish to be transported, ride shotgun with Bonasso. He’ll get you there.
(reviewed the day of purchase)