I was drawn to this recent novel by its theme—a perilous journey into Mexico, which as a subgenre of the western in both fiction and film continues to fascinate me. I already mentioned this a while ago in a review of The Wonderful Country. As a theme, it can be traced back at least as far as Stephen Crane, whose story “One Dash—Horses” (1896) tells of an American adventurer’s scary encounter with Mexican rurales.
Plot. In this nerve-jangling novel, the central character is a Yuma Prison inmate, who gets early release to lead a party of men into Sonora to deliver a ransom. The ransom is in the form of machine guns and ammunition for a brutal bandit, Chito Soto, who has taken over a garrison town during the revolution against Porfirio Díaz. The man is holding a man’s wife and two children, kidnapped from a train. The year is 1907.
J.T. Latham has been doing time at Yuma for smuggling consumer goods across the border. He knows the forbidding terrain south of Nogales from three years as a young captive of Yaqui Indians, who bear a savage intolerance for both Mexicans and norteamericanos. Capture means almost certain death by gruesome torture.
Getting the guns to Chito Soto is confounded by the high-handed demands of Davenport, the wealthy businessman paying the ransom; an ill-tempered and distrusting Arizona deputy sheriff; an Irish driver (the novel involves early motorized transportation); and two viciously untrustworthy Mexican indios. Latham is joined by an old friend, Luis Vega, the only man among the lot he can trust not to betray him.
Tension mounts as Latham and Vega deliver the first gun. But all well-laid plans soon begin to unravel as the novel spins into a downward spiral of treachery and sudden death. Before long, the two men are rescuing the remaining prisoners and making a punishing run for the border, pursued by Chito Soto’s soldados.
Storytelling style. While the storyline is not original, Zimmer fills it with so much suspense and so many surprises that he seems to be inventing the form. One of the least predictable is the character of Davenport’s wife, Abigail. In the routine hands of a lesser writer, she would have been sexy and copeless or a weepy, awkward burden.
Instead, Zimmer makes her bravely fearless and the possessor of unexpected skills that get Latham and Vega out of more than one life-threatening predicament. With the introduction of a woman, the novel also avoids the tempting prospects of steamy romance. Intent on saving their skins at all costs, they have no time to waste on hints of amorous attraction, so love does not bloom, not even in the end when safety is reached north of the border.
|Sonoran desert mountains|
And Zimmer has more than one trick up his own sleeve. There are cleverly ironic twists in the presentation of the story that nearly bend it in the direction of literary fiction. Not satisfied with a simple first-person narrative account of Latham’s adventure, which would have been finely told all by itself, Zimmer invents for it what can be called a rhetorical situation.
Latham is supposedly telling his story some 30 years later to a collector of people’s personal narratives for the Federal Writers Project. What we are reading is a verbatim transcript, with interruptions caused by a power outage during the recording and his comments about the recording equipment. The 1930s feel of the text is heightened by the editorial “bleeping” of Latham’s coarser language (h---, d---d, and so on).
Passing itself off as a long monologue, the novel also rambles believably at times, with flashbacks and digressions. Along the way, there are loose ends, unanswered questions, guesses and speculations, much as there are in anyone’s recollections of the past. There are also moral quandaries as Latham wonders aloud years later whether choices he made were right or wrong. He obviously remains haunted by them. All of which give the story a tone of credibility.
So do the occasional editor’s notes that appear in the flow of Latham’s account and the excerpts from historical records providing background and filling in the gaps in Latham’s knowledge of the Mexican Revolution and Mexico’s Indian tribes. In the end is a brief obituary for Latham, revealing a surprising life that began as a young runaway in the borderlands of the Southwest before the turn of the last century.
|Aranguez, Sonora, Mexico|
Logistics. Unlike other writers who can lose me at times in the description of an action scene where the logistics matter, Zimmer expertly sets up the layout beforehand. I felt I was always seeing it exactly as he was. No confusion about where anything was in relation to anything else.
An example would be the physical layout of the garrison town held by Chito Solo. You need a mental map of it to thoroughly enjoy the daring prisoner rescue and escape. Zimmer has that well in place before the action begins. And he has done it seamlessly as part of the flow of the narrative—nothing obviously methodical or deliberate about it.
Weapons. Western fiction today, much more so than in the formative years of the genre, gives considerable attention to the make, model, and caliber of weapons carried by characters. To me, this is a habit akin to name-dropping that seems often little more than a nod to the gun enthusiasts among readers. As such it often comes across as window dressing and a distraction that slows the narrative.
Zimmer is the first western writer I’ve read who actually takes the time to let his narrator explain, for instance, why such details matter—why one gun is preferable to another in a given situation. And since situations are not always clear-cut, that moment of calculation adds to the unpredictability of what lies ahead. I liked that.
Wrapping up. Leaving Yuma is one heckuva western novel. It is a well-crafted, well-paced, high-tension adventure by a gifted storyteller. If it were a movie, the excitement at times would have you under your seat. It is currently available in hardcover at amazon and Barnes&Noble.
Michael Zimmer has generously agreed to spend some time here at BITS to talk about Leaving Yuma and his writing. And so I turn the rest of this page over to him.
The perilous journey into Mexico has been a sub-genre of western fiction and movies from early on. What drew you to this material?
I don’t have a simple answer for that. I’ve always been intrigued by transitional periods in history, and certainly the two decades immediately following the turn of the 20th century were rife with change. The industrial revolution was in full swing, automobiles were creeping into places where they had never ventured or been seen before, and war was becoming even more brutal with the advent of powerful new weapons.
It was a time of immense change, clashing cultures, and social upheaval, and that was especially true of the U.S./Mexico border. A fascinating time with a lot going on, and researching a novel is a great way to learn more about an era or event.
Did the story come to you all at once or was that a more complex part of the process?
My ideas usually come to me piecemeal. One image that stands out in my mind, and that was instrumental in this story, was a painting I saw many years ago of a 19-teens motorcycle pulled up in front of an adobe trading post. I remember a bedroll and canteen, and there might have even been a rifle in a scabbard hanging off the side.
Another image I had was from reading about automobiles capable of carrying up to a dozen passengers taking over the old stagecoach routes. I also read an article, probably a couple of decades ago, about smuggling merchandise across the border. Not guns or whiskey, but just common trade items like bolts of cloth or lanterns or shoes, to avoid paying a tariff.
So I had a lot of scenes like that just floating around in my mind, along with partial stories that lacked either a beginning or an end, and what I thought were interesting characters but with no place to put them. And then out of the blue, it all starts falling into place.