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Frontera Dreams

The New York Times Book Review
The real enchantment of Mr. Taibo's storytelling lies in the wild and melancholy tangle of life he sees everywhere.
Publisher's Weekly

“If anyone wants to read this book as a simple mystery novel, that’s his business,” sniffs Argentinean journalist Rudolfo Walsh in an epigraph. Bill Verner translates Paco Ignacio Taibo II’s spare, literary Frontera Dreams: A Héctor Belascorán Shayne Detective Novel, in which the one-eyed existentialist Mexican investigator searches for a lost love, ponders border crossings and drug traffickers, and communes with Pancho Villa’s ghost along the “green mesh fence” separating the U.S. and Mexico.
- June 17, 2002 
Laura Esquivel
—author of Like Water for Chocolate

My secret wish is to become one of the characters of [Taibo's] fiction, all of them drawn from the wit and wisdom of popular imagination. Yet make no mistake, Paco Taibo—sociologist and historian—is recovering the political history of Mexico to offer a vital, compelling vision of our reality.
NPR / Dallas Morning News
For the last decade and more, private detective Héctor Belascoarán Shayne has prowled through more than a half dozen novels by the popular and prolific Mexico City writer Paco Taibo II. The thick-skinned existentially anxious Belascoarán has been shot at, knifed, beaten up, slashed and killed – then brought back to life by his creator for yet another book.

Frontera Dreams, just published in this country, is an early Belascoarán novel, a novella, really, first brought out in 1990 and here translated into English by Bill Verner. As the title suggests, it takes place on the border between Mexico and the United States, when Héctor is hired by the teenage daughter of one of his old high school crushes to head north in search of her mother, Natalia Ramírez, now an aging movie star who has gone missing. The territory itself is a strange and special one for the big-city private eye, and for any Mexican citizen. As Mr. Taibo describes it, it is "a foreign country, neither Mexican nor North American, a land where everyone was a foreigner," a place "full of aggressive sunlight, dust and advertisements in English."

But off he goes, from Mexicali to Ensenada to El Paso, following leads that take him into seedy motel rooms and the heart of the drug trade that flourishes along the border, and into conflict with gringo narcotics dealers, real cops and fake cops, corrupt television producers and Chinese-Mexican fence jumpers, and into his own past, to his high school days, a time when childhood ends and adult life looms just ahead, a dreamy time when he and Natalia were obsessed with Nat King Cole and Donovan, William Golding, Che Guevara and Janis Joplin. But the real Natalia is hardly a figure out of his nostalgic dreams of adolescence and when, after finding her and skipping back and forth across the border numerous times, Belascoarán discovers a few of the differences, some harsh, some sweet, between dream and reality.

That's the other border of the title, the line between illusion and reality, waking and dreaming, past and present, love and lust. Odd that such serious motifs come to mind while reading this slender and quixotic and yet wholly entertaining novella. But then that's what happens when you give yourself over to such an idiosyncratic and delightful genre writer as Paco Ignacio Taibo, who explains that stories travel "unusual paths. They develop in a way that is hardly natural. They escape and reappear, and the one who determines these erratic journeys is always the narrator and not the listener."
- Alan Cheuse, 
San Francisco Chronicle
Absurd and amiable Mexican private eye Hector Balascoran Shayne ambles from one U.S.-Mexico border town to another in search of the elusive actress Natalia Smith-Corona. In this postmodern detective novella from Mexican writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Hector finds Natalia in Ensenada, loses her at the Tijuana border, finds her in Nogales, loses her again, searches for her in Chihuahua and pokes around El Paso. There is an overriding sense of randomness in this pursuit: "She appeared, just like she had suddenly disappeared . . . from around the corner."

"Frontera Dreams" revolves around a pack of U.S. ex-John Birchers, led by an amusingly written cartoon of a character, Quayle. A twisted concept of justice impels the Quayle gang to murder illegal immigrants trying to cross the desert. Calm, slow, one-eyed Hector coolly, quickly and easily -- almost too easily -- dispatches the Quayle gang in the novella's moment of sustained action.
With a lead character named Smith-Corona, a chapter wholly digressing into a tale about "The Whores of Zacatecas," a preface (with diagrams) showing Hector's scars and an epigraph warning, "If anyone wants to read this book as a simple mystery novel, that's his business," the reader should be prepared for a Rabelaisian romp.

There's plenty of swirling dust and newspapers, tacky cafes, cheap hotels, film noir references, occasional vague descriptions and implausible action in "Frontera Dreams," much like a tale told by a drunk in a dive bar. But the teller has just enough charisma, and technique, that you might wind up buying the drinks all night.
- July 28, 2002 
Blogcritics Magazine
If you haven’t yet read any of Paco Taibo’s Hector Beascoaran Shayne detective novels yet, be prepared for something wildly different than your usual detective fare. This is so much more than a mystery.

In Frontera Dreams, Hector is asked by the daughter of his old high school sweetheart, now a big movie star, to track down her mother whom she feels is in danger. He leaves Mexico City and heads out for the border looking for her. As he travels through the villages heading for the border, he travels through his memories as well. There is the reference to Tlateloco, the Mexico of the late 60’s, and his memories of the sweetheart turned actress with the unlikely name of Natalia Smith-Corona.
The one-eyed, much scarred Shane battles with narcotraficantes, contemplates the life these border people have, communes with the ghost of none other than Pancho Villa, recites and remembers poetry, hears the story of the 300 missing Zacatecas prostitutes, and learns of the legend of the Chinese guy that jumped the fence of the US /Mexico border seven times in one day, all the while doing his job finding Natalia.

Paco Ignacio Taibo, II is one of Mexico’s foremost writers. His character Shane has been knifed, scarred, wounded, killed – yes killed and resurrected by Taibo yet again. This story doesn’t have the feel of the other Shane novels, but those take place in Mexico City where the pace is different. Taibo captures the meandering crazy desperation of the border towns expertly in this literary and intense novel.
- Gina Ruiz, March 23, 2007 
Independent Weekly, Durham, North Carolina
Ballad of Borderlandia
Paco Taibo’s postmodern Mexican detective unravels the secret of Mexican identity

Frontera Dreams is the latest of Paco Ingacio Taibo II’s eight Mexican private eye novels to be translated into English starring Héctor Belascoarán Shayne, the Coca-Cola-drinking Mexican detective descended (on his mother’s side) from American pulp fiction heroes of the 1950s. A hybrid creature wandering the U.S.-Mexico border, Belascoarán Shayne feels like a “foreigner” even in his beloved Mexico. He’s obsessed with the past, particularly the era of high idealism that ended in 1968, when the government killed over 300 peaceful student demonstrators in Mexico City just before the Olympic Games were scheduled to be held there. On top of his emotional scars, Héctor’s body has been badly maimed throughout the novel series, including a gunshot to the head that has left him with only one eye. Taibo’s postmodern gumshoe converses with the ghosts of Mexico’s past as he wanders ambivalently through its chaotic present, unravelling the mysteries of Mexican identity.

In the book, Héctor is assigned by a client to track down a woman who happens to be his own high school flame, Natalia, now a telenovela star who has disappeared from the set. Natalia leads him on a meandering chase through the dystopic Aztlán of a semi-imaginary U.S.-Mexico “Borderlandia,” where they run into a colorful assortment of TV producers, whores, bureaucrats and drug dealers. Along the way Héctor documents the casual cruelty and absurdity of life in the borderland, including dreamlike views of the United States:
“From the border, the United States is a televised landscape at arm’s length. A giant Babylonian supermarket, where the meaning of life might be the ability to buy three distinct models of steam iron on the same day.”
Natalia Smith-Corona (née Ramírez), the self-made star who stole her name from a combination of Nat King Cole, Gorky heroines, and a typewriter, proves as elusive as the rumors that are always circulating in the borderland. There rumors, like narcocorridos, give birth to folk heroes as mythically laden as John Henry, Pancho Villa or Gregorio Cortéz, the subject of cops-and-robbers border ballads since the late 19th century.

Taibo’s tale flows like a disjointed ballad, with an internal/external narration that mirrors Héctor’s journey. Each short chapter in Héctor’s search is staked out with epigraphs, like knives thrown by a circus performer forming the outline of a missing person. Between stylized citations, Taibo offers dialogue and characterization that is crisp, funny and evocative, and speckles the story with references to Mexican pop culture, history and notoriously monolithic politics. Through Héctor’s one good eye, we see behind the dark screen of public corruption, the drug wars and the immigration game, with all the humor and irony of the borderland’s locals. Their pasttimes include keeping track of the most attempts in one day to jump over the big green fence that marks la frontera, or as Héctor calls it, “a mix of territories branded by the dubious privilege of sucking face with the United States.”

Defying the usual mystery formula, ambiguities only increase along Héctor’s path, with rumors and a set of kitchen knives his main tools for confronting the malaise and malignancy of the various border officials, hoods, DEA agents and narcotraficantes he meets. Unlike good vs. evil crime fiction, there is no untainted natural order to be restored here, just an arbitrarily malformed one to be negotiated through storytelling. Héctor’s thoughts on gathering information hold true for the novel as a whole:
“Stories are told in one way or another, traveling unusual paths. They develop in a way that is hardly natural. They escape and reappear and the one who determines these erratic journeys is always the narrator and not the listener.”
With the street savvy of gossip, Taibo takes us for a ride through the dreamlands that separate and join us at borders both political and imaginary. But Taibo’s borderland induces a sort of paralysis, where his characters can feel the pain, but can’t necessarily do anything about it. The book reveals unsettling truths about racism and U.S.-Mexico relations, making its nested happy endings seem dreamlike, yet necessary to people living in “Borderlandia,” as a means of imagining empowerment. Taibo uses movement across borders as a model for a postmodern understanding of the self which is ironic in an age when the borders have been tightened and the politics of immigration are increasingly fraught with distrust.
- August 23, 2002 
Rain Taxi
Detective Héctor Belascoarán Shayne is not all there: in Frontera Dreams, he often looks in the “mirror without recognizing himself.” By the time we reach this novel, the seventh featuring Taibo’s beleaguered sleuth, he has endured myriad wounds, slashes, and lacerations. Although the action of a Taibo mystery stays close to the body, Héctor’s injuries also document a larger history of what makes society unrecognizable to itself.

Frontera Dreams involves the search for a missing woman in the borderlands of Mexico. Héctor knows movie star Natalia Smith-Corona from childhood, when her last name was Ramirez. Natalia has named herself after a typewriter, becoming “The one she always was. The one she never was”—just like Héctor, just like Mexico. Through such depictions, Taibo stresses the impossibility of resolving the contradictions of life. This particular tome explores the televisual qualities of Mexico’s frontier. Because the act of real life is most dramatically performed where languages, memories, and stories compete for center stage, where “You belonged and yet you did not”, the novel keeps us--and Héctor—guessing about the nature and power of the “strange mix of territories” that make up the borderland.

Because of such concerns, the plot of a Taibo mystery may seem rather loose and incidental. The narrator cannot resist the allure of multiple metaphors and meta-commentary, and he revels in the spectral intangibility of everything—“A phantom detective on a phantom hunt for a phantom woman.” Finding the phantom woman is only the beginning, however, for history is what we lose, forget, rediscover, retell, and lose again: the ultimate mystery novel.

In general, Héctor represents Mexico in its soap-operatic splendor precisely because a Mexican detective is “by definition a laughable solitary accident.” The anomaly is the rule, and the incidental leads to the palace of wisdom. For Taibo, that palace is a strange borderland where stories can be retold until they sound reminiscent, but not the same. Frontera Dreams shows Taibo at his borderline best, in the heart of the heart of the country.
- Kevin Carollo, April 1, 2003 

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