Outlaw territory

James Sallis is the author most recently of "Cripple Creek" and "Drive," now out in paperback.

A chapter or two into this novel, the reader is likely to put it down, in a mix of puzzlement and wonder, and start thinking.

And somewhere -- perched on a rooftop in Mexico City surveying the sea of antennas, perhaps, or among the bedraggled, chicken-run villages of Chiapas -- the novel's authors will applaud.

Let's see, now. We've got a dead man who is leaving messages on the answering machine of a "progressive official"; a detective who died (in Paco Ignacio Taibo's novel "No Happy Ending") and was brought back to life (in "Return to the Same City") without apology or explanation; a fake Osama bin Laden churning out TV communiques in a Burbank porno factory; characters with names like June Outlaw and July Secret; and a plot on the part of Wal-Mart to steal the Mexican pyramids and smuggle them out of the country in old merchandise boxes.

Not to mention a blow-by-blow of the efforts of Zapatista insurgents to figure out the ways of city folk.

And the novel's two endings.

And if that's not enough, the novel is co-written by Zapatista guerrilla leader Subcomandante Marcos, who has been known to travel on a black motorbike in the company of a deformed chicken he calls "the penguin" as mascot and as symbol of the disenfranchised populations he represents; and by Taibo, Mexican literature's -- actually world literature's -- premier wild man.

Great writers by definition are outriders, raiders of a sort, sweeping down from wilderness territories to disturb the peace, overrun the status quo and throw into question everything we know to be true. In book after book -- literary novels, revisionist history, collections of journalism, fictionalized biographies, political essays and detective stories -- Taibo has done just that, giving us work in which Che Guevara rubs elbows with Doc Holliday, the Mau Mau party down with the Musketeers, Stan Laurel witnesses the assassination of Pancho Villa, and Leon Trotsky, exiled in Mexico, slogs away at writing thrillers.

Unlike the realist American novel, perfectly formed loaves of white bread leavened with irony, the Latin American novel has always been quixotic, playful, self-conscious -- a heady mix of coarse grains thrown together on the griddle:

"Hector Belascoaran Shayne was a Mexican, so absurdity was his daily bread. He was Mexican and had only one eye, so he could see only half of what other people saw, but more clearly. In recent years he had been living on the edge, on the borders between strange territories skirting incoherence, irrationality, and extravagance.... The country was one big business, a territory being looted by phony, part-narco horsemen of the apocalypse, a supermarket run by a drunken Friedrich Nietzsche, but really drunk, where nothing was what it seemed.... It was like, without the like, a Mexican taco vendor had taken over CNN."

For Taibo, reading is the most subversive activity in life. Open any book, he says, and you begin to see the world through others' eyes. And nothing is more redeeming than that -- or more dangerous.

He has written about Che and about Trotsky, about legendary labor organizers, about the streetcar workers' strike in 1922 Mexico City. It comes as little surprise that he and Marcos, a major spokesman for Mexico's disadvantaged, should join forces.

The novel careens from slapstick to sentimental to thoughtful and back again, often in the same sentence. And if the authors (who contributed alternate chapters) have left anything out of the crosshairs here, any possible target for satire, commentary or just plain ridicule, I can't imagine what it might be. On its face, the novel is a murder mystery, and at the book's heart, always, is a deep love of Mexico and its people.

In an interview, Taibo spoke of the necessity of myths, and of our right to them. Speaking of heroes, he said, even of small heroes like Shayne, can help us reclaim other rights: our right to romanticism, to adventure, to a sense that our lives are not shallow but deep, connected to history and to "all those who have no rights, those who suffer abuse their whole lives, people on the margins, the disinherited, the lepers, the poor, the least of the least."

Taibo and Marcos are such small heroes, and they offer just such connections. I once wrote that Taibo pulls real rabbits out of imaginary hats. Now I wonder. Maybe there is no Paco Taibo, maybe it's just been the rabbit all along, pulling itself, and the occasional Paco Taibo novel, out of that hat. *

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