Texas is a state built for stories. It is wide and flat and hard. You can stand in a pasture and see in any direction for miles and miles and you know that you are alone and anything can happen. Texas is a state that promises heat and dirt and thorns and people that can be just as hard and unforgiving as the soil beneath your feet. As the setting of a horror story Texas makes sense. There is room in Texas for horrible things. There is room for monsters under the bed as well as monsters at the borders and monsters in the cattle pastures. And one of the scariest things about these monsters is that even though you can see for miles around you, you won’t always see them coming, as the protagonists of “It Came from Del Rio” (by Stephen Graham Jones) are destined to learn.
Dodd Raines is a professional criminal who takes pride in his ability to get anything and everything across the border from Mexico into Texas. And not only will he get it where it needs to be, but he will get it there on time. When a shady organization with backhanded tactics uses them to persuade him into carrying extremely time-sensitive cargo, he promises himself this will be his last job, for both his and his young daughter’s sakes. He is right about that, though retiring with a wad of cash is not what he finds waiting for him after making his delivery. Instead he finds himself living a new, strange half life full of mutant bunnies and the need for vengeance. Soon he is leaving a trail of decomposed dogs and melting human corpses behind him as he searches for a little closure on a job gone horribly wrong.
Written in a tricky stream-of-consciousness style that seemed to pay no mind to the ideas of linear storytelling, it becomes hard to follow the plot of “It Came from Del Rio” several times throughout the course of the book. Laurie’s part especially tends to ramble with disjointed thoughts and partly realized actions. For a story based around such a bizarre concept I can understand the author’s need to write in a more personal, yet surreal way. But it made it difficult to follow sometimes, which made it difficult in turn to fully submerge myself into the material. And though I was listening to the thoughts directly from the narrators themselves, I didn’t feel truly connected to them. Laurie expresses more feeling than Dodd, but even that isn’t quite enough to really start to care about her. I’m sorry for her and her life and everything she is going through, and I’m sorry that Dodd met the obstacles he did. But I don’t really CARE about what happened to them. I wasn’t given enough to empathize with them.
Not even a third of the way through the story I started to feel as if the main character wasn’t the tragic anti-hero Dodd or his equally tragic daughter, even though it was written from their points of view. Instead it was Texas that felt like the main character to me. Texas was described in detail, Texas took front in center in many scenes. So it was Texas I saw in my mind’s eye and felt along my skin while I read and it was Texas I thought about when I finished reading each day. In the author’s note, Jones describes how he got the idea for this book based on his own experience camping out in the wilds of Texas at night. So even the author brought his characters later, after Texas itself had been firmly established.
I grew up in Texas. I spent my early years in Katy, a suburb of Houston, and later made the move into the city itself. Then when I was older I spent several years living in Sealy (like the mattresses) where my mother still resides. I have been to Austin and I have seen the Rio Grande. I’ve driven through the hill country and spent a night on the border in El Paso. I played in the snow in Amarillo and rode a jet ski at the beach on Padre Island. I KNOW Texas, and so it was a personal delight to me to read about it from someone else who obviously knows it like I do. And his setting an entire part of the novel in Sealy, a tiny town like many other tiny towns in the large state, tickled me pink. Unlike many novels which are set in places that seem exotic to me, such as New York City or Paris, France or Sydney, Australia, I had a personal connection to this story from the very beginning. But even that connection didn’t give me quite enough to really sync with the story.
“It Came from Del Rio” is not a nice novel. It is jumpy and confusing and unfriendly in places. But it is also something refreshing, something we don’t see often enough anymore. It is UNIQUE. It is risky and new, and if the author didn’t get it pitch perfect this time at least he gave it a shot. He made up his mind and went his own way and he managed to do what few others ever do. He was brave and this book is a testament to that. It skips over genre boundaries and plays with different themes and even tries on a different tense or two. There are zombies here, there is family drama, and there is even the hint of a mystery. Its a mish-mash of whatever it wants to be and that makes it an interesting and memorable, albeit confusing, novel worth checking out.