The Jaguar’s Chil­dren

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - — Adele Oliveira

by John Vail­lant, Houghton Mif­flin Har­court, 280 pages

The Jaguar’s Chil­dren be­gins in text-speak: no punc­tu­a­tion or cap­i­tal­iza­tion, just words and dashes strung to­gether in a des­per­ate yet apolo­getic cry for help. The text is sent from in­side a tanker truck some­where near the U.S./Mex­ico bor­der. Héc­tor is us­ing his friend César’s phone to send mes­sages to An­niMac, who has the sole Amer­i­can num­ber in the phone’s con­tacts. The truck is bro­ken down, the coy­otes are gone, and 15 peo­ple are breath­ing the fetid air in­side the tank, sit­ting in a few inches of wa­ter, their backs pressed against a film of al­gae grow­ing on the curved metal walls. The Jaguar’s Chil­dren is John Vail­lant’s first novel. His non­fic­tion books, The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Sur­vival and The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Mad­ness, and Greed , both ex­am­ine the clash of hu­man­ity with the nat­u­ral world.

As in Vail­lant’s non­fic­tion work, re­search and real-world rel­e­vance are ev­i­dent in the novel. Héc­tor’s voice, taut and tense, vac­il­lates be­tween the im­me­di­acy of death in the truck and the sweep of his fam­ily his­tory as well as the story of Mex­ico it­self: Vail­lant leaves few stones un­turned, ex­am­in­ing the ar­rival of Cortés; the ad­vent of the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment; Héc­tor’s abuelo’s youth spent work­ing for a gringo ar­chae­ol­o­gist on a dig deep in the jun­gle; ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied self-de­struc­t­ing corn; and the ever-present specter of the jaguar, who’s both preda­tor and pro­tec­tor. The Jaguar’s Chil­dren is am­bi­tious and nu­anced, and car­ries weight pre­cisely be­cause it weaves re­al­ism into nar­ra­tive.

Vail­lant’s lyri­cism, a pleas­antly sur­pris­ing com­pan­ion to his ob­ser­vant re­porter’s eye, crops up in un­ex­pected places, as in this de­scrip­tion of meat hang­ing at a mar­ket: “It’s early, so the meat is piled high on the shelves and hang­ing thick on the hooks — rags of carne asada, strings of sausages round as beads, heavy blan­kets of tripe, piles of goat heads star­ing blind over pyra­mids of chick­ens with their marigold feet hang­ing in the walk­way.” The novel’s plot de­vices are oc­ca­sion­ally un­con­vinc­ing (years af­ter be­ing school­mates, Héc­tor and César’s re­u­nion, which is nec­es­sary to pro­pel them to­ward the bor­der to­gether, is im­prob­a­ble at best), and the story leans heav­ily on jaguar sym­bol­ism, but Vail­lant’s un­tan­gling of the threads that bind el Norteño ( Héc­tor’s term for the U.S.) to Mex­ico is el­e­gant and ap­pro­pri­ately com­plex nonethe­less. Héc­tor com­pares the pas­sage about NAFTA and its con­se­quences (jobs sent to China, an in­creas­ingly rigid bor­der, the rise of drug car­tels) to Span­ish col­o­niza­tion: Then, as now, Héc­tor says, “The dis­tance be­tween Hope and God and Death [is] grow­ing smaller and smaller un­til it is im­pos­si­ble to tell one from the oth­ers.” As Héc­tor lies wait­ing in the tank, con­sid­er­ing the forces, both large and small, that led him there,

The Jaguar’s Chil­dren man­ages to scru­ti­nize his­tory while be­long­ing dis­tinctly to this cul­tural mo­ment. John Vail­lant reads from “The Jaguar’s Chil­dren” (pub­lished by Houghton Mif­flin Har­court) at 6 p.m. on Tues­day, March 17, at Col­lected Works Book­store, 202 Gal­is­teo St., 505-988-4226. He is in­tro­duced by Hamp­ton Sides.

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