Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Trouble on the Border

This is an excellent novel set in the Imperial Valley on the border between California and Mexico. Jimmy Veeder, the main protagonist, grew up there but put the Valley in his rearview mirror years ago and has never looked back. Since then, he's been drifting from one place and one job to another, rootless and with no real ambition beyond taking each day as it comes. But then Jimmy learns that his father, Big Jack Veeder, is dying of cancer and Jimmy returns home to be with his father and to offer what comfort he can during Big Jack's last days on earth.

On arriving, Jimmy finds that his father's house has fallen into disrepair, although a relative is tending to the farm fields that belong to Big Jack. Father and son have a heartfelt reunion, and the principal bond between them is humor. But Big Jack surprises Jimmy with a strange request: he wants Jimmy to bring him a prostitute named Yolanda that Big Jack apparently knew some years ago. Big Jack has no idea where Yolanda might be found, except that she's probably across the border in the town of Mexicali. Big Jack does not explain the reason behind the request, and Jimmy simply assumes that his father is looking for one last night of happiness with a woman whose company he had once enjoyed.

Jimmy recruits his childhood friend and drinking buddy, Bobby Maves, and together they cross the border into the seedy, depressing and dangerous world of Mexicali. From that point the story moves back and forth across the border and involves a variety of characters all of whom Shaw renders vividly. Along the way, Jimmy Veeder will discover that there's much he never knew about his father and about himself.

There are many things to recommend about this book, including the story and the characters. But Shaw perhaps excels most of all in his description of the Imperial Valley, which becomes a central character in and of itself. The subtitle of the book is "A Jimmy Veeder Fiasco," but while Jimmy's somewhat delayed journey to adulthood might involve any number of fiascos, his story is anything but. Johnny Shaw has created here a setting and a group of characters that will linger a long time in the memory of those who join in Jimmy Veeder's quest.

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