Poet of Doom

Boston Teran's latest is a screen-ready border thriller set 100 years ago

Early in Boston Teran's screen-ready historical thriller, The Creed of Violence, federal agent John Lourdes works undercover along the border at Juárez in 1910, just as the Mexican Revolution is flaring up.

He watches a young woman he suspects of smuggling enter a quarantine shed on the U.S. side, where her clothes will be fumigated, and she will be inspected for disease. The shed is called the "gas chamber," and on cue, two German designers approach Lourdes and ask him "if it was true the government weeded out the deformed and the deviant, as they too had, in their own country, problems with what they described as 'the unclean,' that needed to be dealt with."

A straight-up thrill ride through the Mexican badlands, with shotgun blasts on nearly every page and trains filled with illegal munitions running wild on blown-out tracks, The Creed of Violence is the realized back-mind dream of every fiction writer: the stylish page-turner. But it also has a very contemporary political heart that can't be ignored—mostly because the writer's sometimes heavy-handed guidance won't let you.

Lourdes is eventually partnered with a wildman killer turned informant named Rawbone, a character who would find plenty of friends and companionship among the borderland devils in Cormac McCarthy's masterwork Blood Meridian. Rawbone, as Lourdes knows from the beginning, is Lourdes' long-lost father. Rawbone—during a typical day at the office for an itinerant killer and thief—hijacks a truck loaded with munitions and kills the drivers with poison whiskey, hoping for a big score. He finds out, however, that the truck was headed south of the border, deep into Mexico, and the Bureau of Investigation wants to know why. Lourdes is sent south undercover to deliver the weapons with Rawbone, who will get a clean slate with the law in exchange. Chaos, political intrigue and a father-son dance of recrimination ensue.

Rawbone reminds me of Case Hardin, the ex-junkie and Satanic cult survivor in Teran's brilliant and nasty debut novel, 1999's God Is a Bullet. In that book, Teran uses Hardin to teach the raw and ugly truth about middle-class morality to a Christian ex-cop searching the Satan-ruled underworld of the Mojave Desert for his kidnapped 14-year-old daughter. Hardin manages to convince the reader at the same time that there is little difference between us and them when everybody is armed and desperate.

Similarly, Rawbone teaches Lourdes, his abandoned son, about the dirty but inexorable logic of power and strategy. As the father and son approach Fort Bliss, they come across mounted infantry columns preparing to defend the homeland if the revolution spills over the border.

"The Mexican is just target practice," Rawbone says. "An inconsequential. These boys are down here to drill for the war to come in Europe against the Hun and his dago bitch. The agents of war need something to practice on. Who better than some filthy, ignorant peon."

Rawbone and his son continue on deep into the Mexican oilfields, where they discover what may be a U.S. plot to seize Mexico's vast oil reserves in the midst of the revolutionary chaos. They meet up with several desperate, memorable characters, including a violent henchman with an anachronistic tattoo sleeving his arm in the American flag. Heavy-handed indeed.

According to numerous reports online, director Todd Field (In the Bedroom; Little Children) bought the rights to The Creed of Violence even before it was published. One can certainly see why. The slender book reads like a treatment, though one written in Teran's distinctive style, which haunts the noir border somewhere between the territory staked out by Cormac McCarthy on one side and James Ellroy on the other. Interestingly, Field is also supposed to be developing Blood Meridian for the screen.

The Creed of Violence is, like all of Teran's work, a compulsively readable novel that one can't put down for long. It has a few quirks that tend to grate, especially its recurring catchphrases that will likely be overplayed even more in the film. Still, Teran, who is reportedly unknown even to his publisher—some say Teran may be a well-known writer using a pseudonym, or may be a clutch of writers working together—is a kind of fever-struck poet of American doom, and one simply has to read him.

Be prepared for late nights, tired eyes and plenty of lost and broken illusions if you do.