The Guardians. A Novel.
NY: Random House, 2007.
Now that Ana Castillo has left Chicago for southern New Mexico's lonely ranchitos, she's also left behind her normally strong older woman character. Carmen la Coja, the one-legged flamenco dancer of Peel My Love Like an Onion, captivates her younger lover until he's no longer amusing and she locks him out of her high-rise apartment. In The Guardians, Regina's low self-esteem keeps her clumsily in the path of an ardent younger swain. They kiss, but that's the limit of their physical intimacy.
Regina's incompetency comes as quite a surprise, since so often a Castillo woman stands as a model of independence and growth, like la coja. But then, rural New Mexico presents its own set of challenges for Regina and the writer: Hardscrabble farming, limited job horizons, complications of la frontera for the characters. Sadly, Castillo allows herself to be trapped by the lurking conventionality of evil coyotes and gang members, turning the story into a mere thriller.
Not that The Guardians is a disappointment, far from it. The early chapters express affectionate involvement with a middle-aged woman eking a living on sandy plots, supplementing one's income with wild-haired schemes and a big heart. The plot wends its way into the Juarez murders of thousands of women, mixing it with immigrant smuggling, narcotraficantes, and evil coyotes. Borrowing from another Juarez murders novel, Alicia Gaspar de Alba's Desert Blood, one of the key characters is kidnaped by the sex torturers, but unlike Gaspar de Alba, Castillo shies away from the gruesome details.
A four-voice novel, Castillo supplements Regina's narrative with nephew Gabo, would-be lover Michael, and Michael's WWII veteran cantinero grandfather. Regina is the stunning redhead teacher's aide, Michael the chongoed middle school historian who's dated every woman on the faculty with no results. Gabo's torment at his father's disappearance complicates his deterioration into madness. The blind abuelo if not quite a blind Tiresias is often the voice of common sense who keeps as even a keel as their circumstance permits.
They make an unlikely team of detectives. Worse, the camaraderie among them is never fully developed. And, as with any detective story, a lot of what happens is completely predictable, but Castillo serves up a couple of good surprises. The fun comes from letting the characters do their thing and see what happens when the dust settles.
Notes of a Distracted Driver
Traffic clogs to a stop just across the intersection. I stop at the yellow light, tensing that the driver too close behind me may be thinking to synchronize both of us running the light. Across the street, thronged pedestrians lean urgently against the traffic, expecting to dash out to catch the connecting bus pulling up just now.
A pig hauler has halted in the snarl. A sixteen wheel trailer, forty feet of meat hauled by a big rig diesel. The aluminum box heads to Farmer John, a mile down the street. Everything but the squeal.
The aluminum sides of the trailer reflect the dull morning light in a swath of grey. Perforations checker the sides, bulging here and there with pinkish-brown bristled flesh. The light changes. My lane advances faster than the pigs'. I catch up just as traffic slows again and I begin to stop. Up on the second level a pig snout prods the air up there. I hope it is sweeter than the exhausted contamination that keeps my windows tightly up. Still, I hit the window switch. One-handedly, I switch on my camera, point in the right direction, and shoot.
Both lanes come to a dead halt. The pig pulls back its snout, looks up at the brightness of the western sky, and smiles at the glory of the coming day.