Book Review: Coyote Songs by Gabino Iglesias

After the utter turmoil of the last several months of getting ready to move, moving, recovering from the clusterfuck of the move, and putting my life and work back together, my readin' and ritin' muscles are a bit rusty. Time to get back on that horse.

Time to talk about cultural fusion, Barrio noir, and things that make us uncomfortable. It's time to talk about La Frontera both literally and culturally.

One of the best covers ever. 
La Frontera is more than just the physical, legal, recognized border between the United States and Mexico. It's a mixing zone, a war zone, a barrier both as distinct and as permeable as a soap bubble. Two thousand miles, most of it through the desert.

And that's where Coyote Songs by Gabino Iglesias is set.

I'm a bit of a rare bird. I'm a multi-generation Californian. The western deserts are in my blood. To understand them, you have to get off the Interstate, get out of your car, get away from the pool, and walk.

Even in the curated experience of a national park, walking through the desert is magic. The vast sky, the searing heat, and the understanding that you ain't shit out there. The desert is one of the mothers. Like the forest and the sea, she tends to the children of her body, and if you fail or falter, she will take your life essence and use it to nurture her own family. She will harvest it without a second thought.  The desert has no more mercy than the ocean.

The heart of  Coyote Songs opens inside a locked metal trailer parked on the Mexico side of La Frontera. A group of people, desperate to escape violence and government-manufactured poverty, gave everything they had to a trafficker and have been abandoned to their fate.

We are introduced to characters before then, but, to me, this is where the story begins.

Death by heat suffocation can be described as death by irony. Your body, desperate to cool itself, sheds its vital water. When that water is expelled through your skin, it fouls the air with the thick vapor of evaporating sweat. As you inhale, your own humidity forces your lungs to work harder to extract the oxygen. Meanwhile, the carbon dioxide from your exhaled breath sinks to the floor and begins to build a layer that traps the heat of the metal walls and your own struggling body. When the combination of dehydration and oxygen deprivation reaches a critical point, you lose consciousness, and death follows shortly. You die because your body functioned just as it was intended.

One of the young mothers, her son dead at her feet, spends her last moments harnessing the hate and rage of losing her family, of losing her dreams, of losing her life, and frees it from her dying body to soak into the desert floor along with the detritus of  her life in the physical plane.

And from that moment, La Bruja stalks the earth.

And the other characters -- Pedrito, Alma, The Mother, Coyote -- all serve La Bruja as conduits for her hate, rage, and chaos.

I'm going to leave it at that. I don't want to give any spoilers. You need to read the details as the writer intended.

Coyote Songs is written as a mosaic. Each chapter is the song of a different character and their fates as they spiral into the rage-choked heart of La Bruja. There are others as well, but we don't see them. La Bruja is as ruthless, thoughtless, and blameless as a tornado. Like a runaway storm, the desert made her and she will not be stopped until the energy dissipates and she is sated.

The language is rich, brutal, and elegant. The opening scene lets you know right then that you should expect anything, trust nothing, and perhaps think twice before you lose sight of safety and venture into La Frontera. Remember, you were warned. And if you've never experienced a wall of stench and felt it wash over you like moss-choked stagnant water, assaulting you, then you're in for a nasty treat with a visit to The Stewmaker.

There is a fair amount of Spanish sprinkled through the book. Conversations, prayers, invocations, and rages. I don't speak Spanish. However, English and Spanish are two sides of the same coin. A coin split and united by La Frontera. Try to work your way through it and experience the cultural fusion. Use the linguistic skills you may not realize you have and decode the passages. There is also plenty of context provided for the dialogue. I was never lost, even when my faulty language skills failed me. If you must, pop it in a translator. You can also contact the author. Gabino is never shy or reserved about his work. And he shouldn't be. This shit is good.

We could stop right there and have a dark mystery full of crimes and hidden motives and characters that are not what they seem overlayed with a nice dollop of horror.

But wait, there's more. Because with Gabino Iglesias there is always more.

The wall.

You know the one I'm talking about. The racist madness that is currently gripping the United States. The dying fantasy of a 1950s black and white movie where dad was all-knowing, mom was all-caring, and two-point-five well-scrubbed moppets gazing adoringly at the camera. An America that never existed outside the fantasy of European immigrants who created it as a balm to their own soul and a way to make millions.

Points of the book's plot center around ICE, child separation, and the fucking wall that will never happen.

Walls are interesting beasts. I live in a neighborhood with a lot of walls. Lots are small and houses close together. People erect different fences for different reasons.

I'm putting up a fence to let my dog off the leash. 
I'm putting up a fence to protect your children from my pool.
I'm putting up a fence to create a grotto to escape a hard world. 
I'm putting up a fence to let me pursue my hobbies without prying eyes. 

These walls are often beautifully crafted and inviting. There is a desire to peek through a crack and see the wonderland that exists inside.

Then there are the fences that bristle with warning signs about attack dogs and security services and the ever-eye-rolling "I don't call 911." Those are walls that exclude and what's enclosed is usually as bitter as the builder.

Guess what kind of wall the insane cabal wants to build? A monument existing to tell the Latino population that they aren't wanted. A wall that would cleave La Frontera. A wall that would cut us off from the other side of our soul. A wall that the desert mother would never accept.

And the crimes that are being committed by the just-following-orders officers of ICE. The crime of child separation and what happens when children don't have the protection of their parents and a society that reveres them. Dark things.

A while back I saw a photo essay titled "Where Children Sleep." The photographer went to refugee camps and shattered neighborhoods and took photos of sleeping children. The young ones and babies were usually exhausted heaps, deep in slumber where they'd crumpled. Their faces angelic in the brief respite. But around age 8, the eyes begin to hollow out. By 10, there are lines around those vacant eyes. By 12, the light is gone, leaving only hardened flint.

Biology creates babies, however, society creates adults. How many nascent Pedritos are sleeping in those canvas dorms tonight? No matter how hard they try, scared white people can't amass enough guns to protect themselves from the answer to that question. They are sowing what they and their children will reap.

What's on your desk?
No one will accuse Coyote Songs of being "a quick fun beach read." Savor it. Think about it. Chew it thoroughly. Strive to understand what drives Alma. Taste the smell of that small room. Sit with Padre Frank.

Speak with and listen to the Orishas and appreciate the cultural fusion with the saints.

But don't lose your way or your concentration. Light a candle to be your guide and anchor as you travel La Frontera. Because La Bruja is waiting for you and if you stumble, the desert will gladly harvest you.