Acclaimed non-fiction writer John Vaillant—his The Golden Spruce (2004) underpins Sasha Snow’s 2015 film Hadwin’s Judgement while The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival (2009) earned numerous awards—turns to fiction in The Jaguar’s Children. In the “Acknowledgments” he explains that his wife “moved our family to Oaxaca for a year in 2009,” where Vaillant apparently collected the materials for this persuasive novel. The narrative is set inside the tank of a water truck intended to smuggle fifteen undocumented migrants into the USA. Coyotes abandon the aged truck when it breaks down just across the border between Sonoita and Nogales, trapping the migrants inside. The three-hour clandestine crossing they were promised becomes an inexorable incarceration as dehydration wrings life from those sealed within.
Hector, a young Zapotec from the Sierra Jaurez above Oaxaca, narrates the novel by recording audio files into his companero’s cell phone. Initial pleas for help give way to increasingly lengthy personal flashbacks and then meditations about the plight of indigenous peoples. Hector is a believably complex narrator: as a boy he accompanied his father on an undocumented foray to the USA and learned English in an American grade school; caught and deported, then abandoned by his disillusioned father, he has been mentored during his formative years by his abuelo Hilario, who has steeped him in indigenous thinking. As Hector bakes during the days and shivers during the nights he reflects upon the stories that Hilario has shared, which date back to the Mexican Revolution and Pancho Villa and provide insight into the convergence of thought worlds. He considers why his father—who migrated to the USA only to be brutally deported back to Mexico—believed himself a failure, and he ponders the possibilities for his current twenty-first century generation, learned, multilingual and tech savvy. The scope of Hector’s knowledge allows Vaillant to juxtapose, for example, the goals of a treacherous cartel bent on introducing GMO corn into Mexico alongside Zapotec reverence for maize, and thus address the effects of NAFTA. A kindly (if exploitive) archaeologist had encouraged abuelo Hilario to learn to read, “that books were a door into other worlds,” and this glimpse into competing thought worlds powers The Jaguar’s Children.
The title Last of the Independents: Vancouver Noir might suggest a historical study or academic treatise but instead refers to a work of fiction, a novel in the whodunnit genre, and Private Investigator sub genre. Michael Drayton keeps a sparsely furnished walk up office above Hastings Street near Cordova, with nearly enough custom to meet the rent. Twenty-nine, he currently sleeps in the basement of his grandmother’s home near East Broadway and occasionally borrows a vehicle from the mother of his office assistant, whose boyfriend lives in a condo on Wall Street. Street names matter. His two or three current cases involve missing children. Or wives. Or a “corpse fucker” haunting a funeral parlour. He’s not quite indifferent to income, but he is prepared to have the mortician subsidize the hunt for a missing boy. The cast includes a philosophical games geek, knowledgeable about pop culture, who provides a sounding board; a femme fatale (she lives in a mansion on the UBC Endowment Lands) whose clutches he barely escapes; various kind-hearted hookers; cop contacts good and bad; and, of course, layers of evil doers. So, you see, the title is indeed apt: the novel functions as a compendium for the genre. Geographical specificity and vaguely pertinent current concerns perk enough interest to carry the tale along, at least until the conclusion veers to Vancouver Island where a series of excessive events play out in fuzzy locations. The novel is at its best when it observes its subtitle.