No Country for
Old Middle-Aged Men
Ray Lamar was a drug enforcer, a killer, but ten years ago it went bad, with the Juarez cartel, a rival to his boss, killing his wife and severely damaging his son in a hit-and-run. Ray had left, feeling unable to care for his son, but now he is back, and dreaming of living a legitimate life he has taken on one last job from his old gangster employer, Memo.
Ray had wanted this for so long and never known how to do it, something so simple, a visit to see his son, a new life away from the violence of the last ten years.
He wants the payoff from this to tide him over until he can get established, and go legit. The job is supposed to be simple, a heist, yank some H from a truck, at least that was what he was told, but Ray smells a rat. There is more to this assignment than he was told. Blood is spilled and everything goes to hell from there.
[While reading the book, I kept seeing the face of Brooklyn-born Esai Morales as Ray]
Ray’s cousin, Tomas Herrera, had been the sheriff of Coronado, NM. But before Ray left, while he was still trying to find and punish the cartel people who had taken out his family, he asked Tomas to look into a local cartel employee, a woman. She wound up dead. Tomas wound up an ex-sheriff. That’s a lot to take, even if Tomas always did love and admire his older cousin. How Tom and Ray deal with each other is one of the many fine elements in this excellent novel.
[I see the face of Demian Bichir for Tom]
When Tomas was kicked out of office, he was replaced with a young deputy, a woman he had trained, and liked, Edna Kelly. The mayor wants her to keep Tom away from any sort of police-related activities, but the guy knows his stuff, and she could use the help. That they might have at one point been more than friends adds a level of tension, even though they have moved on.
The baddie in town is Dario Campo. He’s the guy who owns a bar in town that does not seem to do a lot of business, but is, somehow, always open. Dario arranges for the transportation of imported product. It is his transport that Ray was sent to heist. Dario is no simple black hat. There is another deep-background baddie, but we will not address him here.
There are enough supporting players to matter but the unheralded co-star is the town of Coronado, New Mexico. In the same way that Jennifer Haigh writes stories that tell the tale of Bakerton, PA (See Baker Towers and News from Heaven: The Bakerton Stories), Waite writes about the slow death of a town. The oil that lit up the local economy years back has been pumped. We see yet another local well lay off it’s entire crew. The mayor struggles to keep the town from disintegrating entirely, desperate to keep bad news quiet, much as Mayor Vaughn urged Chief Brody to keep things on the down-low on Amity Island back in the 70s. How many oil towns in the southwest have seen their flames go out as the petro was drained and replaced with a whole lotta nuthin’. It is not just the lives of the main characters that are at stake.
I am at a decided disadvantage here as TCB is my introduction to Waite. Those with exposure to his earlier works will be better able to comment on his actual oeuvre. I gather this one has a lot in common with his last one, but you will have to check other reviewers for consideration of the changes, or consistencies from one book to the next. But we do know that Waite admires some writers and works in particular. He said in a 2011 interview with Powells’, I really like Cormac McCarthy though I think it might show too much in my writing. He mentions Blood Meridien as one of his favorite five books. So we can look for the town to get painted red, and it ain’t Christmas. Another item that popped to mind was the film There Will Be Blood. It has the obvious relevance of considerable violence in the West, although TWWB had much more to do with oil. In There will be Blood, Daniel Plainview’s need for family is foiled when his adopted son, deaf, cannot hear and learn from him. In The Carrion Birds, Ray, who desperately wants to have a normal life after having wandered in the desert for many years, is faced with a son who was damaged as a child and can neither speak no hear. There will be no happy family ending for him. Unlike Plainview, our guy does not see himself as god-like, but his need for vengeance resonates with Plainview’s.
There is a lot in here about greed, revenge and hoping for that which lies beyond reach. In addition to Ray’s dream, Tom would like to be sheriff again. And they are not alone in their unlikely desires. We can count on the baddies for greed, and Ray will provides all the revenge we will ever need, both ten years in the past and in the today of the story. Will justice ever be enforced? Can it be? What constitutes justice anyway?
On finishing this book, I had a feeling that it was somehow Shakespearean, more than a western, more than a noir, but had substance that I was feeling, but was unable to articulate. I claim no special knowledge of Shakespeare. Like most of us, I have seen many plays and films, and have read many books that either were Willy’s original plays or updated interpretations, but my familiarity is non-academic, of the garden-variety sort. So, I did what anyone in 2013 facing a shortage of knowledge might do, I headed for my internet machine to see what I could see. What I came up with was an ancient (100 yrs old more or less) text by an Oxford don that goes into the details of what it is that constititutes Shakespearean tragedy. I began listing elements, criteria and hoped to be able to come to a firm conclusion based on those. The result? Ah, there’s the rub. While many of the elements do fit nicely into this novel, there are others that have to be squeezed in like a stepsister foot into a glass slipper. I am including that list here, but while I tucked it under the cover of a spoiler notice in Goodreads, recognizing that it is a sidetrip not everyone will want to take, I am still rookie enough not to have mastered that in WordPress. So be forewarned. Elements within the red text that follows can be considered potentially spoilerish
In order to consider whether the story does or does not conform, one must look at elements that will give far too much away. The book in question is Shakespearean Tragedy – Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lean and Macbethby one A.C. Bradley, an erstwhile professor of poetry at Oxford. The book is available for free thanks to the Gutenberg project. Clicking on the above title will take you there.
1 – it is pre-eminently the story of one person, the ‘hero,’
Check – this is Ray’s story, and while others figure in significantly, primarily Tom, it remains Ray’s story
2 – The story leads up to, and includes, the death of the hero – check
3 – The suffering and calamity are, moreover, exceptional – check
Wife killed, child damaged for life, father tortured and killed
4 – exceptional suffering and calamity, then, affecting the hero, and—we must now add—generally extending far and wide beyond him, so as to make the whole scene a scene of woe – check – there is a significant body count
5 – They befall a conspicuous person. Here we hit a soft spot. Ray has been away for ten years, so does not quality as locally conspicuous, although everyone there seems to know him from his earlier time in the town
6 – actions beget others, and these others beget others again, until this series of inter-connected deeds leads by an apparently inevitable sequence to a catastrophe – check – the calamities that befall are a product of human action, not the heavy hand of fate or the almighty
7 – the conflict may quite naturally be conceived as lying between two persons, of whom the hero is one; or, more fully, as lying between two parties or groups, in one of which the hero is the leading figure – well duh-uh, conflict assumes opposing parties
8 – here is an outward conflict of persons and groups, there is also a conflict of forces in the hero’s soul – check – Ray enters the scene hoping that he can ultimately walk away from the criminal life, but struggles to decide whether to remain and seek vengeance or leave
9 – They are exceptional beings – in Ray’s case one might argue that his skill in combat, his history as a special forces soldier, is what raises him above the ordinary, but in Shakespeare’s tragedies his primary tragic character was a political leader, a royal, someone very clearly in the public eye, so elevating Ray to that level is a significant stretch – no check
However, the royal/leader character represents in a way the potential demise of an entire comunity, embodies that in fact. While Ray lacks that sort of societal standing, the town is, in fact endangered by his actions. Those actions may be only a part of the longer demise of the community, but that his actions tie in to the town’s peril might (in a sneaky way) raise Ray up a notch into that “Exceptional being” category, just barely, with a bit of wishful thinking.
10 – In the circumstances where we see the hero placed, his tragic trait, which is also his greatness, is fatal to him – check – his skill in combat, that which makes him special, also allows him to seek large scale vengeance, which forces the authorities to come after him
11 – the Elizabethan drama was almost wholly secular – check
There is no meaningful reference to god as an actor here
Oh, and Willy the Shake tragedies take place in five acts. Ditto TCB, which is spread over five chapters.
One could go on in this vein for some time, but I will spare you further such contemplations. Suffice it to say that, with some reluctance, I am persuaded that Ray’s journey qualifies as of the Shakespearean tragic sort. I encourage you to check Bradley’s very interesting free book, if the subject pulls you.
The title, The Carrion Birds, seems quite well suited to the story. It is the town that is dying and sundry characters have been picking at the likely corpse for some time. Drug dealers are prime among these, but they are not the only ones. Another view might be that carrion birds are harbingers of death
The thought of death still circling him, as it always did, as it always did, high up like a vulture on the wind.
While it is tempting to settle on this, it is worth bearing in mind that this book was published in the UK under the title Dead if I Don’t. I do not know why this change was made, and whether it was the author’s idea or not, but I think the newer title is definitely a better fit.
Bottom line, this is a powerful read, with engaging characters, in all shades of gray, complicated matters under consideration, and a forward momentum that will keep you turning the pages. Dig in.
After the review was posted, Urban sent a note of thanks. I followed up with some questions, and the author very graciously offered thoughtful responses. He has OK’d the use of his words here. I inquired into why the title was changed from the UK version.
The title change was a decision I made after it was pointed out to me that all of the Sookie Stackhouse books by Charlaine Harris start off with “Dead.” So, since my book was quite a bit different from those I wanted something different for a title. The Carrion Birds title was the pick that I went with here in the US.
I asked if I was barking up the wrong tree re the whole Shakespeare thing:
To be truthful I hadn’t thought about the Shakespeare connection until you brought it up. But that’s not to say it isn’t a large part of The Carrion Birds. The origins for much of what I write are usually a bit chaotic and hard to place. My writing just kind of “pops to mind” for lack of a better term. And it’s only after reflecting a bit on it that I start to get a feel for the origins.
I remembered re-reading Macbeth in the course of a night during a break I was taking from the novel. I was a little out of it and I was trying to find a way back into The Carrion Birds and something in there must have clicked for me. I had also been reading James Dickey’s To the White Sea and there is a definite sense of tragedy (or tragic karma depending on how you look at it) in that book. Plus a very early draft of TCB dealt with a sort of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid kind of feel. All that paying for your sins stuff. Which plays pretty well in TCB.
I should also say that a lot of my education in college came down to how many Shakespeare lit classes I could take, as well as all the electives I could fit in with film classes on Hitchcock. I like to say that Graham Greene has always been the biggest influence on how I put a novel together, but thinking on it now I’m starting to realize when I first came to the daunting task of putting a large work together, I fell back on my knowledge of plays and films.
With this in mind I’m arguing for Ray as a sort of “exceptional being.” He’s the son of one of the richest, former oilmen in the valley and in that way he is a sort of royal in the small scale of this community. So perhaps I was channeling some Shakespeare after all.
I asked if had any thoughts on casting:
As for casting, that’s one loaded question for me. I like your choices. Definitely two actors I would get behind in a heartbeat. But personally I try not to think on it too much. I worry I might start seeing those faces when I jump in on some bit of writing. And it might change how I lay out my characters or what decisions or actions I want them to accomplish. It’s just better for me if I don’t get too close with them. Who knows when I’ll have to kill them off…
Had he considered leaving Memo to his dark devices instead of the fate he wrote for him?
He’s such a bastard of a character. I feel like left to his own devices he would have ended up the way he does no matter what happens. So I guess I could have let him be, but what fun would that have been?
Finally, what’s coming up?
I try to get in at least five pages a day on the next project. And that project being a sequel to my first novel, The Terror of Living, makes the stress just that much higher. I loved my first novel and to be working on a sequel to it is exciting but also horrifying. I want what I’m writing now to outdistance what I’ve written before. I want each new project to be better than the last and so coming back to these characters I guess I just want to do them justice in the most badass way I can.
Thanks so much to Urban for offering real quantities of his time, and I guess I really should get cracking on his prior novel.
2011 interview with the author – from Powell’s
Author’s Facebook site
A free short story by the author on Simon and Schuster’s site
The Shakespearean lectures book noted in the review