Setting aside debates about whether or not we as a species are hardwired with a predilection toward violence, we can at least agree that our species displays a knack for it. Point to any period in human history and you’ll highlight an age rife with violence. From the Sumerians to the Romans, from Christendom to America, our stories and cultures reflect, and even glorify, violence. As foundation myths—Romulus murdering Remus; Washington crossing the Delaware to slaughter sleeping enemies—entire cultures are predicated on romanticized violence. Yet violence is never romantic. Or noble. Imagine it not as an abstraction, as something others engage in, and imagine it as a thing-in-itself, as an action or activity injuring or ending the lives of living, breathing human beings, as a carnal act committed against sentient meat, and you’ll find nothing amusing or romantic about it.
Popular entertainment treats violence in a variety of ways, from the absurdity of cartoons such as Looney Tunes or B-movies to the unflinching realism of Cormac McCarthy novels, and our society seems to view it in its many varieties, not always as acts of brutality. As such, we Americans tend to treat violence with a sort of flippancy, occasionally calling for appalling acts against people or countries as politics by other means.
Bracketing causal speculation, some people live and dwell in violence—directly or indirectly, intentionally or inadvertently. Human civilization is a series of Möbius strips, sets within sets within sets. Some subcultures navigate broader social rules and norms while playing by different sets of rules altogether. These subcultures tend to epitomize violence as means to ends. The violence perpetrated by drug cartels is a prime example of this Möbius strip strip within a Möbius strip, where shadow laws and governments, of sorts, operate within broader society. These cartels reap violence on such massive scales that it’s hard to wrap our heads around. So many tens of thousands of people have been slaughtered that we’ve abstracted the violence—and we view these deaths as nothing more than numbers and statistics.
And we’re rarely afforded opportunities to humanize those caught in these traps. But by creating situations with seemingly-living characters, fiction can and does serve a purpose: it transforms statistics into shared experiences, allowing empathy to replace apathy or antipathy.
Zero Saints (Broken River Books), Gabino Iglesias’s unflinching portrayal of violence, revenge, and redemption is the kind of fiction that can illuminate the toll violence takes in the real world.
Fernando is a small-time drug dealer in Texas. Having fled the chaos of the Mexican cartel wars, and entered the states illegally, limiting his opportunities, he’s taken a job as a pusher for a dealer who’s carved out a decent territory in Austin. And he’s about to have a bad week.
From the opening sentence, the novel hits like a freight train plowing into a school bus, the intensity hits you hard, mangling your viscera.
“I didn’t hear those pinches cabrones coming,” it begins. “They cracked my skull from behind. Probably expected me to drop like a sack of hammers, but the blow came with too much power and not enough finesse […] One hand grabbed my neck and kept me down. Three other hands darted in and crawled over me like nervous cockroaches. They pulled my gun from my waistband, fished my cell phone and keys out of my right pocket, and yanked the ear buds out of my ears.
“With my skull unplugged, I heard a car pull up beside me. It purred like a large cat. I twisted my head a bit.
“[…] The trunk opened and stayed low like a fat man doing pushups. They shoved me toward the back of the car with my head still down. I thought about taking a swing, trying to crack some huevos. That left two more, surely packing, plus whoever was in the car. Bad math.”
What starts as an abduction transforms into horror as Fernando is taken to a place of torture and witnesses an act of mind-numbing brutality. MS-13, the notorious Mexican gang, has arrived in Austin and wants to take over Fernando’s boss’s territory. So they send a message, one soaked in blood and terror.
Not wanting to give anything away, we’ll skip a summary and focus on the impact of the novel, which hits you hard and lets up only to build its intensity. As it progresses, the novel becomes a noirish blend of revenge, where redemption is a sacrament soaked in blood, the travails of illegal immigrants, and the power of the supernatural.
Fernando is an interesting character: decent and compassionate yet struggling with anger and violence, filled with urges he can’t always overcome. This isn’t a binary character. He’s gray; not black or white. Nuanced. From some reason—and this is nowhere implied in the novel—he brought to mind Wyatt Earp in Lawrence Kasdan’s 1994 film. Like Kasdan’s Earp, Iglesias’s Fernando is morally ambiguous: while capable of kindness and compassion, he also doesn’t hesitate to act on violent impulses. Unless, of course, he’s up against something far greater than himself.
Which brings us to an element in Zero Saints that sets it apart from other noir novels: the supernatural. Interweaving catholic and folk mysticism, Iglesias adds an element reminiscent of Clive Barker’s superb film Lord of Illusions; he creates a world where the supernatural coincides with the natural. While Fernando struggles with his lot in life, while he struggles to find a place in a country not necessarily willing to accept him, he relies on spirituality familiar to him and his people, a supernatural force alive and intent on wreaking havoc—or offering salvation.
On it’s surface, Zero Saints is easy to pitch: a noir tale—or Barrio Noir, as Iglesias calls it—about competing drugs lords, an impending war, and the protagonist caught in the middle. But it’s also a supernatural tale and a story of an illegal immigrant in a nation that doesn’t want him, a prescient theme considering today’s political climate:
What happens when you cross la frontera is that you don’t know what’s going to happen to you and you hustle harder than you ever hustled before and you pray to la Santa Muerte and ask for protección and do bad things that you convince yourself are not that bad because la frontera crossed your abuelos first and no one is really pinche ilegal because people can’t be ilegal and we’re all atrapados en este puto mundo.
Violence is as much a part of our culture as sports or video games. Some revere it and some condemn it. Some treat is as amusement and others treat it as a cancer. In Zero Saints, Gabino Iglesias falls into the latter category. Violence in his world is an abomination. Even if, over the course of this narrative, it might offer solace or redemption or freedom, it does so at a cost—and that cost is high: you might survive, but it will change you. It will scar you. And you’ll never know if you’ve truly escaped it.
Daulton Dickey has written for several websites, including The Rumpus, Film Threat, and PopMatters. His novel, Flesh Made World, will appear this fall from Rooster Republic Press.