Our hero--or anti-hero, depending on your definition--goes by Carlos. He's a Texan teenager who has trouble stopping his fists from flying. Egged on by a blend of restlessness and a looming sense that he'll find whatever it is he's looking for in Mexico, he crosses the border and heads into the unknown. After killing an opponent in a boxing match, he ventures into the wilderness, doing manual labor and meeting local villagers, who treat him kindly. One night in the woods he encounters El Enano, a dwarf who frightens and disgusts Carlos at first, but turns out to be gracious and friendly. He tells Carlos about Chávez.
Chávez, a sort of ultra-violent Robin Hood, was set on his bloody path after his wife was raped and flayed, and his children's heads impaled on spikes. Seriously. The militia that did it is commanded by a wealthy landowner named Joaquin Mueller, who becomes Chávez's arch-enemy. Carlos, moved by Chávez's personal tragedy, his own closeness to the villagers and his desire to do something with his life, decides to "ride with Chávez," stalking Mueller's men and exacting a very strong breed of revenge. They stay a few steps behind Mueller's mobs, tracking them as they raze villages, rape women and children and drag those who resist from the backs of their horses. Then they kill them using the same brutal methods.
Trained by the quiet, brooding Chávez, who has seemingly drowned his entire personality with his appetite for revenge, Carlos becomes a talented killer. At first he is repulsed by what he sees, but eventually he, too, is shooting enemies at close range. Still, he has trouble finding satisfaction in the hunt. A few of his companions delight in their work rather ridiculously--one has a long necklace strung with the ears of men he's murdered--but all of them are more welcoming to Carlos then anyone's ever been before.
Just after he learns how to use a knife to kill a man, Carlos leaves Chávez, finally exhausted by the life of a vigilante. He falls ill on his journey back toward the border and awakens in a small town, under the watch of a beautiful young woman named María. As he heals he falls in love with her, but eventually, Mueller's militias come looking for "the gringo." When María pays the ultimate price to save him, Carlos finally comprehends the full breadth of Chávez's vengeance, and the struggle against Mueller finally becomes personal.
Jameson, a West-Texas-bred singer, songwriter and author, has a poetic sensibility and a clear, concise voice. Beating the Devil is lightning-fast and pulsates with action. But anyone with a tendency toward nightmares may have to abandon the book after that first boxing match, as the entire narrative is dominated by extreme, grotesque violence. At one point, a man is strangled with his own intestines; crows, vultures and pigs routinely arrive on scene to feast on dead--and nearly dead--bodies. Castration is de rigeur; bone and gristle are everywhere. It's very hard to look past the violence to find some personality in these characters. Even when Carlos becomes close to a woman, revealing a brain behind the brawn, slaughter and rampage come too quickly, leaving you to wonder if the love was ever even there.
Carlos' relationship with God is a tortured one. There are hints of a violent and negligent father, and allusions to abuse at the hands of a local priest (throughout the book, men in cassocks appear only as corrupt villains). But even all this is not quite enough to justify his ultra-violent deeds. Within melodramatic chapter titles like "The Night of Thunder and Fire," "The Devil" and "The Savior," Carlos explains he believes that God rides with Chávez and his vigilantes. But when Chávez crucifies a priest and then refuses to kill him for mercy's sake, and so cruelly dispatches all his other victims, it's hard to see his actions as noble. Jameson spends far more time explaining what happens, in all its gory glory, than why it happens.
Jameson's intent in avoiding deep analysis or elucidation is likely just to demonstrate the power of pure revenge to drive a man to do the unthinkable. Why clutter it with backstories and emotion? Still, it's very hard to muster sympathy or understanding for Carlos, Chávez and their companions. While adrenaline junkies will speed through Beating the Devil in the time it takes to watch Saw, anyone with a penchant for thinking twice might have trouble distinguishing the men from the monsters.