Blood and Guts

With his rugged style, James Carlos Blake crafts an uneven tale in 'Under the Skin.'

In the age-old debate between "nature" and "nurture," you've got to give James Carlos Blake points for not equivocating.

In his latest novel, Under the Skin, he weighs in pretty firmly on the side of genes ... with shots to the head, blades to the gut and even freight cars to the neck. However nurturing your home life of reformed-prostitute mother and gentle cowboy stepfather, he suggests, if you're the bastard son of a sharp-shooting revolutionary carnicero, you've got natural "butcher" in your bones.

Blake, who currently lives in Southern Arizona, has carved a niche for himself in borderland macho fiction. Born in Mexico to an American mother and a Mexican father (descended from an executed pirate--Blake Père had issues with authority and the United States), Blake grew up bilingual and bicultural in Texas and Florida. His previous works have wrought fiery fiction out of history--the Mexican Revolution, U.S. Prohibition, the lawless West--and this novel taps into three sources--post-Prohibition U.S., that revolution and Blake's own Friends of Pancho Villa.

Under the Skin opens in a whorehouse in El Paso in 1914, a busy time for revolutionaries. When two of the revolution's main players cross over from Juarez for a little R and R, the new girl (the others call her "Spook" because of the emotional distance she sustains) gets tapped. Pancho Villa heads upstairs with a regular; "Spook," with Villa's buddy. After a little sex 'n' power-playing, Spook comes away with the guy's name (Rodolfo Fierro), his Mexican-designed, ivory-handled Colt .44 and a wiggling souvenir of his DNA. She's not at all surprised to read later that Fierro's R and R had immediately followed his single-handed massacre of 300 war prisoners. We're not at all surprised to read later that Colt shows up in the hands of a young, blue-eyed, Mexican-American gangster.

After the Spook marries a lonely rancher who shares with her a taste for 19-century literary realism, action leaves them and jumps forward about 22 years to Galveston, Texas.

Mobster "ghost" James Rodolfo Youngblood ("Jimmy the Kid"), along with a couple of buddies, is at work on New Year's Eve. He goes to a convention hotel, takes the elevator to the top floor, asks the operator to hold it, interrupts a New Year rendezvous with an ice pick to the heart, drives to the office, files his report and settles down to a quiet Italian dinner. It's another night in the enforcing business.

Jimmy is in the employ of the Sicilian Maceo brothers, opera-loving former barbers who control the gambling franchise in the "Free State of" Galveston, where whatever you want, you can get. With the ice pick dispatch, the Maceos have sent a message to an out-of-town "organization," but they've also issued a challenge that invites retribution. Meanwhile, Jimmy has caught sight of a beautiful Mexican girl newly arrived in his modest Mexican neighborhood. When she is kidnapped (and the subplot takes center stage) and Jimmy heads to Mexico to retrieve her from her warlord husband, he unknowingly plays out his own fate.

While his works are frequently brutal and bloody, James Carlos Blake is a formidable writer. He has succeeded in bringing to life (and light) the violence of the Mexican Revolution and its players; he's also a deft stylist, welding the language with power and authority. In The Rogue Blood, Red Grass River, and Borderlands are award-winners. Under the Skin, however, falls short.

What works, though, works well: Blake paints scenery as if he were making a movie--hotel interiors, darkened streets, the Chihuahua landscape. He describes boxing, pool playing and shooting with credible detail: A scene in which Jimmy turns a beating in a gym boxing match into a meat and bone-crunching mauling is a convincing piece of unpleasant character revelation. Blake paces action with discipline and balance, and he effectively establishes suspense by alternating viewpoints and setting action up to collide in the unavoidable shootout.

Too many of his characters seem stock, however: The Maceo brothers, while distinct from each other, are Central Casting likable gangsters. Ditto, Jimmy's buddies, LQ and Brando. He overdoes the references to the inevitability of genetics (one or two supporting allusions, plus the title, would have sufficed; and could this character not have resisted fate?), but he does make some more subtle points about Mexican-U.S. relations and racism.

While Under the Skin is not Blake's best, it's an entertaining enough piece of period shoot-'em-up, bang-her-up, bust-'em-up genre fiction, and it might spark interest sufficient to pick up his Pancho Villa novels to see how bad Jimmy's daddy Rodolfo Fierro really was.