Thoughtless Choices

Clunky title aside, James Carlos Blake's latest is a bloody, fun ride

About midway through James Carlos Blake's saga of the New England-born Wolfe twins and the violent generations they spawn in Porfirio Diaz's Mexico, John Roger Wolfe—sick with grief and drunk on Veracruz mescal—contemplates suicide.

"Take out all but one bullet and it was Russian Roulette. In Mexican Roulette, as he'd heard it defined, you took out only one. In Drunk Mexican Roulette, you didn't take out any."

John Roger holds off and lives to drink another day, but by this point in Country of the Bad Wolfes, Blake's 10th novel since 1995, it is clear that very few of its characters will escape a violent, messy death.

Such was life during the deceptively stable and prosperous Porfiriato, when the false choice of "pan o palo"—bread or a beating—ruled a tenuously united Mexico for more than three decades, from 1876 to 1911.

The sons of a British pirate who is hanged in Veracruz for his crimes as the book opens—the father then hangs around, haunting imaginations—twin brothers John Roger Wolfe and Samuel Thomas Wolfe move, independently, from New England to Mexico in the mid-19th century.

John Roger Wolfe goes to college, marries the sister of his rich roommate, enters business with a leg up, makes a smart bet on a venture in Veracruz, and goes native. He makes a lot of money and establishes a family in Mexico, buys a sprawling hacienda on the Gulf of Mexico, and has a set of twins himself.

Violent circumstances—the description of which is Blake's greatest strength and most constant obsession—send Samuel Thomas Wolfe south as a soldier. Just before the U.S.-Mexican War breaks out in 1846, he deserts the army and joins Saint Patrick's Battalion, a true-life group of mostly Irish immigrants who fought for Mexico against a nation that had welcomed them with less-than-open arms.

That's the setup, and the remaining pages offer an unrelenting chronicle of the usually short—and unimaginably violent—lives of successive generations of Wolfes, and those unlucky enough to be loved by them. Many of the women die in childbirth. Most of the men are felled by bullets, but not before taking a few of their enemies with them.

A hacienda maid who helps raise the second set of Wolfe twins finds her 35th birthday "notable in that nobody else in her family had ever lived that long." The Wolfe family is said to be "cursed by twin passions": "passions of the flesh" and "risks of blood"; it is "a curse like a ready noose around the neck of every Wolfe."

All the while, Mexico itself appears to be—on the surface, anyway—getting its passions under control, thanks to the Pax Porfiriana, when the iron-fisted reign of Porfirio Diaz forced the county into the modern age with foreign investment, economic liberalism and busy death squads. Diaz's rule ended only with the protracted bloodletting that was the Mexican Revolution, in which the Wolfes play an integral, if unknowing, role.

The novel, published by El Paso's Cinco Puntos Press as a paperback original, is reportedly based loosely on Blake's family history. According to his biography, he was born in Mexico of American, English and Irish ancestry. Blake has always sold relatively well for large houses such as Berkley, Avon and William Morrow, so having the big-name author on Cinco Puntos' roster—and such a worthy book in its catalog—should be a boon for the small press, if there's any justice in the world.

Country of Bad Wolfes—the clunky title is its only true blemish—is a poetic monstrosity; perhaps it's some bastard offspring of Gabriel Garcia Márquez and Cormac McCarthy that Blake found chained up and mistreated in a dark corner of his history-addled imagination. It is tempting to see the hand of a strange, restless god in the coincidences that rule the Wolfes' fate—a curse that never relents. But it is not so. Witness Samuel Thomas' adult son and his teenage wife. They are told by doctors that further conception would mean sure death for the wife. And yet, excited and drunk after a fiesta, they forgo contraception in the heat of the moment. She dies soon after.

In the end, it is the quick, thoughtless choices of flawed men, women, leaders and nations that cause suffering, violence and early death. For Blake, it seems, we are all cursed with that noose around our neck.

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