Mexico Days by Robert Roper (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: $18.95; 226 pp.)
"I'm writing this in Mexico," the narrator confides to his reader on page five of this extravagant novel: "Let me be no more specific about my whereabouts than that, since the people I'm staying with, old friends from my contrabandista days, might suffer otherwise. In any case I won't be here long. It will be sad to return to the States. I love Mexico, but I need to kill someone, and after I accomplish this task, I won't be able to come back."
This kind of writing and this kind of setup quickly weeds readers out. You either put this book down to move on to something else or, already hypnotized, fall over on the couch, dead to the world around you, and visit desert roads snaking through the states of Sonora and Sinaloa (where distances are so great and hallucinations so common that you don't need drugs), the poppy fields outside Culiacan, the paseos in town squares on Saturday nights, the long-winding cliffside road that careens from the mountains of Mexico City to the comparative valley of Cuernavaca.
It's "Mexico" that Robert Roper is talking about, not quite the land south of our U.S. border, but the Mexico of our imagination and our dreams, where mariachis play and waves crash on sandy beaches and love waits to ensnare us and the smell of charcoal is always in the air.
If all that weren't enough, this is a beautifully conceived story of American white-collar crime. The narrator's father, Gerson Sanders, ne Gershom Shavelson, has parlayed his European father's ill-gotten gains into an enormous illicit fortune, becoming a genius of financial corruption.
His son muses upon his father's career: "While others of his generation were doing similar 'pioneer work,' acting always to further the interpenetration of legal and illegal business--which I, for one, see as the principal innovation of that era--he was acting thus but in a style a little more thoughtful, always a bit more consistent within itself. If the world of crime was to be, henceforth, indivisible from that of legitimate business, then adjustments had to be made, accommodations to the norms of the invaded world. This simple idea--enormously elaborated in ways I don't pretend to understand completely--was the whole of his system."
The cast of characters here, the "puzzle," then works off this system: a gangster-dad, married to a sad, drunk starlet, who dies early on, leaving as survivors the narrator and his sister, Sylvia. Trips to Mexico from childhood, to the Cuernevaca villa of a beautiful Mexican woman (whose husband, Gerson's business partner, has died mysteriously). That senora has two creepily gorgeous daughters, identical twins named Marcela and Marta. The narrator (who keeps his own name pretty much to himself), falls hard for one twin; his sister falls hard for the other.
Then come the 1960s. Sylvia, the sister, becomes heavily involved in liberation/terrorist politics, smuggling Mexican refugees across the border. The narrator, who's always idolized his father, follows in his footsteps, becoming a small-time drug dealer, making countless trips from Mexico to Berkeley and back again.
Then the story takes another quantum jump. It is everybody's fond feeling that they are acting on their own here. Sylvia freeing refugees, Marcela and Marta fulfilling their respective destinies, the narrator adventuring back and forth along those spooky desert highways. . . . Everyone seems to have forgotten that back in the old days, Gerson loved the beauteous Mexican matron, that her husband died, that Gerson dumped her, that she's as strong in her country as Gerson is in his.
Surrounding all that, like a string bag carrying assorted groceries, is the irrational love that all the American characters here carry for Mexico, a love by no means requited, but what great love ever is?
It has to do with aromas in the air, the scorching eternal deserts, the magic you never find in plain old America, the Ancient Hope that the Self may finally be freed--by lust, or death, or love, or God, and that we may really get to live "Mexico Days." If you subscribe to this line of thinking, you'll go crazy with happiness reading this novel.