A Language For Selfishness

Jim Sanderson's Desert Noir

IN HIS SECOND novel Texas writer Jim Sanderson depicts a San Antonio similar to the spiritually vacant landscape of post-war Los Angeles--the first breeding ground of American literary noir.

It is a community where everything--the buildings, the landscape, the issues--is either ancient or brand new, nothing in between but the people, most of whom have lost everything but their drive.

Just as Dashiell Hammett's and Raymond Chandler's L.A. was mid-century America writ dark and depressed, Sanderson's San Antonio, in fits and half-memories, is the fin de siècle Southwest: rich whites and poor browns, the moldering downtown, the sparkling, overbuilt north side, the violent and corrupt Third World just over the border mirrored in a south-side neighborhood, the creeping heat that nobody can define.

Safe Delivery has the cozy plot of a traditional political thriller: lost moral center seeks same, with a gunfight.

Vicente Fuentes, the Mexican son of a retired gangster, is a former priest, a famous writer, a failed revolutionary and a patsy for Mexico's P.R.I.

Jerri Johnson, a fortyish single mother now working as a private eye, is Fuentes' ex-girlfriend. Five years ago he left her cold to go start a revolution. She hesitantly moved on and he was captured.

After being imprisoned and tortured into ideological submission by his government, Fuentes returns to San Antonio and to Jerri with a plan to run some guns--drinking hard to forget secrets he has neglected to tell her.

Chasing the doomed pair is Joe Parr, a widower nearing retirement, a proud and locally famous Texas Ranger--with old-fashioned values and older-fashioned prejudices--who will lose his identity as soon as he loses his job.

Sanderson's plot, however, as in all great political thrillers--e.g., John Le Carré, Graham Greene--is not even close to what is most interesting about Safe Delivery.

What lifts this novel high above the usual genre swill is the point of view. Like James Joyce, Sanderson takes us into the minds of the three principals--we know what each thinks about the other, we know their struggles with faith and trust and moral loss as intimately as we know our own.

Instead of giving us just one hero and a host of minor walk-ons who are there only to move along a droning "mystery" plot, Sanderson gives us three anti-heroes, and we are glad to feel them breathe on us, even if it mostly smells like liquor.

Late in the novel, Fuentes struggles over which language to use in a conversation with his ex-criminal father:

"Spanish was the language he learned to write in. It was the language he had used to think in. It was the language he had used to incite people ... English was the second language, the language that had rescued and could still rescue their selfish blood. English was the language for selfishness. They should speak to each other in English."

All the fleeing, losing, faithless characters in Safe Delivery speak this particular kind of English. Sanderson's significant accomplishment, like that of the past masters of his genre, is that he helps us find beauty in their sad, lost and selfish words.

Last week, in a phone interview from his home in Texas, Sanderson talked about his writing.

On being called a mystery writer:

I didn't start out deliberately writing thrillers or mysteries, but that's how my publisher pegged me, so that is what I have tried to do. I guess what I am trying to do is mix a little bit of commercial with the literary. The mystery genre has more stuff happening, so it sort of gives me a little bit more leeway and comfort to have some action.

On being a Western writer:

Texas has always been this border between Native American, Spanish, Mexican and American, and presently it is divided between south and western and Hispanic, so there is this constant clash--and I think by bearing an attitude in what I write I am more Western, and what that means to me is a sort of caustic and wry, ironic glibness, where you don't talk that much; somehow words are so important that you have to be real careful to save them up.

On Safe Delivery:

(The issues in the novel) are things that I am interested in both as a scholar and in my fiction. I was trying to wrap all (the characters) together in with the history of San Antonio and all the strife that has occurred. I tried to push to the extreme someone who had a whole series of faiths and then watched them go.

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