A Review of James Carlos Blake’s
The Rules of Wolfe: A Border Noir
By James Carlos Blake
New York: The Mysterious Press, 2013.
258 pages. $24.00 (hardcover)
James Carlos Blake is obsessed with history and lineage, with descendents and ancestors. His latest novel is the third in a triptych that traces one family and its many branches from 1845 to the present: first, In the Rogue Blood (1997) follows two brothers who fight on opposite sides of The U.S.–Mexico War, which formed the current border between the nations; second, Country of the Bad Wolfes (2012) follows three generations of the brothers’ families as they develop on either side of the border, and cross it; and, most recently, The Rules of Wolfe: A Border Noir (2013) follows the present-day members and their rivals as they smuggle drugs, arms, and people across the border. While I’m glad I’ve read these books in order, I don’t think that’s required — there would be pleasure in reading just this novel, or starting with this one and moving backwards, or beginning at the beginning and culminating here.
James Carlos Blake was born in Tampico, Mexico, raised in Brownsville, and, like me, he has lived much of his life in Texas and Arizona. His novels have helped me think about this region of the world, its complications and splendor and challenges. Blake has also helped me think about my teaching, and how to talk to students about “genre” versus “literary” writing — they want to write action-packed stories; I want to help them make those stories matter — and Blake both illuminates and obliterates such distinctions.
The subtitle of this novel highlights its two biggest strengths. First, the second term: Noir owns the fact that this book is genre, a genre that Blake has been moving toward in his other novels. I’m glad to see the label, because I think it both accurately prepares readers for what they’re about to experience, and misleads in a sly, tongue-in-cheek way. Merriam Webster defines noir as “crime fiction featuring hard-boiled cynical characters and bleak sleazy settings” and notes that the term originates from film noir. Merriam Webster also indicates other literary terms related to the idea of noir: bathos (“the sudden appearance of a silly idea or event in a book […] that is serious in tone” or “insincere or overdone pathos,” otherwise known as sentimentalism); bildungsroman (a coming-of-age story); and doggerel (poorly written poetry, often for “burlesque or comic effect”). These terms set expectations for this novel — and much of Blake’s other work — that are simultaneously accurate and overly simplistic. The literary community would consider many of these definitions pejorative. High-brow readers might consider crime fiction about cynical characters to be typical, might not want a silly idea or sentimentalism or burlesque to interrupt their serious books. But Blake’s books aren’t poorly written just because they are both deadly serious, and also funny and fun. After a rollicking gun fight there might be frolicking in a brothel or cracking jokes in a bar. And this range of experiences makes men come of age and realize who they are and who they are capable of becoming. Blake’s books often feel more like movies, which can make them feel over the top to some readers. Keeping all of these terms in mind before reading this book will prepare you for the madcap adventure you’re about to experience, certainly. But the novel isn’t just crazy and chaotic, it’s also consequential.
Here’s the basic plot: Eddie Gato Wolfe wants to be a criminal, like everyone else in his family, but the Wolfes have a rule that a college degree is required before any family member can join their vast illicit network. The Wolfes don’t care what you study, but education is essential for “the choices it afforded,” even if no family member thus far has chosen any other lifestyle (140). Rudy and Frank, the two uncles who tell Eddie there will be no exceptions to this rule, studied English literature: Frank focusing on Hemingway, Rudy on the Neoclassical poets. Rudy’s thesis was titled “The Role of the Interlocutor in Pope’s Horatian Satires” and he often says “We’re English majors, Frank and me,” but no one gets the joke (114). Eddie decides to ignore this family rule, and after one year of college drops out, knocks up his hot cousin, and runs away to join another criminal organization that doesn’t care how educated or not he is. Eddie falls for Miranda without realizing she’s the girlfriend of the second-in-command, and when Segundo finds them in bed together Eddie kills him to avoid death and they have to go on the run (this isn’t really a spoiler, all this happens by page 37). Before this, the first shots are fired on page four, the first bodies fall on page five, and the first Spanish is spoken on page six, which is pretty standard Blake pacing. A body count is impossible to keep track of, and Eddie and Miranda get out of predicaments in ways that seem impossible. Noir, for sure. And that’s one of the reasons I love reading James Carlos Blake: I’m not used to such plot-driven books. This is what my students love to read, books where lots of stuff happens, and it’s not usually how I spend my reading time.
But Blake doesn’t ignore character. Sure, his characters are criminals and types, but they are never just typical. Blake’s characters are people we get to know well, and we care about what happens to them — which are the two criteria I teach my students as being essential to “literary” writing (whether the characters are “normal” people or aliens or criminals). Blake’s characters in nearly all his books are based on actual people: dictators and soldiers and leaders of gangs and members of his own family. Genre writing lets us escape, lets us experience lives we will never live. But Blake calling this book noir is smart because it’s not just that — we escape, but not into unreality, instead into the lived lives of real people. So what I admire even more than the Noir aspect of this novel is the first part of the subtitle: its attention to the Border. Some people may consider the border a noir-ish, “bleak and sleazy setting,” but for Blake’s characters it’s home. We get to know Blake’s characters well and care about them in the context of real, current, drastic border issues. The Rules of Wolfe investigates the criminality made possible by borders: smuggling weapons, drugs, and people only works if there’s a border to cross. Eddie’s family “will smuggle almost anything except wetbacks and drugs,” but the criminal group he joins handles what the Wolfes won’t, and as part of Eddie and Miranda’s adventure they themselves join a group of other chickens and two coyotes to illegally immigrate to safety (126). Their journey is harrowing — they face dust storms and lightning strikes and flash floods and thieves and members of rival gangs — but it’s a journey people in this part of the world make every day. And the rival drug cartels in this book — La Sinaloa and Los Zetas — are actual gangs, though Blake invents members of each. Blake says in an interview, “The border country is about two hundred miles across. And culturally it’s a completely sovereign entity” (qtd. in Reid 176). Blake’s characters inhabit that place, this place that I am from, this place that is both traditionally unified and currently divided in many places by a wall or a fence, this place that many readers only know about through the newspaper, this twice-colonized region of the world, and we get to know these people in all their complexities.
The fact that his books are based on real events and often actual people but pitched at an intensity that feels exaggerated, making his novels feel like comic books or blockbusters, is to me the most important aspect of Blake’s writing. Blake brings to mind words like “hyperbole” and “hyperrealism.” Typically, hyperbole is exaggeration that is not meant to be taken literally — this bag weighs a ton, I’m bored to death — but Blake exaggerates through propinquity: the violence he writes about happens to members of the same family, so it feels intensified, even though it’s all actually happening to a vast network of unrelated people. The violence these gangs are responsible for — “Heads left in bags at the doors of police stations. Bodies hung from overpasses. Charred corpses along country roads. Atrocities of every sort that had become so commonplace they were no longer shocking, only something to take precaution against, like the flu” (43) — is not shocking to the actual people who experience it daily, but it is very shocking to readers consuming Blake’s book on comfy couches, and that’s entirely the point. We can say it feels over the top and exaggerated, but if you watch the news from that couch, you know it’s real.
I call this feature of Blake’s books “literary hyperrealism.” Hyperrealism is a term usually applied to the visual arts: a movement that extends the goals of photorealism, where painters seek to make their art as lifelike as photographs. In hyperrealism the technique is the same, but the result is different — hyperrealists do not seek to duplicate reality, but to draw attention to it. Often hyperreal paintings appear more real than reality; images are blown up to much larger than life, but painted with a precision that photographic resolution could never match (see examples here, here, and here). An excess of detail, more than can be observed in reality, admits the artifice of hyperreal art while reflecting back on reality. I think this is what Blake is up to in his books.
What separates Blake from typical Hollywood is that he’s not interested in carnage for the sake of itself; his body counts examine what humans are capable of doing to one another, and what we’re capable of withstanding, and the historical context that has created such situations. Early on in the novel the only first-person narrator, Rudy, sees the “wreckage of ribs and viscera” of a man he shot but didn’t kill, and thinks, “Unbelievable what a body can survive for even a little while” (6). He kills the man so that crabs won’t eat him alive — Blake is also interested in the mercy humans show one another — and here we learn the second rule of the book: “When you make a deal you stick to it. […] You hold up your end and expect the other party to do the same. If the other party doesn’t, you’re entitled to deal with every man of it as you see fit in order to set things right. No — you’re more than entitled. You’re obligated” (6). The novel is structured so that rules emerge randomly, when a character thinks of the rule and lives by its principle amidst the rapidly moving plot and rapidly shifting point of view — from Eddie and Miranda to The Boss to Rudy and Frank to Alberto Desmayo to Catalina to Martillo and Pico to Mules to The Boss and Tiburón. When readers learn a rule, we don’t necessarily understand its implications, and have to trace it through the rest of the text: we wonder for the entire novel what Eddie’s violation of Rule #1 means to his family’s keeping of Rule #2 — what will make things right, and what is his family’s obligation to him?
The other rules range from the practical to the profound:
#3: Never ignore an “ominous impression […or] foreboding of a threat — a presentiment, intuition, hunch, call it what you will” (11).
#4: “[Y]ou can never know how a plan will go, so it’s best to be prepared in case it goes bad” (59).
#5: When in a car chase, always shoot the other car’s tires (72).
#6: “[A]bsolutely nothing beats good luck” (83).
#7: “Always know how may bullets you’ve got left” (98).
#8: “You do not tell people to go fuck themselves and then later when you’re in trouble ask them to help you. He had not heard it said as a rule but was sure it must be” (103).
#9: “[B]lood relatives make the most reliable partners, though now and then you’ll get an exception to the rule” (112).
#10: “[Y]ou can’t ever count on anybody doing the smart thing, for better or worse” (115).
#11: “[I]f a woman has a good ass the rest of her will be nicely configured too, except for maybe the face. The face is always on its own” (118).
#12: “Simple’s always best” (168).
#13: “Never let them know how much you know” (176).
#14: “It’s better to have guns and not need them than to need them and not have them (183).
#15: “You don’t ask a friend to risk his ass in your personal fight. Kin, yes, but not friends” (229).
This book isn’t only about rules to live by, but ways of ruling, of being in charge of yourself and others. It’s also about the ways individuals live within systems ruled by groups larger than themselves, and how to survive within the corruption of governments and agencies and gangs.
Within this plot-driven and character-driven novel, Blake doesn’t ignore language. He uses words such as “badland apparition” (11), “internecine” (56), and “jocose” (122); he describes the sky as “huge and cloudless and the pale blue of a gas flame” (184); and when drug mules encounter a wounded man abandoned by the other chickens and coyotes he is “prattling in hoarse unintelligible words like some becrazed wilderness prophet. Absent all pity for yet another fool come to this,” one of the men reaches down and slits his throat (215). The plot may make readers call this book “genre noir,” but the sentences show Blake’s literary chops. Blake is also interested in the implications of language and naming and how that is wrapped up with place and identity. Miranda is called a girlfriend by Segundo but she knows she’s a whore; news agencies call the crime organizations “syndicates” or “cartels,” “[l]ike OPEC,” but they know they are “truly nothing more than gangs” (57); we learn that “‘[r]esaca’ is the local term for an oxbow or bayou” (125) and “mesquite and high brush [is] what the local Mexicans call chaparral” (126), and arroyos are “dry sandy streambeds more commonly called washes in Arizona” (202). One coyote tells his young protégé that they’re in “Papago country” and the boy asks what a Papago is, and when he’s told it’s a “kind of Indian” he says, “I thought we were in the United States,” and then is told, “We are. I’ll explain it later” (203); a few pages later, two Mexican assassins meet two Indian police, and one assassin asks the other if they were Papago and is answered, “Yes, but now they call themselves Tohoho Ododom or something. They even got the gringos to call them that instead of Papago.” That pisses the other assassin off because the “gringos say ‘Mexican’ not ‘Mexicano,’ right? They say ‘Spanish’ not ‘Español,’ don’t they? So why let the Indians tell them to call them the Toohohoo Odohoo or whatever the fuck instead of Papago. They’re still Papago in Mexico. Try telling us to stop calling them that. The gringos should’ve told them to mind their own business or they might start calling them Fuckheads instead of Papagos” (206). After this rant the other hired assassin replies, “I had no idea you had such strong opinions about the sovereignty of language” (206). (By the way, the tribe is now known as the Tohono O’odham.) Within the quick pace of the book Blake makes space to investigate issues in this borderland, this region still struggling to reconcile indigenous culture, as well as Spanish and Anglo influences and all the varieties of mestizaje that exist here. Blake doesn’t offer answers for regional complications, but he presents them more thoroughly than most other novelists.
Beyond regional concerns, The Rules of Wolfe is also about the pleasures of being alive, and the appetites of men — and of women — for sex, food, violence, vindication, alliance, and freedom. Before Eddie kills a man for the first time they are “locked together like crazed lovers,” explicitly tying together the intensity of sex and violence (36). When Miranda and Eddie survive their first major firefight they check into a hotel and have sex and sex and sex and she says, “It’s like I’m starving . . . Do I sound crazy?” and he simply replies, “It’s good to be alive” (97).
I was pleased to see that in this novel, more than the others I’ve read by Blake, the women characters are fully explored and fully rounded. In the rest of the triptych, his women characters love sex, but here Miranda is known beyond just that capacity. When her father died “her mother naturally became a whore, an old story everywhere” (45). Miranda is kidnapped by a leader of La Sinaloa and her boyfriend who tries to protect her is murdered in front of her. Segundo makes her “one more whore in a world with no lack of them”; he can “smell her fear” which “increased his pleasure” of her, and after Miranda tries to escape Segundo tattoos red broken wings on her back to remind her she never can (46-48). But of course, with Eddie, she does escape, into a life of more violence, and during their adventure Miranda is not just sexy, she’s also savvy and smart and strong. Violence traps Miranda, and then frees her. And I won’t tell you how her relationship with violence ends.
The strongest character in the novel, and the most hyperrealistic, is also a woman, Catalina. We’re told Aunt Cat looks seventy but is in fact one hundred and nine, and
“Phenomenal” is an insufficient description of her. She wears glasses only to read and thread a needle. She uses a cane on her daily neighborhood stroll less as an aid to walking than to swat away overly frisky dogs. Her hearing’s still good enough to keep [her family] from even whispering about her when [they’re] under the same roof. She cooks, works in her garden […and her] godfather was Porfirio Díaz, dictator of Mexico for thirtysomething years. (133)
She’s tough: she survived two bandit attacks and killed one raider with a knife, and killed her husband in front of a hundred witnesses at a party then served thirteen years in prison for it (134). And she still drinks beer (135). And she’s not done yet: “The simple fact of the matter is that she has no desire for life to end, never mind that she has had a greater share of it than the measureless majority of those who have ever lived” (179). Entranced? You can read all about Catalina’s early life in Country of the Bad Wolfes. And if you want to know more about her family lineage, you can read about Catalina’s great-grandfather, Edward Little, and his brother John in In the Rogue Blood. You learn at the end of The Rules of Wolfe that Cat named Eddie Gato after her great-grandfather, the man she loved most in the world, and after herself, and while Blake himself never indicates that these books are part of a triptych, I’ll tell you that it’s worth reading them as such (258).
These three books are quite different from each other in structure, style, and tone, which makes the trio especially satisfying. Country of the Bad Wolfes is 456 pages long and covers three generations and many locations and the beginnings of the Wolfe criminal operation. In the Rogue Blood shows the beginnings of this clan: Edward and John Little murder their abusive father, head west to Texas, and are separated in New Orleans. John joins the United States Army, then deserts and joins the San Patricios — Irish-American soldiers who defected during The U.S.-Mexico War and fought for Mexico because of their Catholic bond and their poor treatment by the Americans. Edward joins an interethnic band of scalphunters, then a band of Mexican bandits, then a company of Mexicans who spy on Mexicans for the US Army. The brothers meet in battle — John and other Americans fighting for Mexico, Edward and other Mexicans fighting against Mexico. This contrived plot condenses nearly all the historical violence of the mid-19th-century borderlands into the lives of two brothers, the most hyperrealistic of Blake’s books.
The San Patricios were real, and Blake is the only Mexican American to have written a novel about them, though many Anglo Americans have. As a reader, my two obsessions have been Irish literature and Chicana/o literature, and wondering if anyone had written a novel about Saint Patrick’s Battalion and the crossover of my two interests is what led me to Blake in the first place. In the Rogue Blood won the Los Angles Times Book Prize for fiction, so I figured it had to be good. After reading it and seeing how good it is I was surprised that no academics are writing about Blake. I was even more surprised after I read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, and realized how similar that novel is to half of Blake’s novel. Academics have ignored Blake despite his similarities to McCarthy, but in magazines like Texas Monthly and GQ critics only focused on that comparison, both as praise (Blake is the “next Cormac McCarthy”) and as pejorative (In the Rogue Blood reads like a “gloss” on Blood Meridian) (Reid 130 and Giles 33).
Yes, there are many similarities between In the Rogue Blood and Blood Meridian — both books feature dozens of blood-red suns, both follow a band of interethnic scalphunters that includes a priest, both bands come across an indigenous tribe wearing European clothing that includes women’s wedding garments, both bands kill innocent indigenous people and are celebrated with a parade and end the night demanding prostitutes. But, there are two crucial differences. The first is that Blake’s account is invariably more brutal — yes, Blake’s novel is more violent than McCarthy’s. In both narratives one man out of dozens survives a Comanche attack, but Blake’s survivor has been scalped (52-54; 246-247). Comanches sodomize their victims as they die, but in Blake’s version it is done with a lance (54; 247). Both novels show Comanches playing bone flutes, but Blake clarifies that they are from the forearms of victims, and usually given to “the warriors’ favored children” (54; 246). Comanches flay men and hang them from trees, but in Blake’s novel, the man is found alive, days later (129, 226-227; 227). Both groups take scalps not only from violent tribes, but also from peaceful indigenous people who pose no threat — but while McCarthy’s band presents 136 receipts, Blake’s presents 172 (167; 231). (Yes, Blood Meridian has an unexplained tree full of dead babies, but other than that, every act of violence is matched or exceeded in In the Rogue Blood (57)). Blake said, “I wanted to write the most violent book in American literature and for it to speak to the nature of violence” — and he succeeded (Reid 130).
But there’s a much more significant way that Blake’s book is more violent than McCarthy’s: only half of Blake’s novel bears any resemblance to Blood Meridian; the other half follows a very different story, a story McCarthy completely ignores, the story of The U.S.-Mexico War. McCarthy’s book starts after the War’s end and barely mentions that it happened, which is especially interesting since so many critics claim that McCarthy’s books “right a historical imbalance,” and remember the dead as “a way of coming to terms with how the West was won,” and lay “bare the acts of conquest required in advancing U.S. claims throughout the region,” and do not leave the traumas of the past “buried in the dustbins of history” (Hage 165; Eaton 165; Kollin 567-8; Stratton 167). According to Vereen Bell, readers feel when reading McCarthy that they “are being told, for the first time, the raw, unromantic truth about both sides in the war for the Southwest territories,” and John Sepich ends his book-length study of Blood Meridian by exclaiming, “It’s a book so true I can’t stand it” (124;152). Yet the history given in McCarthy leaves buried many of the dead, many acts of conquest, many traumas of the past. It leaves out the War. It’s not the truest account of that time in history that I’ve read.
Why is the War important? Because it drew the current border. Because, at the end of it, Mexico lost half its territory to the United States: people in what are now California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and parts of Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming went from being Mexican citizens to citizens of the United States overnight. Because relations between the two nations have been fraught ever since. Because two colonial powers met in this part of the world, and the implications of that are still in flux.
When I tell people about In the Rogue Blood they invariably want to know if Blake based it on Blood Meridian, if it’s a purposeful mimicry or response or correction. The truth is we don’t know, but Blake does say this:
The first book of [McCathy’s] I read was Blood Meridian. At the time I was about three-quarters done with In the Rogue Blood and was very unsure of my approach in it. I was not only trying a style that was, quite deliberately — because of the book’s setting — a tad Faulkner-ish and somewhat Biblical, but I was trying to write the truest novel of violence I could. I was pulling out all the stops in my effort to show as graphically as I could just how horrifically violent that time and place in our history was. Then I let a friend of mine read the manuscript and he said he had a surprise for me and a few days later brought me a copy of Mr. McCarthy’s book. I’d never before heard of Cormac McCarthy, and I was knocked on my ass by our common setting of the same historical era and, to lesser degree, by the similarity of style — though his style, of course, soars up around the poetic heights of Parnassus.(Bonner, par. 10; read the full interview at GQ here.)
In a recent New York Times profile, Blake said of being compared to McCarthy: “That was embarrassing as hell […] No serious writer likes to be compared, but it’s nice to be compared to the best. I hope most people are past that” (qtd. in Nawotka par. 3). I hope so, too. The writing they’ve each done since has continued to distinguish these two authors. They do investigate similar issues, and they’ve both moved to present border issues, Blake in this latest novel, McCarthy in No Country for Old Men (2005). Perhaps that’s why I’m so delighted that Blake labeled this novel a noir, because it further separates him from McCarthy — no one would call Cormac a noirist. Over a decade ago journalist Janet Reid called Blake the next Cormac McCarthy, but she also called him “the hottest Texas writer you’ve never heard of” (130). I don’t think he’s either of those things anymore.
Blake’s other novels are about the outlaw John Wesley Hardin, Mexican Revolutionary general Pancho Villa, Confederate guerrilla leader William T. Anderson (better known as Bloody Bill), the Dillinger gang, his own ancestor who was a pirate, etc. Blake’s interests in outlaws as well as state-sanctioned and state-funded violence extend well beyond this triptych. The New York Times’ headline calls Blake “A Bicultural Writer Whose Westerns Draw Enthusiastic Praise,” which is certainly true; my concern has been the academic community ignoring him while the critics give him award after award, while The Times is concerned that Blake “has never enjoyed particularly strong sales” despite this praise (Nawotka par. 6). His sales are strong enough that he’s been able to afford to write full time, after years of working as a snake-catcher, mechanic, pool boy, county jail properties officer, and college instructor. What I care most about now is Blake’s books finding their way into the hands of people who would love them. The more Blake talks about his own experiences (see this lovely “Private Lives” piece in The Times), the more it is clear how much of his wild fiction is actually based on his own life and his family — and it becomes clear why Country of Bad Wolfes is dedicated to Carlos Sebastián Blake and The Rules of Wolfe to Juan Cano Blake. But what I most admire about Blake’s writing is the ways he reaches out and writes about people he isn’t, bringing to life real humans that are worth knowing about, as fantastical as their lives may seem.
Bell, Vereen M. The Achievement of Cormac McCarthy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988.
Blake, James Carlos. Country of the Bad Wolfes. El Paso: Cinco Puntos Press, 2012.
---. In the Rogue Blood. New York: Avon, 1997.
Bonner, Stayton. “The GQ&A: James Carlos Blake.” GQ.com, February 13, 2012.
Eaton, Mark A. “Dis(re)membered Bodies: Cormac McCarthy’s Border Fiction.” Modern Fiction Studies 49, no. 1 (2003): 155-180.
Giles, James R. “James Carlos Blake.” In Twenty-First-Century American Novelists: Dictionary of Literary Biography (DLB): 350, ed. Wanda H. Giles and James R. Giles, 30-38. Detroit, MI: Gale, 2009.
Hage, Eric. Cormac McCarthy: A Literary Companion. Jefferson, NC: McFarlane, 2010.
Kollin, Susan. “Genre and the Geographies of Violence: Cormac McCarthy and the Contemporary Western.” Contemporary Literature 42, no. 3 (2001): 557-588.
McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West. New York: Vintage, 1985.
Nawotka, Edward. “A Bicultural Writer Whose Westerns Draw Enthusiastic Praise.” The New York Times.com, July 6, 2013.
Reid, Jan. “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Next Cormac McCarthy.” Texas Monthly 27, no. 5 (1999): 130.
Sepich, John. Notes on Blood Meridian. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008.
Stratton, Billy J. “‘el brujo es un coyote’: Taxonomies of Trauma in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.” Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory 67, no.3 (2011): 151-172.about the author