Postmodern novelist REYoung (Unbabbling, 1997) returns with a madcap, shaggy dog tale set along the U.S.–Mexico border.
Throw Under the Volcano into a blender with Cat’s Cradle, Finnegans Wake, Pedro Páramo, and the collected works of Charles Bowden, and you have something approaching REYoung’s latest. His borderland is a Trump-ian dream, cleaved by a wall 20 feet tall: “Black, impassive, impassable, it stretched into infinity in the east and in the west.” Yet the desert is an odd thing here, with waist-high snowdrifts in the place of sand dunes, crisscrossed as ever by the Border Patrol, smugglers, and other intruders in the silence of the wasteland. One of the more loquacious of them is Margarito, tutor to an odd character named the Snowman, who is in this hot yet snowy country for reasons that seem to have something to do with a movie directed by a Sam Peckinpah reincarnation named Boone Weller. Is Snowman really a method actor named Billy, a scandal back in Hollywood hot on his heels, or is he someone else, or is the whole shebang a grand and glorious hallucination? Judging by some of the characters’ diets—one, Young writes, possessed of bloodshot eyes “infused with hydrocarbons, THC, methamphetamine, nicotine, malt liquor, Ice”—the possibilities for the last are quite real. And as for the capitalized Ice, well, there’s a reason the desert is white and that the character is named Snowman. Young exults in language, sometimes to the point of indiscipline; the storyline, opaque to begin with, is often buried in sheer verbiage. Often he hits on some nicely philosophical aperçus and mots justes—“Does God feel sorrow and remorse for all the little tortures he she it has devised for us…?” “everyone was rolling up joints, spliffs, fucking industrial-sized marijuana smokestacks, everybody laughing and talking manic stoned bullshit”—but just as often the yarn staggers under the weight of its own cleverness.
There are spasms of brilliance, but too much of this book reads like a private joke—good if you’re in on it, less good if not.