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Coyote Songs by Gabino Iglesias4 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsA boy is learning from his father how to fish for alligator gar along the Rio Grande. In a split second, this tranquil scene will be upended in a shocking act of violence so senseless and random that the only possible effect it can have is a downward spiral into greater violence, feeding into a cycle that those in power seem only to want to perpetuate.

I haven’t spent much time down at the US-Mexican border myself, despite having lived in Texas for decades. But on the occasions I have been down there, it hasn’t been hard to see evidence of the way la frontera has become such a powder keg. The borderlands are a law unto their own. Coyote Songs, the third novel by Austin-based writer Gabino Iglesias, is a mosaic narrative that devotes most of its focus to people caught in a perpetual loop of border violence. Trapped between uncontrollable criminal exploitation on one side, and a hostile political environment devoid of even a consideration of human rights on the other, are people who simply want to protect and find a better life for their families. It’s horrendous how the hostility aimed at migrants is so misdirected, when you consider how desperately unsafe someone’s home has to become before they’re willing to risk everything fleeing it. Much easier, I suppose, to target the people who are already vulnerable than do anything meaningful to address the problems that made them so vulnerable in the first place.

Described as a “barrio noir,” Coyote Songs blends crime drama, timely political commentary, and both supernatural and body horror to produce an unflinching indictment of a humanitarian crisis. Its characters have all been pushed, in one way or another, to the ends of their ropes. But the book doesn’t necessarily paint them as heroes making a last stand either. In some cases they’ve become more evil than the system they believe they’re fighting. Desperation does awful things. The book offers us horrors both literal and symbolic, and all of them tragic.

We meet a teen boy seeking revenge for a murder, who finds himself pulled into an ill-advised plot to take out a ring of child traffickers. We meet a man called the Coyote, one of the few who smuggles people across the border and does not simply abandon them to a horrible death. Far from the border, in Austin, a performance artist named Alma, unaware of how far she’s sliding into psychosis, plans an event that will (to put it mildly) be long remembered. And then there are the denizens of the supernatural world, such as Inmaculada, La Bruja, the vengeful spirit of a mother who died, along with her family and dozens of others, in the back of a truck abandoned in the desert. And there is another mother, whose body plays host not to a fetus, but some unimaginable monstrosity that crawls from her body each night and wreaks death throughout her village, until she musters up what strength she can to take action to stop it.

These characters live in a world where life is harsh, consumed by poverty, chaotic and short, where their fates are not theirs to determine. Alma is the exception, on a mission to shock those living in the world of privilege and comfort with the violent realities they’re lucky enough be unaware of. An alternate title for this book could easily have been There Will Be Blood, because a lot of it gets spilled. But for all of the novel’s ruthless portrayal of horrors both human and inhuman, Gabino Iglesias writes with elegance and compassion. His prose is sometimes just plain heartbreaking, powerful in its observations of the tiniest details that make up the emotional life of a person. He also frequently switches from English to Spanish to a kind of colloquial Spanglish, without bothering to translate. Remarkably, this disrupts the narrative very little for non-bilingual readers, as it’s easy to work out from the context what’s being said. There were a few chapters where I resorted to Google Translate to fill in some passages I was especially curious about, but mostly I didn’t feel the need. There’s an authenticity to the technique, though I admit it’s not the sort of thing too many writers could pull off.

Coyote Songs isn’t a book the more sensitive among you will find easy to stomach. But I think it shouldn’t go overlooked. It employs both realism and the trappings of genre and folklore, and the impact has to be felt to be believed. For all its vengeful ghosts and sanctified assassins, there’s a humanity here that only the best storytelling, literary or not, can achieve.