Given the subject matter and the writer, I wanted Alicia Gaspar de Alba’s second novel, Desert blood: The Juarez Murders to be as good as it is, still, I wanted a better novel. Desert Blood is successful in so many ways that anyone who enjoys detective stories, Chicana Literature, or novels of la frontera, will find many worthwhile minutes in the pages of this ambitious, though in the end, flawed adventure.
Detective fiction readers will be happy to add a new character to the roster of Rios, Buenrostro, Baca, Montez, Damasco: Ivon Villa. Smart, tough—make that incredibly tough—relentless, dedicated. I’m looking forward to Gaspar de Alba leading her character to new adventures.
Ivon’s a slacker, when you think about it. As the novel opens, she’s on her way to El Paso with two goals in mind: adopt a baby in Juarez and do some research on bathroom graffitti. So impetuous, Ivon hasn’t thought through all the ramifications of an old girl network adoption. In fact, she hasn’t included her partner in the adoption process at all. If the adoption goes according to plan, Brigit will meet her child when Ivon brings it home. Odd approach to parentage. Just as odd is Ivon’s lack of focus. An ABD (All But Dissertation) Visiting Prof, she’ll lose the job if she doesn’t complete her Ph.D. Ivon has a proposal: Marx Meets the Women’s Room: The Representation of Class and Gender in Bathroom Graffitti (Three Case Studies). But she hasn’t yet begun to research the third case, so Ivon decides to use the visit home to do the toilets of her home town. It sounds silly but it provides the most vital clue to the entire story: Poor Juarez, so far from the Truth, so close to Jesus.
Gaspar de Alba’s first novel, Sor Juana’s Second Dream, stands as a tour de force of Chicana Literature—it is a superb piece of imaginative work. Unfortunately, Sor Juana’s lesbian lovemaking draws the ire of critics less intent on sexual politics than beatifying the Mexicana genius. Desert Blood will likely draw similar complaints for its numerous instances of lesbian sex.
Such critics will miss the point. In her sexual practices, Ivon is more like Luis Montez or Henry Rios, men who think with their dicks rather than their brains. Impetuous Ivon’s the same tipa. Even as the novel begins to approach its climax, with Ivon desperately pursuing every hunch and clue, she gets distracted by a former lover’s allure, and spends the night—despite Ivon’s anger that the woman had a lot to do with her little sister’s disappearance! Not since Alma Luz Villanueva’s 1994 Naked Ladies, have I met such an impetuous yet fully competent female character as Ivon. Then again, Desert Blood’s lesbian sex has the virtue of sincerity, tenderness, and love. It contrasts with the mind-numbing sexual violence that fills page after page in Gaspar de Alba’s absorbing story set against the background of unsolved mass murder of hundreds of women.
Herein lies the problem with the novel. The murders of Juarez, for all their horror, are only the setting. Even as the reader despairs in the story's web-based sexual tourism and street-level corruption of brothels and crack houses where Ivon’s search for her kidnapped teenaged sister draws the detective, the novelist must give shape and faces to the unknown monsters perpetrating and perpetuating the actual crimes. In the process, the plot loses touch with reality. Perhaps it is too big a story and so imaginatively ugly that Gaspar de Alba elects to fashion a personal story of one woman’s struggle to recover the love of her estranged homophobic mother while shouldering guilt at her responsibility in the disappearance of her kid sister.
There is so much horror, that readers will be grateful for moments of comic relief. The writer must have enjoyed writing scenes like one, early in her investigation, when Ivon has an almost productive interview with a bartender that is aborted when a group of “American boys” demand drinks, one of them pounding the bar:
“Hey, puta, we need drinks,” shouted out one of the boys.
Ivon walked up to him and slapped his face.
“What the fuck!” said the kid, holding his cheek.
“Didn’t your mother teach you to respect women?” she said.
“Bitch, I’ll teach you…”
“What can I get you boys?” said Magda, smiling behind the bar. “First round on the house.” She winked at Ivon. (204)
Not that the novel is necessarily anti-male; given a world of sexual exploitation of women, one would expect men to occupy the loci of contempt. Almost every male character is puro shit-- but other than the central evil man, the second-most evil character is the woman kidnapper who mouths the irony early in the story about the teenaged sister probably nursing a popped cherry if she still had one. Gaspar de Alba is making a telling point here. Earlier in the novel, she feels the stares of machos and a thought runs through her mind: "Asshole macho piece of shit, she thought, don’t you fucking lear [sic] at me. . . . Lesbians, although every macho’s wet dream—to voyerize or to conquer—of course, betrayed not just their culture, but their gender, their families, and their religion." (134) Betrayal abounds in the lives of these characters, but lesbianism has nothing to do with the betrayals of fathers of women, husbands of wives, employees of their supervisors. In all the interwoven betrayals. Ivon remains true to her familia.
Ugly as the story grows, Gaspar de Alba won’t allow it to devolve to puro tragedy. In the final analysis, this is a family story, not a murder story, not a mystery per se. Strangers suffer—the poignant story of the 14-year old who doesn’t want to “go to Dallas” breaks my heart (dar las nalgas)—but in the end, the reader is both disappointed and relieved to get a fairy-tale ending with only a few surprises and twists.
But in all this, there is a deadly serious point to make—why haven’t authorities on either side of the border acted to find the killers and stop the murders?
“That’s what this was, she realized. A huge malignant tumor of silence, meant to protect not the perpetrators, themselves, but the profit reaped by the handiwork of the perpetrators. A bilateral assembly line of perpetrators, from the actual agents of the crime to the law enforcement agents on both sides of the border to the agents that made binational immigration policy and trade agreements.
The cards fell so perfectly into place; it was almost nauseating.
This thing implicated everyone. No wonder the crimes had not been solved, nor would they ever be solved until someone brought this conspiracy out into the open." (335)
Desert Blood brings this into the open, a little. I hope Desert Blood becomes like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. There’s a story that Theodore Roosevelt was sitting at breakfast reading Upton Sinclair’s passage about rotted sausages packed with filth and rat meat. The US president gets so disgusted, the same day he demands Congress pass a pure food and drug act. Let’s hope one day, soon, another US president will read Desert Blood while looking at portraits of a wife and daughters, and grow equally disgusted.
Click the link above to visit Alicia Gaspar de Alba's blog on this novel.
Houston: Arte Publico Press, 2005. Isbn-10: 1-55885-446-0