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Dia de los Muertos

Kent Harrington

Dennis McMillan

US First Edition Hardcover

Publication Date: 1997

Capra Press

US Trade Paperback

ISBN: 1-59266-035-5

Publication Date: December, 2003

289 Pages; $17.95

Date Reviewed: March 30, 2004

Reviewed by: Terry D'Auray © 2004

Dennis McMillan's hardcover

Capra Press Trade Paperback



Mystery, Horror

In Dia de los Muertos, you'll spend some 36 hours with Kent Harrington's anti-hero, Vince Calhoun, a corrupt DEA agent, gambling, whoring, killing, bleeding and dying in Tijuana, Mexico. It's 36 hours you'd never knowingly choose to spend this way, in the filth and dissolution of a border town where nothing is too base or too tawdry, too gross or too disgusting. It's also 36 hours you're likely never to forget.

Vince Calhoun is a DEA agent with a profitable side business smuggling illegal immigrants or "cargo" into the US for money. He is burdened by mountainous gambling debts that can be repaid only by smuggling high profile, particularly dangerous cargo into the US for one of Tijuana's most ruthless mob leaders. Calhoun is plagued by a run of bad luck that's lasted a major portion of his life. He lost his teaching job in the States when he was caught making love to a student, Celeste, and joined the Marines rather than face prison. Though only in his 30s and still handsome, he now finds himself a dissolute and diseased man playing for keeps with the other dissolute and deceitful men who find life under the rocks of the border town of Tijuana.

As Tijuana prepares for the festival honoring the Day of the Dead, Calhoun happens upon Celeste, just released from a Mexican prison, and re-kindles the lust and love that set his life spiraling downward in the past. Feverishly ill with dengue fever, a disease that manifests itself in later stages with bleeding through the eyes and ears, Calhoun smuggles Chinese girls, Mexican drug lords, and sordid others willing to pay the hefty price into the US. He careens in desperation from one violence-filled encounter to another, racing across the desert with contraband immigrants or racing to the track to bet his all on the "sure thing" that isn't. All done to earn the wherewithal to free Celeste from one mighty nasty gun-wielding lesbian and to live happily ever after. All in vain.

Harrington writes with an elemental rawness that exposes the blistering heat, the crudeness and filth of a border town and its populace with stark realism. The corruption and crime that plagues the country is fully exposed, an accepted part of everyday life. The distinction between police and criminal is non-existent -- everyone's on the take, everyone can be bought, and there's no appetite is too obscene, no act too lewd to find satisfaction, for the right price. Harrington exposes the underside darkness of this border town and its people with unrelieved brutality and unparalleled honesty.

To mitigate the near unbearable rot of this world, Harrington mixes moments of poignant tenderness, characters with flashes of humanity, and scenes of kindness and sweetness, all made more powerful midst the decay of their surroundings. Harrington's prose also does justice to the love story, delivering it with all its passion, obsession and vividly realized sexuality. Many of his scenes are perversely humorous. One of Calhoun's pieces of "cargo" is a 500-pound gangster, too fat to walk, who must be wheeled on a dolly from his house to the Jeep, through the Day of the Dead celebration. Harrington mixes the crazy and absurd with gross violence, the ugliness of this corner of the world with the fleeting beauty of passionate love, the deceitful act of survival with the noble act of self-sacrifice in an unforgettable fusion to expose elemental, heartbreakingly sad, all too human truths.

Dia de los Muertos is a hard book to read - darker than noir and viscerally shocking. More than once, I had to set the book aside and regroup, to let the violence and horror of the scene I'd just read settle and dissipate. But there was never any question that I'd pick it up again. The writing was simply too powerful, the characters too compelling and the ride too wild to miss.