Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Ramos' My Bad His Good. Veterans Day.

Review: Manuel Ramos. My Bad: A Mile High Noir. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 2016.
               ISBN: 978-1-55885-833-6

Michael Sedano

They may not know it--not Gus, not Luis--but they are. Broken men. Gus, he’s broken from being locked up and now at the mercy of bullies. Luis, he’s gotten old, he knows it, but he hasn’t given in, yet. He will. Manuel Ramos, who wrote the characters, calls upon his long time companionship with Luis to put the Denver lawyer into dangerous territory Luis alone can’t handle. Ramos brings back Gus from an earlier novel, to tell half the story, to provide the vigor that escapes the aging hero. Together they heal.

My Bad: A Mile High Noir may have one shortcoming, but it’s one easily remedied. Only recently released by Arte Publico Press, this detective gem from Manuel Ramos might not be in stock at your local independent bookseller.

Not having a copy is the only reason a reader wouldn’t immediately devour this instant noir classic from razanoir master Manuel Ramos. My Bad: A Mile High Noir has everything readers seek in a novel: connections, action, irony, danger, wonderfully drawn characters.

Ramos has been following the adventures of Luis Montez since 1993’s The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz introduced the Denver Chicano lawyer as only the second Chicano detective in U.S. fiction. Not only is it entertaining to follow Montez’ career, there’s an extra reward for readers seeing the effect of age on the character’s energy and spirit. For an older reader, Montez is one of us. And as the reader ages, she or he may find themselves sharing Montez’ reflection of engaging “reminiscence that had no where to go but regret.”

Age doesn’t stop Montez from jumping in with both feet. Unlike a younger vato, the lawyer is less likely to put himself in harm’s way. For that, there’s Gus Corral. Action may as well be Gus Corral’s middle name. Gus can’t be a todo dar owing to the constraints of being a pinto on parole--a consequence out of Ramos' 2013 novel, Desperado: A Mile High Noir.

Readers who are meeting Gus for the first time owe it to themselves to go back and read Gus’ action-packed thriller of a debut, Desperado. Prison slows him but Gus is Gus, and nothing—not a horny cop, not a spiteful parole agent, not a pack of very bad hombres—will stop Gus from doing the right thing.

Irony defines the relationship between Luis Montez and Gus Corral. The pair identify with one another, the unintended consequences of an affinity between lawyer and client. Under different circumstances, Luis might have grown up puro street, Gus might have used his smarts to become an Esquire. Incipient humor lurks in the niches of barrios, as in the smile-inducing names of vatos like Shoe and Ice, the Mexican cop named Fulgenico Batista. A back story involving Gus’ parole agent,  Dirty Harry, and an unsavory bossman, rounds out Gus' independence. Then there’s the hard-ass Denver cop who invites Gus to her pad to discuss the case after hours.

Danger and action always form the center of attraction in a Manuel Ramos plot. A request from a client quickly elevates from quotidian lawyer stuff to murder, arson, police harassment, drug cartel assassins, and that ultimate show-down at the lake. In a wonderful bit of authorial elegance, Ramos starts My Bad with a prologue set at the moment of greatest lethality, shuts it down, then lets the story build to that opening narrative. It’s a lot of fun.

As the plot glides to that climax, Shoe, Ice, Gus, and Batista are four rubes ice fishing on a wind-swept lake, where they draw attention from a game warden who stops them in their tracks. It’s the pause that endangers. The bad guy with the gun from the prologue is up there on shore, with Luis in the thick of the action.

As with all of Manuel Ramos’ gems, the Montez series and the superb Moony’s Road to Hell, the  characters scintillate with interest with a depth unexpected when having so much fun. The dynamic between old and young undergirds this story to add a wonderful dimension to the novel, a kind of Sailing to Byzantium sense of hope, futility, and regret.

The bit players have a way of working their way to the spotlight, but they’ll inevitably take a back seat to Gus and Luis. These two are honest, good men, principled and notable for their positive ethos, while not being goody two-shoes about it. Age takes its toll with merciless inevitability, but broken men don't have to remain that way, what is passing or to come is in their own hands.

Aristotle might have pointed out had he been around today, all other things being only slightly unequal, good guys and their wits will always win out over bad guys with pistolas and malice in their hearts.

In a radio interview, Ramos summarizes what it means to be a “Chicano noir,” and in the phrase, captures the interest, and attraction, readers will find in My Bad: A Mile High Noir. This novel, the genre overall, Ramos tells the interviewer, brims with fatalistic cynicism in an angst-driven atmospheric tale. “The way chicanos are in general.”

Ask your independent bookseller to order it, or buy copies publisher-direct from Arte Publico Press. My Bad: A Mile High Noir is a perfect companion before the fireplace on a cold winter night, and a great holiday gift. Don't miss the soundtrack of 35 tracks listed in the afterword. Light the fire, spin the discs, treat yourself.

Veterans Day 2016
And Then I Became A Veteran

It was the kind of dream you don’t want to have, and when you’re in it, you want to wake up. But you can’t wake up, and there’s a reason for that.

My fiancé sits on the couch, eyeing the television set. Flag-draped coffins arriving at Andrews Air Force Base as they do every grim day. She turns to watch me on the rug, in the front leaning rest position, counting. One, two, three, four, five…

“What are you doing?”

“six, seven, push-ups, eight, nine… push-ups.”

“What are you doing that for?”

“nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five. Because I need to get in shape for when I’m drafted.”

I’ve been doing 25 twice a day since we moved in together. The first time she hears the answer she gets angry and stomps outside into the beautiful Santa Barbara summer. Today, she asks, just to see if I’ll change my answer. I don't and she doesn't get mad. She sits there and says with emphasis, “you’re not getting drafted.”

I roll over onto my bare back. The thick-pile white wool carpet feels soft as I stare up at the water-stained ceiling. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. In the distance, tambourines, shouting, and singing filter in from The Powerhouse Church of God in Christ across the empty lot behind the house.

I open my eyes, disoriented, as if from a dream, this July of 1968. In early September, a few days after our wedding, I will be drafted. Ordered to report before Thanksgiving, I manage to postpone induction until mid-January 1969.

At Ft. Ord, much to my chagrin, I learn the Army does four-count push-ups. One, two, three, ONE, Drill Sergeant! One, two, three, TWO, Drill Sergeant. One, two three…

Put on a happy face, Ft. Ord, February 1969

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