Thursday 22 August 2019

Call Him Mine by Tim MacGabhann: A vivid portrait of Mexico in all its sweltering madness

Fiction: Call Him Mine

Tim MacGabhann

W&N, hardback, 272 pages, €18.99

Outsider's gaze: Kilkenny native Tim MacGabhann has lived in Central America for six years
Outsider's gaze: Kilkenny native Tim MacGabhann has lived in Central America for six years
Call Him Mine by Tim MacGabhann

Kilkenny native Tim MacGabhann has lived in Latin America for the last six years, reporting for Reuters and The Washington Post among others. In a foreword, he casts this debut novel in the Mexican literary tradition of the crónica: "a hybrid form that owes its subject-matter to reportage, its questioning of objectivity to autobiography, and just about everything else to fiction."

With the crónica, MacGabhann adds, "you mightn't get the capital-T journalistic truth…but you feel the small-t teem of what it's like to be in a time and place and situation… Think of Call Him Mine as a thriller in crónica form, or a crónica in thriller form."

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As good a way as any to describe this arresting novel, which spins a decent tale of murder and murky deeds, but really excels in how it seems to capture something essential at the heart of his adopted country. Whether the events themselves actually happened or not is, I suppose, irrelevant: it rings true, and in fiction that's more than enough.

We begin with narrator Andrew, an Irish journalist, and his Mexican photographer boyfriend Carlos in Poza Rica. This city on the east coast of central Mexico was made rich by an oil boom but is now struggling with depression, recession, violence and general entropy.

There's still oil to be found here but it's more inaccessible - and potentially more damaging to the environment. In the meantime, air and water are already horribly polluted, while police and cartel thugs - in Mexico, it appears, these are not easily told apart - are stamping out all opposition to oil-corporation plans.

The violence in that benighted nation, mainly through years of drug-gang wars, we're all familiar with. It's often literally hair-raising, displaying a level of brutality and sadism beyond even what our home-grown criminal ferals get up to.

Call Him Mine opens on an image of violence that's so Grand Guignol, it shouldn't work in fiction; this should feel absurd, implausible, too shocking. Sadly, news reports have shown this stuff really exists: a young protester, student Julián, is found dead in an alley, his face cut off, among other signs of torture.

Carlos takes photos, Andrew scribbles notes. Police arrive and rough them up a little, more as a warning than anything else: mind your business and get out of town, for your own sake. Andrew decides to head back to his Mexico City apartment; Carlos, angry at his partner, stays on.

Within a day he, too, is dead, tortured in a medley of horrific ways. Andrew now faces a choice: investigate Carlos's murder, and the surrounding mystery of what precisely is going on in Poza Rica, or keep his head down - and keep his head attached to his shoulders.

When you're in love, though, there never really is a choice. Andrew finds photos, hidden by Carlos on a memory-stick, proving oil-company involvement with Los Zetas, the most notorious cartel of all, and is soon embroiled in a festering swamp of police corruption, human-rights abuses, rapacious corporations and, by the by, more than one threat to his own life.

As a thriller, Call Him Mine feels a little slight. The book is relatively short, which is fine: Elmore Leonard hardly ever went past 200 pages, and he was a genius. But this story is slim; not a whole lot happens, ultimately.

And I didn't entirely get the sense of dread and full-body panic you'd expect from a story about an Irish guy with murderous Mexican cartels on his tail. Andrew is psychologically askew through battling substance abuse problems, and shocked in grief by Carlos's death, but still: his sangfroid after being hog-tied and driven to an abandoned body-dump site by armed goons is remarkable. But Call Him Mine really soars in two regards, which are more important than "stars out of five" for the plot mechanics. First, MacGabhann - possibly because he's bringing the outsider's gaze to the situation - paints an extraordinarily vivid picture of Mexico, in all its seething, sweltering madness and beauty.

The last time I read a book which placed the reader so firmly and intensely into the heart of a place, it was the 'Fate' and 'Santa Teresa' sections of Roberto Bolaño's great 2666: also set in Mexico and, perhaps not coincidentally, also written by an outsider.

The second is the quality of MacGabhann's prose. Phrases like "bruised poetry" sound glib, I know, but it's about the best way I can think of describing Call Him Mine.

It reads at times like an inspired blend of noir mystery, Paul Theroux-style allusive travelogue - and the hallucinogenic ramblings of a clever, funny, damaged friend which stay just the right side of an invisible dividing line between interesting and annoying. Not to everyone's tastes, surely, but most definitely to mine. There's also a lovely, unexpected shift from first-person to second-person narrator late on.

It'll be interesting to see where MacGabhann's career goes next. For now, Call Him Mine is a fine start.


Darragh McManus's novels include 'Shiver the Whole Night Through' and 'The Polka Dot Girl'

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