Now we’re entering slippery territory, you and I. The land of noir. Noir, much like the weird, suffers from a glut of self-declared experts who love to proclaim what is and what is not. Fortunately for us dear heart, noir, much like the weird, lives and breathes, indeed it thrives, betwixt and between, easily bypassing and evading every checkpoint and gateway these self-styled guardians of good taste and acquiescence erect. There is no better contemporary example of this beautiful blending of styles than Gabino Iglesias’s Zero Saints.
I will confess something right off. I personally detest reviews that simply condense the book in question into a bite sized digest. I realize I harp on this yet when I spend even $2.99 for a novel I’m looking forward to an experience, that inner voyage of discovery between myself and the volume in question. There have been enough times I’ve had major plot points revealed that while they may not have always ruined the reading experience, those revelations have certainly colored it. On the other hand, I certainly don’t want you having to make a decision of whether or not to lay down your hard earned ducats with merely the recommendation of a bear of limited intelligence as your pole star. You deserve some inkling as to what madness your letting yourself in for before you purchase your ticket. Here is the blurb that the book’s publisher, Broken River Books, chose to provide:
Enforcer and drug dealer Fernando has seen better days. On his way home from work, some heavily-tattooed gangsters throw him in the back of a car and take him to an abandoned house, where they saw off his friend’s head and feed the kid’s fingers to…something. Their message is clear: this is their territory, now. But Fernando isn’t put down that easily. Using the assistance of a Santeria priestess, an insane Puerto Rican pop sensation, a very human dog, and a Russian hitman, he’ll build the courage (and firepower) he’ll need to fight a gangbanger who’s a bit more than human…
Second confession.* I eerily resemble an onion in that the more layers you peel, the shallower I become. The cover art for this book, by Matthew Revert, hooked me. I love collecting pamphlets from the religious supply stores and botanicas in my neighborhood and the cover art thoroughly nails that vibe. Thankfully, and contrary to nearly every lesson this world lays upon us, the contents within live up to the exquisite promise of that artwork. Mr. Iglesias writes like a dream, balancing the strange and the surreal with the criminal elements superbly. I feel that much criminal writing dies with its dialogue. People involved in even the slightly grimier side of life have a manner of speaking with one another that either you have been around and absorbed or you crib your cadence from Tarantino’s conversations. Gabino’s conversations flow naturally and they do so utilizing Spanglish and it does not matter one bit if you do not understand it. I myself do not. My understanding could be described as “kitchen Spanish” at best and “enough to get my butt whipped” at worst. Yet Gabino never lost me once. When you think of this achievement, to write in two languages and still write so well that even with momentary excursions into a language the reader does not speak themselves and yet not only are you the reader able to keep abreast of what is going, on but those excursions enhance the experience? That is a writer who’s simply crushing it on all levels.
Mr. Iglesias also shows a skilled hand in his protagonist, Fernando. Far from being a hard-boiled, ass-kicking retired wet-work operative from a government agency so secretive even its initials are classified, Fernando is an illegal working the door at a club on sixth street in Austin, dealing small amounts of drugs to college students, living in an apartment rented out in someone else’s name. This man already lives in the land of “neither nor” and is spectacularly unprepared when the going gets weird. Trust me on this, things jump cut to stupendously weird with a quickness. Remember in the blurb that Broken River Books provided where they said, “…and feed the kid’s fingers to…something…,”? Well it’s that something that made me sit up and take notice. Hard. Others with less assurance would have dressed this up, attempted to play it for bigger effect. Iglesias in his simplicity achieves an effect that is much more chilling. Months later I’m still wondering about it. (In the acknowledgements Iglesias thanks Cody Goodfellow for the suggestion. Way to go, because it is truly and genuinely unsettling.)
If I were to use one word to describe Zero Saints, it would be balanced. You know when you have a friend or partner that gets into fine cooking and they season everything too heavily at first? Crime or weird fiction on their own can suffer from this same syndrome easily. Placed together? Whoo-boy. That’s a recipe for disaster. Gabino Iglesias dances through this minefield with the grace of a much older master. All of the elements pull together beautifully, none are there as a gimmick or a piece of flash to catch the eye and nothing more. The criminal elements show Fernando to be unstable and vulnerable prior to the elements of the weird being unleashed upon his world, which in turn means he must enmesh himself more fully within that world of crime, cogs upon cogs. Similarly the use of Spanglish within this text. At no point does it feel forced or gimmicky. It’s a natural and flowing expression of the character that instead of alienating me frequently had me thinking to myself, “Man, I need to knuckle down and work on my Spanish.” Then again, I live in Crown Heights, I frequently say the same thing about Portuguese, Russian, French, and Yiddish when I overhear conversations and arguments in grocery stores and bodegas around the way. That’s what I’m saying, Iglesias’s use of Spanglish in Zero Saints is so seamless it feels more as a conversation overheard in public than a literary device.
So just in case there was any doubt in your mind, I highly recommend Zero Saints. For being what I truly admit was a completely Magpie, “Oh look pretty cover,” purchase this book blew me away. Gabino Iglesias is an author I eagerly look forward to spending more time with. After seeing the roster of authors on Broken River Books I plan on spending time growing much more familiar with this small press.
* Don’t worry, these will die off as we go along. I just want you cats to know where my biases lie so you will know whether your tastes lie in sympathy with my own and as such if you yourself would like the books that I do recommend. Objectivity is a lie.