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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Dove Season, by Johnny Shaw ($13.95)

If Cormac McCarthy had a sense of humor, he'd be Johnny Shaw. Like "The Border Trilogy," this is a very American mystery, and not just a North American one. The action in this book takes place on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border. The twin, but not identical, towns of Mexicali and Calexico straddle the border, one on each side. Traffic -- tourist and illegal -- wends its way back and forth between the towns, the former mostly by day and the latter mostly by night. If a young man grows up in California's Imperial Valley, chances are at one point or another he'll have crossed over to the Mexican side, home to several nasty delights and unregulated forbidden fruits. Besides Calexico, the Imperial Valley is populated by several small communities, mostly centered around the agricultural industry.

And that's where we find Jimmy Veeder, wayward son of Jack Veeder. Back in the Imperial Valley, just before the beginning of dove season.

Dove season once attracted movie stars from Hollywood. They'd come over, get drunk, shoot some doves, and pretend to be rugged outdoorsmen. Nowadays hunters still head to the fields, get drunk, shoot some doves, and play rugged outdoorsmen, although they may shine with lesser wattage than Hollywood movie stars.

Everything Jimmy ran away from as a young man is now again in place to haunt or challenge him. But this time Jack is terminally ill and in a care facility, and Jimmy has returned after a 12-year absence to be with him. Jack has a last wish: Find Yolanda. Yolanda, the hooker.

Using his dilapidated childhood home as a base, Jimmy seeks the help of his old buddy, Bobby Maves, to find Yolanda. Bobby grins his way through life. In his more sober moments, he's a farmer and an absentee father. Despite the years between meetings, Jimmy finds Bobby to be pretty much as he left him, a two-fisted party boy and scuffler. In fact, Jimmy and Bobby spend a lot of the book getting drunk and counting bruises.

In order to find Yolanda, Jimmy must reconnect with another person from his youth. Years ago, the older Jimmy read stories to the younger Tómas in his grandfather's bar across the street from Jimmy's home. Tómas now is a successful businessman, but his businesses are illegal on this side of the border and tolerated on the other.

Shaw does a great job of describing the conditions of a Mexico that depends on the U.S. for both its extralegal and illegal revenue. He does an equally skillful job with the California community. Everyone knows everyone else in a small place, and it doesn't matter if someone has been gone for twelve years either. Some secrets are kept better than others, but eventually some of those come to light, too. Will Jimmy survive the exposure of his family's secrets?

Dove Season is an entertaining mix of humor and grit. It's dark and violent, funny and outrageous, heart-warming and heart-rending. In a time when a lot of books are told in prologues, flashbacks and flashforwards, Shaw has chosen a straightforward path and it suits his story impeccably. He pays as much attention to the details as to the broader tale. In the end, just like dove season, everything changes but everything remains the same.

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