With his debut novel Zero Saints, Gabino Iglesias had created a genre that blended horror, crime, and surrealism and gave an authentic voice to those hustling and scrapping to survive along the Texas/Mexico border. Barrio noir is back with Coyote Songs, and hot damn, is it back with a vengeance.
The narrative weaves between the struggles of six equally well-crafted characters, ducking out of one’s story to resume another’s while the tension steadily climbs. The stories of these characters are mostly separate from each other, but are connected by a shared tone and place. These are all stories of la frontera, of South Texas, of bodies cooking in the sun, of life in the barrio. The ghost of a bruja refuses to cross sides until she gets revenge for her family. A small child turns cold-blooded after watching his father’s brains get blown out while fishing. A young woman is fed up, and will voice her frustrations through performance art and, eventually, with a machete. A young man straight out the pen is back on the run from the red-and-blues after dealing with a man he witnesses smacking his mother around. A coyote prays to the Virgin Mary for guidance on his mission to shuttle children across the border. A mother’s concern for her son is shadowed by the dread surrounding her current pregnancy, as the thing in her womb shows signs of being something dark and otherworldly. The back-and-forth, almost episodic structure of this collection of tales makes Coyote Songs a propulsive, engaging read from start to finish.
The last thing Inmaculada saw was a young boy like her son, his eyes open, his body on top of a man who was probably his father. Both were motionless, pushed against a wall. The father had become his son’s deathbed. Inmaculada swore revenge against the men who had done this to them, swore she’d stick around until all the coyotes were dead and there was enough blood along the border to make powerful people take care of the problems that had put them in that trailer. Then she closed her eyes, felt the sweat run down her eyelids like the last caress of her physical being, and stepped into the darkness.
One thing Iglesias does well is smash genres together, seamlessly pouring magic, monsters, poetry, family drama, and all the trappings of a blockbuster thriller into the same narrative, sometimes even on the same page. Where else can you find a salamander-like demon slithering from a woman’s crotch, followed by a car chase that follows a souped-up purple Impala on the run from a baker’s dozen cops through downtown Houston?
Yeah, that’s what I thought.
Iglesias is in complete control here, grounding the reader into the story by making it feel entirely tangible, and while doing so, breaking your heart and stirring up the rage inside of you. And the violence – whoa. In a novel where knuckles are stabbed by bone jutting out of the eye socket of a man whose been punched too much, the most uncomfortable violence is the type that is necessary to survive, like when the Coyote brandishes brass knuckles and pummels the hell out of the children he’s trying to help in hopes that the signs of abuse on their faces will gain sympathy from la migra. One thing I appreciate immensely – since this is primarily billed as a work of crime fiction, even though it refuses to be boxed in by labels – is the level of compassion and realism with which Iglesias approaches the world of people on the (so-called) wrong side of the law. There are no criminals, only people who love their mothers getting caught up trying to crawl out of the holes they’ve been shoved in. Each story culminates in a boiling point that is visceral and immediate, reflective of the anger of the era we live in, of the rage against oppressors and the disgust towards those comfortable enough to remain apathetic. I could imagine Iglesias would be tempted to make this violent novel a sort of revenge fantasy against the enemies of migrants and refugees and barrio boys and girls, but that’s not what this is. There is no fantasy or satire to be found in these pages. The bloody machetes, the desert heat, the witchcraft, the love, the weeping angels – it all feels too real. The almost-entirely Spanish dialogue helps to ground it, as well, while also giving the prose a poetic flow. If you don’t speak Spanish, there’s plenty of context to keep you out of the dark. If you have a problem with that, get Rosetta Stone or fuck off. Coyote Songs is written as if Iglesias wanted readers to feel like one of the children being escorted across the border – which is to say, if you want to make this journey, just know that you’re going to take some beatings along the way.
Resolve was a fickle beast. Vengeance was a capricious lover. Anger was a planet covered in water that simultaneously obeyed the pull of too many whimsical moons. Pain was an unstable variable in a secret equation written in a language that never existed. Confidence was a fragile thing dangling over a sea of crushing teeth by a thread of shadow tied to a beam of hope.
by Gabino Iglesias
Broken River Books; 197 p.