The Jaguar’s Children
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.