El Camino del Rio, 2016
Author:Alan Cranis Comments Off on El Camino Del Rio
Jim Sanderson’s fiction is based mostly in the wide and varied settings of his home state of Texas. When the location ventured south to the Texas-Mexican border in his 1999 novel, EL CAMINO DEL RIO, elements of crime were inevitably added to his fiction as befitting this perpetually troubled area.
Now EL CAMINO DEL RIO has been reissued by Brash Books, so a new group of readers can discover this moody and generally fascinating work, and its protagonist, Dolph Martinez.
Border Patrol agent Dolph (short for Adolph) Martinez spends his days watching for illegal Mexican immigrants, drug smugglers and gun runners, and returning those he arrests across the river via El Camino Del Rio, the Texas Highway 170 that runs near the Rio Grande. One morning he finds a smuggler shot to death. But clutched in the dead smuggler’s hand is a vial of blue liquid. Four years earlier Dolph was given the same kind of vial by the mysterious Sister Quinn when he himself was shot and almost died. Sister Quinn, who is often accused of performing voodoo-like cuendera cures along with her Catholic practices, is a known sympathizer to the poor Mexicans who frequently resort to crime to simply survive. So Dolph begins his investigation of the murdered smuggler by questioning Sister Quinn.
Then Dolph is contacted by the Mexican government and, in collaboration with his own Patrol superiors, ordered to help capture Vincent Fuentes, a known revolutionary who runs guns into Mexico and exchanges them for drugs that he then brings into the U.S. to sell. Dolph is certain Sister Quinn is assisting Fuentes. But Dolph’s inquiries are interrupted when he meets and falls in love with Ariel Aves, the manager of a nearby tourist resort. Before long Dolph learns of the puzzling relationship Ariel has with Sister Quinn, and his investigation and search for Fuentes becomes more complicated and dangerous.
Sanderson populates his story with fascinating and deeply conflicted characters. Chief among them is Dolph, a half-Anglo, half-Mexican who has seemingly tossed away a promising career to work for the Border Patrol. While never less than dedicated to his law enforcement responsibilities, Dolph is also aware of the futility of his actions to stem the flow of crime from the area. Sister Quinn, as noted earlier, is a much an advocate for the criminal activities of the desperate Mexicans as she is a bacon of her Catholic faith. Then there is Pepper, who runs the dilapidated hotel where Dolph lives. Pepper swears he will spend the money and time needed to improve the hotel and attract more tourists, but ends up recruiting Mexican whores to get drunk with him in his hot tub. Finally there is Ariel, whose beauty and background are in stark contrast to the Border area, and who seems to keep a personal secret she is unwilling to share with anyone.
The Texas-Mexican border location is a much a character of the novel as any of those mentioned above. Sanderson constantly details how the vast expanses of dry desert land with its relentless heat effects the thoughts and actions of those who live and work there. The yearning for a bit of shade during daylight hours is a fitting metaphor for the longing of relief from the moral ambiguities haunting those who make their living in this crime-plagued area.
The novel is not without its faults. The switch to interior memories and reflections, mostly concerning Dolph, occur abruptly and often distract from the main narrative. Several such instances are saved by the intensity of Sanderson’s prose, but still seem to interrupt our desire to know what happens next.
The reason for this seemingly awkward structure might be due to Sanderson seeing the novel more as a character study and less a work of crime fiction — where plot is as essential as the characters. Still, the unsolved murder and search for Vincent Fuentes is enough to hold the attention of long-time crime fiction fans.
At the end of the day EL CAMINO DEL RIO is strongly recommended for the wonderfully sustained quality of its troubled location as well as its central characters. It’s a masterful example of how the two elements combine to create the unforgettable resonance that distinguishes the story. —Alan Cranis
Hill Country Property, San Antonio-Express News, Oct. 10, 2015
Sanderson goes back in time with ‘Hill Country Property’
By Clifford W. Hudder, For the Express-News
Published 12:00 am, Saturday, October 10, 2015
In Jim Sanderson’s powerful and lyrically evocative new novel “Hill Country Property,” Roger Jackson searches three states to find his estranged mother-in-law, Rebecca, only to be told that she has no intention of returning to the bedside of the dying husband she deserted one afternoon some 30 years before.
“‘No pleasure but meanness,’ you know,” says Rebecca — which rings a bell with Roger.
“I recognized the quote,” he says, “knew it was from something I had read but wasn’t sure what.”
Sanderson no doubt recognizes that his readership is sharper than his narrator and will identify the words of “The Misfit,” the dark antagonist of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
Although Rebecca, having deserted her husband to enjoy herself in the “new age; sex, movies and college” of the ’60s, self-describes as “The Villain,” “Misfit” probably suits her better.
Indeed, such a label places her right in line with most of the characters in “Hill Country Property,” and right up Sanderson’s alley.
“Hill Country Property” is the eighth novel — in addition to two story collections — from the prolific fiction writer and professor of English at Lamar University.
Readers will recognize Roger Jackson as the private detective from last year’s “Nothing to Lose,” a P.I. operating in, of all places, 21st-century Beaumont.
In that book we find Roger as the kind of sleuth that Denny’s management calls to shadow employees who dip from the till. Blood makes him “want to hurl.” He’s got education and a law degree behind him, but they are way behind him, as is his divorce and most of his hopes for having a healthy relationship with a woman he can stand.
A darkly humorous, swamp-infused murder mystery, “Nothing to Lose” sets Roger amidst a “fraternity of losers, hard luckers and social outcasts,” with a few indications dropped now and then of some other life that existed “before I started (screwing) up.”
That other life is the subject of the very different “Hill Country Property.”
Anchored in the mid 1980’s, but encompassing American cultural developments going back before World War II, the novel serves as Roger’s prequel/backstory, but is much more, standing on its own as a classic Texas family saga.
Struggling as he sees his marriage to his wife Victoria disintegrating, in this volume Roger digs into stories and remembrances — not to mention Thom McAnn shoe-boxes stuffed with letters and sealed with ancient rubber bands — to uncover the secret history of his extended relations-in-law.
Part of the novel’s lyrical tone and appeal comes from its three part, time-leaping structure: much of the detective story in this case concerns how the saga is brought to light and becomes told.
In addition, unlike “Nothing to Lose,” the dramatic conflicts here are closer to home than narcotics, homicide, or police procedure — and perhaps more satisfying and discomforting for that reason.
The characters haven’t gotten crosswise with the law, but with their own experiences and decisions. A young couple faces the specter of abortion. A wife wrestles over whether her marriage has been a mistake. The idealism of the ’60s runs headlong into the practical obstacles of keeping a job and raising a family.
Although masterful with character, this novel is particularly about place — and not just the Hill Country but also “the spaghetti-like maze of San Antonio,” Austin with its “bizarre but interesting people ... the kind you like to watch but not the kind you would want your kids to know,” Houston and more.
The geographical stops underscore the rich diversity of Sanderson’s Texas: readers encounter a state that refuses reduction to iconic cowboy postage stamp representation.
With “Go Set a Watchman” still in the top 10, it’s difficult to advise whether one should start with the lyrical “Hill Country Property” (the prequel written first) or “Nothing to Lose” (the sequel published first) or ... but, never mind. The novels stand on their own, and if you get a bit of loveable, noble loser Roger Jackson and his story-spinning voice in one volume, you’ll want to go and get more of him in the other.
Clifford Hudder is a Texas writer who teaches at Lone Star Community College. Reach him at Clifford.W.Hudder@lonestar.edu.
Texas Review of Books, Fall 2014
A Reasonable Amount of Trouble
Nothing to Lose
by Jim Sanderson
Fort Worth: TCU Press,2014.
224pp. $22.50 paper.
If Larry Brown and Raymond Chandler got together over a bottle of Wild Turkey, their literary baby would probably be something like Jim Sanderson. Mixing southern grit with old school noir, Sanderson’s newest novel, Nothing to Lose, has all the charm of a traditional mystery as well as the sharp prose and character development of more literary works. It is a swift and exciting book.
Narrator Roger Jackson lives in Beaumont, Texas, and makes a living taking pictures of men and women breaking the seventh commandment. He tries to jog in the morning, but he’s over fifty, drinks too much, and nobody likes that he wears shorts despite the hot and humid weather. He is a bit of a burnout but he is likable. When one man he recently photographed turns up dead, Jackson is caught up in a conspiracy involving drugs, sex, white trash, and a type of violence for which he is not accustomed.
Veteran mystery readers will enjoy how Sanderson riffs on the traditional characters: the femme fatale, the angry yet friendly cop, the client with secret motives, the rightfully upset love interest. But what made me keep turning the pages were the descriptions of Beaumont, a city behind the Pine Curtain and closer to Louisiana than Houston. You can sniff the “rotten-egg and sour smells. You can see all of these smells. They are gray with a tint of greenish-blue mixed in.” This is where Sanderson’s writing really shines. I’ve never been to Beaumont, but I feel like I have. Sanderson elegantly paints not just how the city looks and smells, but he gives insight into the political and economic environment of the area that grounds the reader into place. Passages describing roads and neighborhoods felt so honest and real that they reminded me of Turgenev. Sanderson breaks down how Hurricane Rita, segregation, old Dutch settlers, oil booms, and oil busts have influenced the community, its neighbors, and its outskirts.
Throughout the novel, the narration has a whiskey flavored twang to it that might turn off a few but will excite others. Lines like, “Her face had the blank look of newly spayed dog” will either make you chuckle or sneer. Jackson is not some super tough-guy investigator such as Mike Hammer or Jack Reacher. Jackson rather sit in a dark saloon (Nothing to Lose is the name of his favorite bar), sipping on a cold beer than beating information out of a suspect. Jackson’s borderline alcoholism puts him in that strange category of private investigators such as James Crumley’s C.W. Sughrue and The Dude from The Big Lebowski. Along the way, Jackson gets paired up with an aging dancer named Lee and a tough black man named D. Wayne. That’s D. Wayne, not Dwayne. And this is my one problem with the novel. It isn’t that D. Wayne isn’t well written, it is just the opposite. D.Wayne is almost too assertive, too active. Many literary detectives have memorable supporting characters (Mouse in Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins mysteries or Hawk in the Spenser series come to mind), but they are usually used to help the protagonist, not the other way around. There are times when Jackson gets a little lost in D.Wayne’s shadow and looks passive in comparison. Even D.Wayne has his own supporting character, an even bigger and tougher black man who goes by the nickname of Buttermilk. Luckily, Sanderson never lets the bottom drop out, and he keeps the tension taut.
All of the characters are in search of a mysterious lowlife and criminal named Jewel, the main suspect in the homicide. Sanderson keeps Jewel in the shadows which creates a good amount of suspense, but I was honestly more interested in Jackson’s relationships with Texas. Before Jackson can put all the clues together, he gets his ribs cracked, his fingers broken, and witnesses another man have his head blown clean off. Though some writers would run with this, make more mayhem, make everything hardboiled, Sanderson allows the reader to get comfy with the voice of everyman Jackson first, so when the carnage comes on stage it carries real consequence. Nothing to Lose is not a cozy little mystery but a realist work with strong shades of grey in all of the characters.
Anti-hero Roger Jackson thinks of Beaumont as a place that “aches but fails to be a real city” and of himself as someone who just “skirt[s] around the edges of being wise,” because he associates his identity with the town. Sanderson’s characters are products and reflections of environment. And it makes for excellent writing. Ultimately, Nothing to Lose will please almost everyone. It is a high concept mystery with thrills and humor. With any luck Mr. Sanderson will write more Roger Jackson mysteries.O
William Jensen is the editor of Southwestern American Literature and Texas Books in Review. His fiction has appeared in New Plains Review, The Texas Review, and other literary journals
Texas Books in Review | Spring 2014
Git ‘R’ Done
by Jim Sanderson
Beaumont, Texas: Lamar University Press, 2013.156 pp. $16.95 paper.
In the Grit Lit genre, Jim Sanderson is as gritty as they come. His eleventh book is peopled with whores, murderers, corrupt bankers, sleazy lawyers, and other misfits whose lives have been irreparably damaged by hardships and cruelties that seem to be the properties of a malevolent world. What makes this collection of eight stories work is their believability. Sanderson’s world is as credible as the harsh worlds drawn by Ron Rash, William Gay, and Larry Brown. He creates a habitat where we can well imagine residing; perhaps at various times we have. His characters inspire in us what Aristotle said were the requisite emotions of tragedy: pity and fear. That is to say, again in good old Aristotelian fashion, we delight in these stories because we learn from them.
Sanderson’s protagonists are complex. While they commit evil acts, they often long for a better world in which they and others act humanely. They want to be better people—better fathers, husbands, friends, lovers. The evil in which they are caught up is not banal in the sense that Hannah Arendt defined the term in her study of Eichmann. They are not blindly following orders, mindless of their cruelty. Rather, they are trapped in situations that demand retaliation. The only apparent alternative is one’s destruction at the hands of those whose ruthless behavior is, for the most part, explicable.
The first story, “Comanchería,” set in nineteenth-century Texas, opens with a gruesome scene in which a boy, Otto, witnesses the slaughter of his little sister by a Comanche. The violence escalates: more gory killings and mutilations, all of which, despite their horror, make sense. Of course Comanches brutalized by white settlers will retaliate; of course the Army will enter the Comanche settlement and slaughter men, women, and children; and of course a white man leaps at the opportunity to profit from this blood-bath when he finds living among the band of Comanches a black man whom the captor appraises “a nigger worth $800.” Otto, the young protagonist who suffers both physical and emotional trauma, discovers that he cannot trust words because he cannot trust those who speak them. This is not a Derridean evaluation of linguistic meaning as indeterminate; it is rather a view that the language people speak places no sensible evaluation on human worth. Consequently, Otto cannot live among people whose language leads only to more slaughter. He therefore leaves his family in search of a life he cannot name (because language is meaningless) or even envision.
Although “Comanchería” is the most disturbingly violent story, others in this collection present their share of terror. Consider the landscape of “Playing Scared”: “Besides whores, we had more murders per capita than anyplace else in the country. We even topped drug smuggling Miami. Like the other murders, Danny Fowler’s killing had a lot to do with the whores and the oil boom.” Danny is the victim of a hate crime. This story has a distinctive prophetic ring not only because of its contemporary relevance (remember Matthew Shepard), but because of the way the narrator imagines the effects of violence on the killers: “they’ve probably got grown children, too, and I bet those two men can’t stop thinking they gave their grown kids that thing that made them murder Danny Fowler.” This realization also demoralizes the narrator, a divorced father who deplores the paucity of what he believes he has bequeathed to his children: “All I am, all I gave my children, is scared.” What parent doesn’t quiver at such an admission?
We see in several overlapping stories the devolution of Dee Price, a woman who in her twenties was “teeth-itching good looking.” By the time she’s thirty-six, she’s made the rounds as a whore, an entrepreneur of shady operations, a badly disfigured murderess, a victim of cancer that results in a mastectomy (she shows the scars to casual acquaintances), and finally an old woman so dried up by West Texas heat that she is “leathery [and] extra skinny.” What has happened to Dee happens to virtually every character in these stories. They are victimizers and victims, people straining for life and finally reduced to reptilian slough.
All these characters can hope for is what Roger, in “Massage Therapy,” clings to in living with a prostitute who loves him but admits that eventually “I’ll leave because I’ll just run out of what I can do here.” He takes the little he can get in the way of love and security, knowing that both are “temporary and fragile” at best.
Sanderson writes unflinchingly of heartache, with understanding and compassion for his characters. This is a worthy addition to a reader’s collection of serious literary fiction.
Mark Sibley-Jones teaches English at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities. His novel, By the Red Glare, will be published by University of South Carolina Press this summer.
Joe O'Connell, San Antonio Express and New, 1/29/2012
Jim Sanderson grew up in San Antonio dreaming of escape. Today he's on the short list of accomplished authors who most effectively evoke the city's essence.
Joe O'Connell, Austin American Statesman, 11/14/2010
Years later, after a string of failed careers and failed relationships for them both, Harry admits to Greg, "The best thing we almost ever did was to complete that pass."
That line is the heart of Sanderson's loosely connected but clearly formed story collection. This is a world of almosts. Think of John Updike's character Rabbit transplanted to Texas. Add a lot of beer and regret. Top with a heavy dose of the American Dream gone wrong. Sanderson's Texas is wide-open spaces with story settings ranging from Alpine to Austin to Beaumont. It's a land full of possibilities just out of reach, both emotionally and financially.
Dale Walker, Dallas Morning News, 6/5/04
Mr. Sanderson is adept at characterization, not easy in first-person fiction, and at painting in, rather than troweling on, background history. In his new novel, he resuscitates a somewhat obscure chapter in post-Civil War Texas, the final skirmishes in the long "war" against the charming mayor and cattle rustling jefe of Matamoros, Juan Nepomuceno "Cheno" Cortina. At Rip Ford's urging, Nevin joins a force of Rangers led by the indomitable Leander H. McNelly and becomes a triple-agent, spying for Ford, Captain Richard King of the vast Santa Gertrudis Ranch – and for Cortina himself.
Fred Bonavita, San Antonio Express-News, 5/9/04
Subtitled "A Novel of Texas," Sanderson combines fiction and history so deftly that readers are treated to a healthy dose of the people, struggles and violence that forever etched that era in the lore of the state, plus a first-rate account of one man's efforts to come to terms with himself in this time of turmoil.
Tom Pilkington, The Dallas Morning News, 09/08/2002
By its nature, law enforcement is often a morally ambiguous profession, and La Mordida, through Dolph's reflections, explores some of the dark corners. It's not a philosophical novel, but it raises philosophical questions.
What keeps the pages turning, however, is the fact that La Mordida is consistently readable and entertaining. Mr. Sanderson is a gifted prose stylist, and his descriptions of the Chihuahuan desert of West Texas are vivid and evocative.
The author's deft management of an extensive cast of characters and an intricate plot is wholly admirable. A few of the twists and turns are predictable, but most are not. And while La Mordida ends on a note of closure, Mr. Sanderson has left the door ajar for another sequel in the ongoing saga of Dolph Martinez. Stay tuned.
Fred Bonavita, San Antonio Express-News, 8/11/2002
Sanderson’s writing as improved exponentially with each book. His love for the border and its inhabitants is unmistakable, and there are enough stories in that corner of Texas to fill several more novels. He and other authors have done for the Big Bend what Tony Hillerman and others have done for the Four Corners.
T.R. Hull, Tucson Weekly, July 20-26, 2000
"Sanderson's plot, however, as in all great political thrillers--e.g., John Le Carréé, Graham Greene--is not even close to what is most interesting about Safe Delivery.
What lifts this novel high above the usual genre swill is the point of view. Like James Joyce, Sanderson takes us into the minds of the three principals--we know what each thinks about the other, we know their struggles with faith and trust and moral loss as intimately as we know our own."
Clay Reynolds, Texas Observer, 7/21/ 2000
"Sanderson’s knowledge of San Antonio, and the racial, social, and economic tensions under which the city sags and moans into the twenty-first century, is incisive. But beneath the veneer of progress and the shiny glass and steel, faux stonework, and labyrinthine freeway systems, his Alamo City characters still express through their habits and comments their profound love of the old San Antonio that longtime citizens so fondly remember"
Marilyn Stasio, New York Times Book Review Oct. 11, 1998
“This ain't the real U.S.A.” a sheriff's deputy says in Jim Sanderson's lean and lyrical first novel . . . “.This is the border.” 'More precisely, it's the West Texas border around Big Bend, a region that Sanderson renders in shifting tones of love and loathing as mercurial as lightningin the desert. “Loneliness, isolation and weirdness were what was not to like about this place,” says Dolph Martinez, a Border Patrol agent whose basic decency is constantly tried but never entirely snuffed out by his violent encounters with drug runners, arms smugglers and Mexican border jumpers. A supersmuggler wanted on both sides of the divide takes forever to make his appearance and wrapup the plot, but there are plenty of strong, quirky characaters to pass the time with. On New Year's Eve, these heroes, whores and hell raisers all show up for a big party at Tommy'sLajitas Trading Post that brings the stars out over this cold, lonesome desert.
Fred Bonavita, San Antonio Express and News, 11/28/98
Jim Sanderson's new work, "El Camino del Rio," adds to the mystique of the area with a fresh tale of a U.S. Border Patrol agent working in this isolated corner of the world, and he peoples it with an interesting assortment of characters of the type we have come to associate with the harsh life in the Terlingua-Lajitas-Presidio corner of the state.
Tom Pilkington, Dallas Morning news, 10/04/98
Nothing in El Camino del Rio evolves quite as the reader expects. There is a romantic subplot, for example, that terminates surprisingly (though realistically). Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of the story is the resolution of the narrator's search for identity. Dolph finally comes to terms with who he is and what the land has made him, and with the future he faces, but it is far from a triumphant resolution.
El Camino del Rio is thought-provoking. Dolph's thoroughly ambiguous destiny has been shaped by a place he both loves and hates. We are all products of our natural and cultural environments, but rarely in recent fiction has the point been made so compellingly.
Tom Pilkington is University Scholar at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas. His new book, State of Mind, will be published later this year.
Paul Skenazy, Washington Post, July 19, 1998
Sanderson makes the gritty, thankless landscape of the border come alive, from the relentless heat to the failed hopes. The weary citizens assume a battered dignity in their dusty defeat. The story itself topples from its own complication at times, and there's some dangling plot material that seems to belong to another tale: bravado leering at women's bodies, a couple of senseless scenes of religious self-flagellation. But Martinez's life story is smoothly delivered. His tangled struggle between personal loyalty and duty gives the novel a solid substructure, and his emerging hope for self-redemption make him a convincing, sympathetic guide to the tangled miseries of this desert world.