Best novel I’ve read in quite a while. And a debut novel at that.
Jay Treiber is a rare individual: a college English literature professor who can also write it, and write it well.
College English professor Kevin McNally has been struggling for decades with his guilt over an incident that happened when he was a teenager. This is the kind of subject that could lead the author and reader down a rat hole of angst, self-loathing, and neurotic navel-gazing but Treiber avoids this trap. Instead, he chooses to have McNally seek resolution of that guilt, and forgiveness for what happened, through a skillfully interwoven series of story lines that mix McNally’s present and past.
By itself, that’s not unusual, but the story’s location and characters are. McNally comes from a line of southeastern Arizona ranch families, with friends and acquaintances on both sides of the border with Mexico, but perhaps as a way to escape his past, he left the small border town of Douglas to teach in Tucson—away, but not that far away. In telling the parallel stories of McNally’s return and of the original incident, Treiber takes the reader on journeys into worlds many have never experienced: the rugged high-desert canyons and mountains of far southeastern Arizona, far southwestern New Mexico, and the bordering lands of northern Mexico; the lives of the people who ranch and hunt on that land; and the drug smugglers who cross it.
The story revolves around McNally and Amanda Monahan, the 15 year old daughter of an area rancher. Raised in the ranch life, Mandi is no girly-girl. She’s a skilled hunter, and also the secret heart-throb of 17 year old Kevin. While the two families and other friends are out on a deer hunt, the party splits up. Mandi, hunting with Kevin and his friend Armando “Mondy” Luna, takes down a buck. Kevin wants to offer to help her field dress the animal and take it back to the family truck but she seems so well able to handle the tasks that he and Mondy leave her to chase after a crippled black jaguar known as “Old Pete,” which they’d spotted. When the hunting parties return to their parked trucks sometime later, the deer’s head and carcass are there, but Amanda is not. Neither are Kevin and Mondy. The families wait for them for a while, then start searching, not knowing that the kids are not together. No one, as it turns out, knows that Amanda has been captured by a group of drug-runners, who now face the problem of what to do with her.
The “young Kevin” story splits again and again as it follows Amanda, the druggies, the boys, and the different pieces growing search party. The “old Kevin” story line stays focused on McNally as he searches for the truth about a past he doesn’t clearly remember. Treiber weaves in and out of these bifurcating story lines like Old Pete weaving in and out of the bushes, trees, and rocky terrain, sometimes spotted but rarely seen clearly or for long.
The story lines all come together in a climactic shootout between the searchers and the druggies, but it would be a spoiler to reveal who dies. It does, however, finally clarify the real reason for McNally’s guilt, which Treiber skillfully misdirects our attention from throughout the book.
All this said, there were a few things about the book I found disappointing. Toward the end, the adult McNally goes on a peyote-fueled trip to the site of the search, led there by an old Indian friend. This was too much of a southwestern search-for-meaning-story cliché and is the least well done part of the entire book. It doesn’t even contribute much to the final resolution.
As I neared the climax of the story, I realized that the names of two of the key characters, Amanda and Armando, sounded suspiciously alike. After reaching the end, I couldn’t help but wonder if Treiber, English lit professor that he is, hadn’t tried to be oh-so-clever with these names, creating the symbolic parallelism that those professors love. The meanings of the two names are relevant: Amanda means “lovable” or “worthy of love,” and Armando means “soldier.” Both names are appropriate to their roles, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Treiber consciously chose them. Or maybe he didn’t, and their meanings and the similarities of their sounds just slipped by author and editor alike.
Finally, Treiber mixes in Spanish dialogue, which is appropriate for some of the characters, but he does not always provide a translation, and context is not always helpful. For those of us who don’t speak Spanish, this adds verisimilitude but is also a stumbling block.
In the end, these faults matter little. Treiber’s characters are finely drawn. Even the struggling adult McNally is sympathetic enough to keep the reader following him. Treiber clearly knows and loves the portion of the desert southwest the story is set in, and he places the reader right there with the characters. And no dilettante professor, he doesn’t shy away from the details of the weapons the hunters, sheriff’s deputies, and druggies use, or from the hunting—for people or game animals—that is so much a part of this area and of the story. By the end, the adult McNally’s spirit walk has led him to a place at which his spirit is recovering, if not yet fully healed.