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.

All Saints — Karen Palmer

[asa left]156947138X[/asa] This is Karen Palmer’s first novel, and it promises good things to come from her. Set in New Orleans in the fifties, it follows three people through a few turbulent days. Each of them has misstepped badly and caused harm to themselves and the people they care about most in the world; each of them struggles with the certainty that they will never be able to make amends. Through a series of every day circumstances, their day intersects and then becomes intertwined.

The novel is beautifully written, clean and clear and bright in its prose, but it’s also a really good story. Of the three main characters, I was most engaged by Harlan Desonnier, a Cajun just released from prison and Glory Wiltz, a white nurse with a young son who is separated from her husband, a black musician. Father Frank — a Catholic priest dealing with a loss of faith — is the least well drawn of the three characters, though I still haven’t been able to figure out why he doesn’t quite work for me.

This novel has a flow and rhythm that feels almost effortless, and the resolutions were striking for their simple elegance. There is not so much a happy ending here as a thoughtful and a hopeful one. One final note: Glory’s relationship to her son strikes me as pretty much perfect, and reads as though the author understands the emotional complexities of motherhood from a deeply personal source.