13 Feb 2014
The County I Lived In. By Boston Teran. Hightop Publishing.
The relationship between readers and writers is a lot like a romance. Some dates never get beyond the first paragraph. Then there’s one-night-stands with the short stories and novellas, fun but forgotten in the morning. If you’re lucky, you might find a couple of series to shack up with. They may not be exactly what you’re looking for, but they give you enough so you come back to them.
Then there’s the passionate affairs that last a memorable two or three days. Years later, you might meet again, and the experience will be deeper and richer. Or, you’ll wonder what you ever saw in him.
When my hair was browner and my eyes clearer, I fell for Boston Teran’s novel “Never Count Out the Dead.” It was an exciting crime novel with edgy action sequences and prose so punchy that it was almost abusive. The parting was inevitable — passions burn out rather than fade away, you know — but it left behind wonderful memories to keep me warm during the polar vortexes.
Fast-forward seven novels, and Teran drops back into my life when “The Country I Lived In” landed on my nightstand. But over the years, when I wasn’t paying attention, he had undergone some uncomfortable changes. He found politics and Cormac McCarthy, and the memorable roughhousing that left you pleasingly sore in the morning has turned abusive.
Some things didn’t change. The memorable descriptions are still there. The action sequences are still exciting, the gunplay is wrenching and the cat-and-mouse games vivid. But in between, the book has a few things on its mind and it wants you to pay attention and listen and not watch YouTube like you always do. It knows the truth and wants you to know it to: that America is sinful, that the country’s leaders have bloodstained hands, and that it’s going to take independent, indispensable men and women to fight the power.
In “Country” it’s John Rawbones Lourdes: ex-World War II vet, ex-Korean War vet, expert in languages, weapons, judo, and the “underbelly of existence. He wasn’t born on the 4th of July but in the year “defined as the birth of modern America,” which is close enough. A mix of Huck Finn and Ahab, which makes him a more literate version of Mike Hammer.
So Lourdes is home after the war and instead of joining the CIA like they wanted, he buys a Packard and hits the road, Kerouac-style. Stopping in Laredo, Texas, at the request of a war buddy, he finds the guy hanging in the back of his repair shop, wearing women’s underwear. He’s also arrested by CIA agents wanting to know what he’s doing there. It turns out that his friend was involved in smuggling mysterious documents to Mexico before he was interrogated and killed. They want the papers and suspect Lourdes knows where they are. Lourdes enlists the help of a well-connected family friend, who provides him with advice and directs him to another well-connected friend in Mexico who has a daughter to become the spunky sidekick and love interest.
In Mexico, he tracks his friends killers’ and meets men who are involved in nefarious doings on behalf of U.S. business interests and the government. There’s hints of oil money being used to finance operations. Shady men perform dirty deeds done dirt cheap. There’s also encounters with thugs, and drug traffickers, usually punctuated with bouts of the old ultra-violence and further commentary on the moral decay of the U.S.
Readers of McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men” have heard this song before. Between the title and the last lines (“What is America now?” . . “America now . . . is you.”) are laconic lectures instructing you that Lourdes’s struggle against the CIA baddies represents “the struggle between freedom and domination.” Keep your Sharpie at hand; you’ll want write “so true” at conclusions like “as the scale of man’s defeats and victories grew, so had the rationale to use any means to control the outcome of his willfulness”; and “fail here, and he could imagine an America sometime in the twenty-first century where people would little note or even remember what kind of atrocity this was against them”; and “if you want to join the modern world, you will have to enjoin the violence that exists in it.”
Is Teran right? Was there a difference between the America of World War II and the one after Korea? Or, as one of good guys put it: “I fought for America when it *was* America. And I fight still for *that* America. I serve still *that* America.”
Let’s waterboard the notion see what we get. Is the America that intervenes in other countries less moral than the one that empired into the Philippines after the Spanish-American War? Or pushed West against the Native-Americans? Or instituted slavery, the first multicultural cooperative project among African rules, Arab traders and white slaveholders? Or when the first colonists landed at Jamestown in the quest for gold? Is it really moral degradation, or simply the quest for money and power, something that’s been hardwired into the human DNA long before we started banging the rocks together.
Ironically, the evils Teran describes really did happen and are worthy of exposure, even censure. The CIA really did finance an animated version of “Animal Farm” (they helped translate “Dr. Zhivago” and launch George Plimpton’s The Paris Review as well). They really did help topple unfriendly governments in central America. They really did run the big operation Lourdes helps expose in “Country” that now has its own page on Wikipedia.
But these acts didn’t happen in a vacuum or can be chalked up to paranoia or love of control. The conflicts between capitalism and communism were fought on a battlefield that was not divided between good guys and bad guys. Not all communists and socialists were bad, although most of them were and all of them, even the recently departed and beloved Pete Seeger, advocated an evil ideology that has killed millions. Not all capitalists are evil, either, even though the unrestrained version can exploit people in equally horrible ways. The difference is that capitalists can be shamed into reform. Communists and socialists cannot. No capitalist ever compared breaking the bodies of dissidents to eggs.
If you’re not distressed with clumsily handled polemics, then you might appreciate “The County I Lived In.” For me, it was great in bed but dumb in the head.
I’m sorry. I can’t help myself. It’s not you, darling. It’s me.