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Country of the Bad Wolfes

Southwestern American Literature

James Carlos Blake’s tenth novel, Country of the Bad Wolfes, was pub¬lished earlier this year by Cinco Puntos Press in El Paso. Like several of his other nine novels, this new one takes place in varied settings in England, New England, Texas, and finally Mexico. Blake’s earlier works were gener¬ally well-received; In the Rogue Blood won a Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
The new book’s title is not a typo; it refers to the Wolfe family, the subject of this 456-page novel based, Blake says, on his own family. The story spans more than a century and approaches the category of historical epic fiction, covering three generations of a family with vices and virtues that appear in the various generations. Roger Blake Wolfe, the forebear of the Wolfe clan, begins the family line but is soon hanged as a pirate in Veracruz, leaving twin sons John Roger and Samuel Thomas in New Hampshire. Samuel Thomas is drawn to a life at sea like his father, but after he kills a local law officer in self-defense, he enlists in the U.S. Army and is off to the Mexican-American War, later deserting to join the San Patricio Battalion, mainly made up of Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany who became part of the Mexican Army against the U.S. After the war and after almost all the San Patricios are sentenced to die, Samuel Thomas manages to escape.
His twin John Roger ultimately accepts a job running an import/export business in Veracruz. During these several decades of the narrative, John Roger has three sons (including identical twins), builds a large hacienda, and coincidentally connects with his brother’s side of the family. One con¬nection turns out to be Edward Little, the main character of In the Rogue Blood, who is also linked to the historical President Porfirio Díaz, who leads the novel into the historical details of Díaz’s tumultuous regime.
Although Blake’s story covers many years of history, Blake focuses mainly on a family history that, except for the Díaz’s regime, is generally unknown to the reading public. He therefore avoids one of the major complaints of historical novels—that they do not accurately portray the past. The novel therefore depends upon how effectively the writer can engage the reader in the fictional history of his characters. He succeeds with some parts of this long family narrative, especially with the early parts of the two brothers’ lives and later with the twin sons’ stories, but less so with the later twists and turns of the extended family story. And some of the coincidences seem far-fetched.
Over the years, Blake has often been compared to Cormac McCarthy, mainly because both writers often use Mexico as setting and symbol and both are known for focusing on aspects of the human attraction to violence. Blake delivers on both in Country of the Bad Wolfes. Where he diverges from McCarthy is in his use of language, which never reaches the Faulknerian heights of McCarthy in vocabulary or verbal verve. In fact, Blake often adopts a formal style, writing about the 19th century in a language that seems often to be from that century. Here, for example, is Blake’s description of John Roger’s wedding night:

[A]s he lay abed in their room while she finished with her bath, his appre¬hension grew overwhelming and he was certain of impotence. She emerged with her face rosy from the bath and the heat of her own excitement, her hair a lustrous spill on the shoulders of her white gown. But as she ap¬proached the bed she sensed his tension and in the low candlelight saw the alarm in his eyes. An instinct she hadn’t known she possessed prompted her to kiss a fingertip and put it to his lips, and then she stepped back and turned about and unbelted her gown and let it cascade to her feet.

The rest of this scene unfolds in more contemporary language (more bodice ripper than porn), showing another difference between Blake and his strong influence, McCarthy, whose writing rarely ventures into the bedroom.
It is to Blake’s credit that he has not aped McCarthy. He has gone his own way, and this sprawling family history takes him in a new direction. The Country of the Bad Wolfes is the first of a rumored series of books about the big bad Wolfes. This first book will lead many readers to look ahead anxiously for the next one’s appearance.
- Mark Busby, July 1, 2012 

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