Border Dogs — Karen Palmer

In her second novel, Palmer moves from New Orleans in the fifties to the borderlands between the US and Mexico, and into the present day. It’s quite a jump, but she lands cleanly.

The title here is thematic and concrete, both. James Reece is a man in that gray area between youth and solid middle age; he was born to a Mexican/Indian father and a blond California mother and brought up by adoptive white parents. He makes his living as a border guard sending illegal immigrants back to Mexico, again operating in the borderlands, always second guessing himself and where he belongs.

The novel holds loosely to the conventions of a mystery — or multiple myteries — about his own past, his parents, his father’s death — and the discovery of a the body of a little boy in his adoptive father’s flower fields. What struck me most forcibly about this novel is the strength of the main characterization. James Reece is a complex and conflicted man, but within about fifty pages I felt I had a real grasp of the way he thought and the things that moved him.

It’s hard to imagine the kind of research that must have gone into this novel, as the circumstances and setting are so foreign to me personally. Yet the details have the gritty feel of authenticity, due in part to prose that approaches the lyrical in passages. I should say that it does feel at times as if Palmer is on the verge of loosing control of a detailed and complex plot — the scene of the fire in the canyon comes to mind. Also, there are many crucial characters here, almost too many to develop fully. The two that I would have liked to see more clearly were Mercedes (James’ wife) and Richard Serrano, the Coyote who preys on the illegals he shepards over the border to the extent of robbing them of their shoes.

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