Escape from the system?
Sports journalist Russell Martell is on holiday in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico . His wife Rosalita has recently died and Russell feels lost and hurt, drifting through life. Then his journalistic senses begin to come alive as he starts to get the hints of stories: not sports stories, but crime and current events, with a hint of politics. What is the real story behind a body found in strange circumstances near the beach front? Is the rumor of a police raid on a suburban house really connected to drug cartels? Who is the colorful character Devon (Devo) that appears to be making a splash in town, at least according to the bar scuttlebutt? All these questions seem to draw together, but only more questions emerge. Soon Russell and his friend, Johnny Miles, will become caught up in an adventure where mystery and uncertainty abounds. How will ordinary citizens survive, let alone take action in a world of gangs, police and government? Seve Verdad’s Finding Devo: A Novel Adventure is a story of mystery and action which will intrigue and excite the reader as they follow Russell and Johnny in their desperate attempt to escape disaster.
Verdad writes well and he lifts his prose with colorful phrases, giving interesting atmospheric descriptions and character details. Describing Devo, for example, Verdad writes: “But he is smooth. Smooth as a pythons belly. Smooth as a razor blade, a bullet, a warhead” (Ch. 83). Much of the book varies between chapters in first person narrative, giving Russell’s point of view, and chapters in third person narrative, giving the perspective of various other characters. This change in viewpoint works well to keep the story complex and interesting. The text contains quite a liberal scattering of Mexican Spanish. Sometimes an English translation is given and sometimes not. The lack of translation is at first annoying, but the reader soon notices that these phrases are not of critical importance to the plot. The book can certainly be enjoyed without knowledge of Spanish. There is occasional offensive language, both in English and Spanish, but probably less than occurs in most people’s common language. Only the most conservative will be offended. Occasionally there are nice hints of irony. For example Joaquín ‘Garras’ de Jesús, a brutal federal agent, is depicted “imagining his garras [claws] wrapped around the necks of those who might be responsible for such a barbaric massacre” (Ch. 48). Who is the barbarian we wonder? Similarly there is a nice contrast between Garras meditating in order to concentrate his powers of destruction (Ch. 48) and Russell meditating in order to survive pain (Ch. 50). As a point of criticism it should be noted that the first half of the book is, in sections, a bit too wordy. The party which Russell attends gets quite a few chapters allocated to it even though it is just one night. Similarly the revelations from the computer disk, which the police find, go on chapter after chapter, even though we quickly get the basic idea of what they are saying and their relevance. Also the bomb explosion gets several chapters, each one from a different character’s perspective, even though the basic response of all is shock. These sections could have been condensed to make the plot move at a swifter pace. After Chapter 50, however, the book really takes off and never slows until the very finish. This point should not be overemphasized. It would be wrong to say that the first half of the book is boring: it is just a little slow in some sections.
The novel is divided into three parts. Book I Fiesta (Ch. 1 – 28) gives an overview of the circumstances in all its many complications, introducing the reader to the book’s many main characters. This section is characterized by questions and mystery. Book II Rain (Ch. 29 – 83) is a narration of disaster, then capture and escape. It begins slowly but escalates midway into a high action and adventure narration. Book III Camacho (Ch. 84 – 114) is a further story of escape in which questions are answered and resolution is given. It should be noted, however, that even at the end of the book there are still some open questions, and indeed the reader wonders if Verdad plans a sequel. This is not a book where everything is tied up neatly.
The characters are nicely drawn and we immediately relate to them as real people. We like Russell because of his inquisitiveness and initiative. His background in sports makes him appealing to male readers. His grief over Rosalita’s death shows him to be a man of some feeling, beyond his All-American bravado. But as the plot progresses the reader begins to see some of Russell’s failings. He is “egotistical” (Ch. 51) and “rash” (Ch. 7). Also as we read further Russell evolves from an ‘ordinary’ man to one who deals decisively, if perhaps extremely, with extraordinary circumstances. Devo, by contrast, remains throughout almost all the book a man of mystery. He is rumored to be a “pot grower” (Prologue), but we never quite find out how he gets his money. He is variously a “psycho” (Prologue), a “wildcard” (Ch. 52) or just a good guy engaged in “shenanigans” (Prologue). Devo is quite a performer who carries off acts in which he appears to change height, change age, and even flawlessly change his voice. He performs slight-of-hand (Ch. 25 & 72) and indeed Verdad manages to make Devo seem almost mystical and magical. Devo of course has his limits. At one point he comments “I don’ know everthin’” (Ch. 50), but he is certainly no ‘ordinary’ man. By keeping this character an enigma Verdad instills in the readers a sense of intrigue which keeps him reading. The book has quite a host of other characters which Verdad also successfully draws. He even manages to sum up quite minor characters in just a few words. Teachers’ union leader, Teodoro Viareal, for example, is described as having “the voice of an excitable Chihuahua” (Ch. 7).
Ambiguity is one of the novel’s chief themes. As has just been noted Devo is a man of mystery. We do not know exactly how to place him. He could be a hero, but seen from other angles he is quite villainous. Moral and political ambiguities are at a premium in the book. Actions, circumstances and perspectives are described as having both good and bad points. Government officials fight for good, against terrorism, yet they are themselves corrupt and inept. Capitalism, Marxism and Anarchism are all made understandable, being both praised and criticized. Verdad constantly poses the reader questions which are not easy to answer. This is not a novel which teaches a ‘correct’ viewpoint: rather it opens up complexity. Indeed isn’t the world just that: complex. Aren’t different people, with different perspectives, able to interpret the same event in very different ways with very different conclusions?
Corruption is itself so central to this book that it must be considered as a theme in itself. Vice impairs the function of institutions which could work to the good. We all say about our little misdemeanors that ‘it doesn’t matter’. We even say our ‘shadiness’ gives us ‘character’. But when our dishonesty ends in real trouble we are left embarrassed, and even ashamed of our actions. We immediately seek to emphasize what little good we can salvage and hide the bad.
The individual is a third important theme. We are single units, yet we are also in systems. Do our actions count or is the weight of the system too much for us to make a difference? The individual struggles for survival, and yet so much that happens is a result of external circumstances which we cannot control. As single people we have a certain ignorance of the system and even naivety. Yet also as individuals we have our own talents which we can use to direct our future, and even contribute to the bigger picture. Are we better off in a system or purely as individuals, or is a mix better? Is anything other than a mix even possible?
Verdad’s novel is very much set in a male world of macho toughness and competition and so there are a scattering of anti-female descriptions. Russell observes “a pair of bubble head dolls” (Ch. 2). Police Lieutenant Benito Cuevas Romero thinks “Why stand women at all, but for one thing…?” (Ch. 8). Women are reduced to body parts: “… breasts – important assets for a girl” (Ch. 7). Gloria Infante Velázquez, however, stands out as a major female character who is capable, successful and dynamic. Her husband would not be a successful mayor without her help, and he is completely guided by her strong political sense. Indeed Gloria, if she had chosen so, “might have become mayor of Puerto Vallarta herself, or perhaps Guadalajara, her home town…” (Ch. 5). Certainly Gloria has her failings, as any person does. She is driven by power, money and prestige. In the middle of one of her business negotiations we read: “Her eyes had darkened, become bland, almost dead. Shark eyes’ (Ch. 7). But Gloria regrets her part in the major disaster that occurs. She has a strong sense of “guilt” (Ch. 43) and immediately sets about devoting all her energies to set things right. When attacked by corrupt policemen Brenda, Russell’s new love interest, fights like a “wildcat” (Ch. 60) and her sister Araceli joins the fight by hurling a baseball at the attackers. Feminist readers will be glad to find that, in this novel, women are not meekly subordinate adjuncts to men, but rather dynamic persons in their own right.
As has just been noted Finding Devo is, at least on the surface, a world of male machoism in line with 1950’s values. Both Russell and Johnny live for sports, womanizing, drinking, cockfights and have dabbled in law breaking (minor for Russell’s part and major for Johnny’s part). This comfortably male dominant world, however, is very much undercut when both men find themselves in real trouble. Suddenly Russell and Johnny are victims who need to be rescued. Their bravado wears thin as they find themselves in waters way beyond their depth. Certainly it is a male who ‘saves’ them and certainly they are not completely helpless themselves, but the brash American male image takes a beating. Quite a number of other male characters in positions of power are also undercut. Their confident acceptance of corruption in various forms, as a bonus of their ‘tough-guy’ power, leads to their downfall and ineffectiveness. Devo, as has been noted, remains an enigma. He is certainly a ‘tough-guy’ hero, but we never quite know how to take him. Is he to be admired or viewed with some doubt? He ‘pulls the strings’, but to what end? Rather than the traditional 1950’s ‘super-hero’ we have an ambiguous magician who even at the end leaves us with questions. How much should we admire him? Devo has intelligence, skill and charisma, but is hardly a New Age man of feeling. Russell by contrast gains positive re-connection with his emotions and is able to associate with others in a mature way.
The indigenous people of Mexico are represented in the text, though not always in a positive light. Those people in power in the novel do not view the Indians favorably. They are described as “naco” a “pejorative word often used in Mexican Spanish to describe the bad-mannered and poorly educated people of lower social classes” (Wikipedia. Naco (slang):__ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naco_(slang)). As early as Chapter 1 we read: “They have no respect. Better to send them all north. Let the gringos deal with them, fill their jails with them” (Ch. 1). But the Anarchist Carlos Mansalva (Manco) takes up the cause for the Indians. We read “The entire continent belongs to us, those of Indigenous blood” (Ch. 8). Further we read of “Zapatistas” (Ch. 5 and following) the politically left Indigenous Mexican movement. The indigenous are mentioned as demonstrating for their rights (Ch. 7). Indigenous people are represented chiefly by two characters: Javier Menticlaro and Paulo Pepino Revueltas (Chimp). Javier is an influential Zapatista leader, though he could be viewed as a ‘bad’ character. Similarly Chimp holds the respected occupation of police officer, but is certainly not represented positively. It must be remembered that ambiguity is strong in the novel and so both the good and the bad of indigenous people is discussed. Javier is a particularly ambiguous character. We can understand him as an indigenous person, but do not necessarily agree with his actions.
In turn with the macho atmosphere of the book LBTIQ characters are absent. There are indeed a couple of anti-Queer comments made in Chapter 2. Perhaps one positive character could have been included in the party, at the beginning of the book, and we know that police are not exclusively heterosexual. In an novel which so emphasizes ambiguity, and which asks so many questions, it is perhaps a missed opportunity that LGBTIQ characters were passed over.
The Aged, a much ignored group, are also absent. They perhaps would have been inappropriate in the heavy partying, high action world of the novel.
As has been mentioned ambiguity is prevalent in this novel and peaks when it is viewed from the Marxist / Capitalist debate. The Capitalist U.S. is viewed as a very safe place compared to the Socialist Mexico, yet the Capitalist desire for money and prestige is a very major contributing factor in the crisis of the novel. Indeed Gloria’s Capitalist ventures end in defeat, not triumph. But similarly Marxism is represented as being falsely hollow. Media Minister Lazarito Charlado is an appointee of the Socialist Reform Party, but is interested in the “advance … [of his] … fortunes” (Ch. 3), that is, in the personal moneys he can amass and the power and prestige he can gain. Even more the Socialist influenced Zapatista movement is depicted as violent and aggressive. At the heart of both Capitalism and Marxism corruption can lead to a political culture where power, authority and legitimacy are undermined. Anarchism, a political ideology more left than Marxism, is partially represented in the text by the activist Carlos Mansalva (Manco). Manco makes quite good arguments against Capitalism and for the advancement of the indigenous Mexican people, but he has quite violent tendencies. Even more Maco is depicted as being falsely hollow, like Lazarito, being motivated by the large amounts of money he can earn for his dubious dealings with Chimp (Ch. 58). Despite this criticism, though, Anarchism has a prominent place in the novel. The actions of private citizens are seen as being more effective than those of organizations. But can even individuals be trusted to act for the ‘good’? The questions abound.
Finding Devo is very much a postmodern novel in the sense that there are no hard edges or categories anywhere. As Brenda observes: “People are brutal, Russell. The whole lot of us” (Ch. 18). Even the ‘good’ are capable of doing ‘bad’ given the right circumstances, and indeed what is good and what is bad depends on the observer’s perspective. Even the ‘bad’ character Masked Apocalypse, who by his nom de plume is associated with the devil, is given human motivation.
Verdad has written an action adventure, rather than a more poetic book, and so there is not much imagery and symbolism in it. There are, however, a few elements of the symbolic. Devo’s nickname hints at the word devolution, suggesting escape from a system, but once again questions, rather than answers, arise. Which system is being escaped from? Is it good or bad, or perhaps both, to escape a system? Is to devolve to go backwards, or is there still a creative forwards motion in it? Where exactly is Devo taking Russell? Similarly, through much of the novel unusual weather hangs over Puerto Vallarta. Light rain hangs over the city like a “mist” (Ch. 60) obscuring the view, making people feel slightly at odds. This is symbolic of the crisis of the novel where for most of the characters, the action remains a mystery. Confusion abounds and truth is obscured. People think they have the answer, but are deluded.
Looking deeper into symbolism and myth it should be noted that Devo is a magician. He uses metaphoric smoke and mirrors to trick, to obscure, when it suits him. We never quite know where exactly he stands. He uses electronic ‘trickery’ to help him pull off his ‘secret agent’ stunts. This element of the novel draws upon the cultural mythology represented by the Tarot card The Magician. Sally Annett and Rowena Shepherd observe that this card implies both “rules … [and] .. cheating” (The Atavist Tarot:__ London: Quantum, c2003, p. 47), and both Arthur Edward Waite (The Pictorial Key To The Tarot:__ Stamford, CT: U.S. Games Systems, c1971, p. 72) and Giordano Berti and Tiberio Gonard (Tarot Of The New Vision:__ Torino, Italy: Lo Scarabeo, c2005, p. 19) note that the card implies both virtue and trickery. Indeed going further Annett and Shepherd note that, when thinking of the card, “we must be aware that man’s ability to manipulate the elements can be used for evil as well as good” (Atavist Tarot, p. 49). Berti and Gonard particularly emphasis that “ambiguity” (New Vision, p. 19) is the key to the card, and as has been noted this is a major theme in the novel. Where exactly does Devo stand in the novel? Is he a force for evil or good? Karen Hamaker-Zondag notes of the card: “He has a vision or ideal to which he is devoted, and on which he expands his energies. [ … ] Hence The Magician possesses both flexibility and courage, and his vitality makes him want to do something worthwhile.” (Tarot As A Way Of Life: A Jungian Approach To The Tarot:__ York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, 1997, p. 132) Devo is certainly heroic and his mind and actions are definitely set on a particular problem or project. Sallie Nichols writes: “The Magician will include us in his plans. He welcomes us on stage as his accomplice. Some degree of cooperation on our part is necessary for the success of his magic.” (Jung And Tarot: An Archetypal Journey:__ York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weisner, 1980, p. 46) Russell and Johnny certainly become caught up in Devo’s plans and in a sense he needs them to work his magic.
Seve Verdad’s Finding Devo is an exciting adventure / mystery novel with interesting characterization and generally good writing style. The plot revolves around the main themes of ambiguity, corruption and the individual. There is a fairly strong political emphasis, though no one system is favored as being ‘right’. Men and women are depicted realistically, and in terms that would be viewed positively by those interested in modern Gender Studies. Indigenous Mexicans are depicted, partially favorably, partially unfavorably. At 565 pages the novel is probably not a weekend read, though it can certainly be read enjoyably over a longer period of time. I am happy to rate this book as 4 out of 5 stars.