A novel by Anthony Wright
Moon Willow Press, 2011
Available from Amazon Books: Paperback
The primary story of Infernal Drums, to this reviewer, is not very interesting. The protagonist, Jonah Everman, is not very interesting — a drifter who lacks both common sense and any commitment whatsoever to the society, however seedy it can be, in which he finds himself. Furthermore, there is not a single significant female character… only a few lines about the whore América, a “busy beaver” who lives next door, and a few lines about Estefania, a reporter for the Spanish wire services, “a 10 in every way but unattainable.”
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book because the author, Anthony Wright, makes language itself his tango partner, and his dark version of that stylized dance is something worth watching.
Our protagonist Jonah crosses the border at Nuevo Laredo — the year is 1996 — and heads over to the coast and down to Mazatlan. “He found a cheap room at a dive called Hotel Milan in Old Town — the historic center of a coastal metropolis split into neatly demarcated districts of progress and poverty on a peninsula snaking up the coastline of Nayarit.”
In Mazatlan he joins up with three New Zealanders, harmless jerks, introduces himself “and played at acting the chum.” In San Blas — “on a spit of white land divided by estuaries, surrounded by jungle” — they buy some cheap dope, but the transaction turns out to be a set-up that lands Jonah in the local jail facing the San Blas Chief of Police. Some intelligence seeps in as Jonah realizes that “Those two shadows hawking the dope were under the Chief’s direct command, since there was also a tidy profit to be made from burning the traveling fool.” The chief demands everything of Mr. Everman: $2,000 in traveler’s checks, $500 in cash, $3,500 pesos, pasaporte. It was this or a Mexican prison. Jonah “was really exceedingly fortunate that the Chief was so corrupt.”
Financially crippled, Jonah limps off to buy a bus ticket to Mexico City with the $300 pesos the chief in pity had handed back to him. He is essentially now “broke — rid of the last trappings of the one form of success recognized in this world.” A few hours later, a tire on the old bus goes flat and Jonah spends “a long ancient night beside the loneliest road on Earth.”
In Mexico City, he takes the metro and finally arrives at “El Centro: butt center of La Capital.” Our protagonist — “hero” or even “anti-hero” is stretching too far — must then find cheap digs. Look at the talent with which Wright makes us see the Mexico he sees and Jonah sees:
He found a room at a concrete dive on Republica de Cuba called Hotel Mozambique. It was a whorehouse not just figuratively but literally speaking. Prostitutes lived there, serviced clientele. It also served as a discreet twat rendezvous for low-level bureaucrats who took their mistresses there for a quick afternoon bang or overnighters if domestic circumstances allowed. Jonah’s room wasn’t much but he didn’t need much. By bottom-end hotel standards it was a good room. It contained a shower, a comfortable bed and ceiling fan. There weren’t any windows, however, and the lighting consisted of one dim, 40-watt globe set in a lamp on a bureau. He went out and bought a 100-watt job. It was very bright and cast wild Gothic shadows across the walls whenever he pitched drunkenly about the room, clutching a half-empty bottle of Barbincourt rum and doing the Martin Sheen thing out of Apocalypse Now.
Jonah heads off to “drink down the night with the girl next door, the whore América, and there he meets Bazza Torsvan. Jonah introduces Bazza to América:
Bazza feigned boyish charm, bowing his head as he shook hands with her. He began lewdly assessing her while trying to act refined — failing in the latter affectation. He gave off an air of pronounced decay. His hair was an unsightly mess. The bags under his eyes came accessorized with their own bags. His breath reeked of cheap tequila.
Nevertheless, it is Bazza who gets Jonah a job at The Mexican Standard, an “English language rag” for expatriates. Jonah meets Barbary, the one-eyed editor with a “dissipated, pudgy face” and Jonah, without journalism experience, with little Spanish, is hired. To Jonah the drifter, any job was like “buying a lottery ticket… the sun door to the future.”
A fellow staff writer, Robinson Croves, looking for a “bruised dreamer,” begins to infect the susceptible Jonah with his own obsessions with the occult, with “vodou, witchcraft and Roman Catholicism.” For Jonah, the “newspaper game had proven itself as soul-sucking as any piece of crap job he’d ever held down….” Together they plan to put a curse on their boss, Barbary: “The concern here was not so much to kill Barbary as to see if the curse would work.”
One of the blurbs on the back cover says “INFERNAL DRUMS takes the reader on a guided tour into the festering underworld of the drugwar-torn Mexico recent headlines have taught us all to fear.” This is not true. It is not about a “drugwar-torn Mexico.” The world of Infernal Drums is doubtlessly a seedy one, but the story is in fact about an impotent dreamer who, through his own inability to make reasonable choices, finds himself drifting lower and lower until the “meaninglessness of his life’s journey” leads him toward a simple “equation of crime and punishment.” “He moved through the world guided by his choices.”
And the title? I have no idea how the title Infernal Drums is connected to the story. Wright has so many fine word combinations that would have served as better titles: Bruised Dreamer… Cheap Tequila… A Little Trouble on the Road.
Did I enjoy the story? Not very much. (I did enjoy some of the side stories, the digressions, the vignettes.)
Did I enjoy the book? Yes… because of the skill with which Anthony Wright writes, continually surprising us with bizarre details, with unexpected scenes, with a level of language that better-known authors rarely reach.