Carmen Boullosa’s “Texas: The Great Theft”

In the first pages of Carmen Boullosa’s powerful yet whimsical novel Texas: The Great Theft, we are introduced to dozens of characters – butchers and lawyers and chicken dealers and grocers and judges and escaped slaves and housemaids and vaqueros, Mexicans and Americans and Indians and Africans and Germans – everyone trying to survive in the precarious, often violent territory between the Rio Bravo and Nueces rivers. It’s a place bursting with stories, a place where every perspective – no matter how small or marginalized – has something to add to the conversation.

The story begins with an insult. It’s 1959, in Bruneville, and “Sheriff Shears spits five words at Don Nepomuceno: ‘Shut up, you dirty greaser.’” Handsome, wealthy, and respected, Nepomuceno – like many Mexicans north of the new “border” – was granted a kind of second-class U.S. citizenship in 1948, during the titular “Great Theft,” when his land was stolen by the Texas government. Before long, news of the sheriff’s insult has traveled far and wide, inflaming racial tensions along both sides of the Rio Bravo – “In Galveston, no sooner has the phrase made it off the boat than it doubles back southward, finding passage on a steamboat that’s just arrived from Houston and is headed to Puerto Bagdad, Mexico, almost directly across the river from … Bruneville’s seaport.”

Boullosa’s world is one where relationships are transactional, the laws are only useful insofar as they create capital, and personal identity is as fluid as our disputed borderland setting. Survival often means profiting from another’s weaknesses, or exploiting the jurisdictional loopholes afforded by the border. “Mexico forbids [slavery] on principle, while Texans deem it a God-given right.” So slaves escape into Matasánchez, Mexico, where they will be free – only to be caught and returned … for a price. The lawyer Stealman “follows the law to the letter when he’s doing business with Anglo-Saxons, unless he has a good reason not to, of course.” The border also encourages a horrible sort of split personality, “because [people] come to satisfy appetites for things they wouldn’t think of even trying in the north.”

A single name here can imply an entire history of abuse, of crimes and insults forgotten or ignored. In one scene, we meet a group of Mexican spies – the Eagles – playing a subversive game of charades in a Bruneville bar: “Carlos the Cuban shuffles the deck … He deals and they quietly begin to speak of crimes. Since the Café Ronsard has begun to fill up, he sets the tone: they won’t talk about anything new and they won’t go into details … Carlos names the first atrocity. ‘Josefa Segovia.’ Ronsard immediately responds. ‘1851.’ … How the Eagles laugh. They smile in bitter revenge, as if saying these names has repaired these offenses, as if it has given them pleasure … They sit there making allusions and obscure, cruel jokes aloud yet no one understands them, they’re speaking in code.”

As tensions build, Nepomuceno flees south into Mexico, preparing to invade Bruneville and reclaim both his land and his honor, Boullosa invites us to identify with every creature encountered along the way. We are privy to the secret dreams of a talking cross, a dying horse, a bullet shattering a Mexican’s skull, a buried corpse, an icaco tree, even that tree’s shadow. In the end, Boullosa’s humorous, offbeat tale makes the case that – no matter how small or marginalized, no matter where it exists in relation to some arbitrary geographical or racial border – every perspective matters.

(This review was originally published by the Writers’ League of Texas.)

Joe Milazzo’s “Crepuscule w/Nellie”

Dallas native Joe Milazzo’s new novel Crepuscule w/Nellie is an inspired work of art, a “speculative historical fiction” twenty years in the making, and the book deserves a wider audience than it will get. Titled after the jazz standard of the same name – a song composed by the famously idiosyncratic pianist Thelonious Monk, while his wife Nellie was undergoing treatment for a thyroid disorder – the novel imagines itself into the uncomfortable love and economic triangle existing between Monk, Nellie, and their benefactor, the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter.

The story is, like Monk’s work, unique – strange, dissonant, profane, poetic – and some readers will find its peculiarities difficult to overcome. Stylistic techniques and points of view vary wildly from one scene to the next. Setting and dialogue and characters are introduced with little or no context. Yet these characters are drawn with such empathy that, within just a few pages, we begin to identify with their challenges, and to hope for some sort of resolution.

It seems that Nellie is sick. And her husband Monk, communicating in increasingly clipped snippets not unlike Zen Koans, is an almost helpless musical savant. Focused, it seems, exclusively on his own needs, Monk leans on Nellie for everything. His first words to Nellie are a demand for “Ice cream! … Frozen! Icy novelties! … Icy cream, cream! Icy! … Scream!” But now the Baroness Pannonica, hoping to introduce Monk’s talent to a wider audience, is threatening to wedge herself into the widening spaces between husband and wife.

In distinctive set pieces arranged “like Chinese progressions” on a musical scale – there are diary entries to study, transcripts and letters, cartons of old photographs, film negatives, jam sessions and master tapes galore – we are taken on what feels like a voyeuristic ridealong, witnessing Monk compose his masterpiece. Monk’s marriage, the lifeblood running through his music, has started to buckle under the pressures of celebrity and art, racial politics and commerce, mental illness and intransigence … but not (at least not yet) fortune.

We see a younger Monk wooing a much younger Nellie from the basketball court, his brash aphasic declarations of love at first sight: “I told you. I know. And how. You. You’re the one. Not just a pronouncer. An announcer. The one. To never, ever, never ever, ever to forget. The one. You’re not going. No. To forget my name.” We see this relationship grow, evolving into a heartfelt intimacy, hardening finally to the point where Nellie “won’t be budged … is asking herself what becomes of all when everything is no longer enough?”

These moments of affection are contrasted with Pannonica’s weird, seemingly misplaced fixation on Monk and his music. Planning to host Monk at her estate for a public performance, the Baroness and her jealous manservant Frank spend much of the novel at war with one another, volleying insults as they prepare for the event. Unlike Monk and Nellie, who are living Monk’s music, Pannonica’s appreciation for jazz is entirely intellectual. And her public behavior – icily polite, and yet relatively stable – veers so wildly from her diary’s creepy internal monologues that she becomes something of a villain.

We meet the wonderfully tragicomic John Coltrane who, intimidated by Monk’s brilliance, steals every scene in which he appears: “If he was ever going to get himself unstuck, John had decided, he needed a vice … If he was ever going to play Monk’s music, really play it, not play himself playing Monk’s music, play more than coincidence, the coincidences, a lazy mean, heckling his playing, an addiction to anecdote, if he was ever going to make it, really make it, John figured he needed to trade in his cozy captivity for new and eager cruelty … By a quarter of one that same day, John was an alcoholic.”

In the novel’s second act we begin to get catharsis. Difficult conversations are had, distances are bridged, inconsistencies are resolved (some of them, including the riddle of Pannonica’s diary entries, ingeniously). And in a thrillingly acidic confrontation between Nellie and Pannonica, we finally realize that: “Suddenly T.S. is quite beside the point. This discussion is now confined to two women, alone, and that means it is a very, very different discussion altogether. One that is without formulas.”

In Monk’s music, silence can be more revealing than the notes themselves. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the one perspective Milazzo avoids writing from is Thelonious Monk’s. Monk is the novel’s arrhythmic heartbeat, its “one wrong note, or one note given over to a wrong objective, one note that alights heavily when it might allow itself to spring back,” and we understand the enigmatic composer only insofar as we understand his effect upon those who loved him from the shadows.

Especially Nellie, who resolves, in the end, to persevere: “It was worth it, Monk. We have to live as though we know it will be worth it.”