Reviewed by Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 1990-93)
AFTER YOU READ Tony D’Souza’s Mule: A Novel of Moving Weight, you’ll never approach late-night driving the same way again.
You’ll imagine you’re carrying thousands of dollars worth of marijuana in your backseat. You’ll check your speed every five minutes. Am I driving too fast? Too slow? You’ll look for cops everywhere.
It’s a testament to D’Souza’s talent that one feels such a powerful connection to James, the novel’s drug-running protagonist, even if the closest one might have come to his lifestyle is smoking an occasional joint in college — or laughing at a soon-to-be president’s claim that he didn’t inhale.
James isn’t in the illegal drug business by choice. In a troubled economy, his work (as a freelance writer) simply dried up. He’s newly married and newly a father, with a second child on the way. He could manage a McDonalds and straddle the poverty line. Or he could run drugs for a limited number of years, send his kids to Ivy League schools, and retire to the beach.
Of course there’s always the danger of his being caught and shipped off to prison for three decades. This gives the novel its tension. This and a slew of secondary characters who, at every turn of the page, could either ease James’s life or turn it into a nightmare.
Mule is a page-turner, which isn’t, in my book, a bad thing. If authors, even literary authors, want a wide readership, they should be prepared to entertain. It was Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Nobel Prize winner, who said the goal of literature is to entertain and instruct. Mule does both. I know far more about the drug trade than I did before reading D’Souza’s novel. And I was certainly entertained.
Is Mule literary fiction? This is debatable. Because it’s intensely plot-driven, the book is stingy in its evocation of character. We understand James well — especially as his anxiety impinges on his ambition — but his wife, the novel’s other major character, tends to be defined as a series of materialistic interests. She likes nice clothes and nice apartments. She likes trips to Europe.
The minor characters are perhaps necessarily one-dimensional because James, the novel’s narrator, cannot afford to become too enmeshed in their lives. They’re part of his distribution network, where business comes first and last. There isn’t much time for soul-baring conversations.
Graham Greene used to label some of his lighter and less literary novels “entertainments” to distinguish them from his sobering, serious work. Mule’s tone is serious, but its plot is closer to a thriller than a work of literary fiction. (For the latter, see D’Souza’s award-winning first novel, Whiteman.) Mule is Our Man in Havana five shades darker and minus the satire.
There’s always a risk in writing plot-based fiction that, in order to keep readers turning pages, a novelist will drive the story beyond the point of believability. A murder scene and its aftermath in the middle of Mule is certainly attention-grabbing. But some readers may not find it credible.
Ultimately, these are small objections. Mule captures well an age of high unemployment and low hopes. Indeed, one of the many things D’Souza does beautifully is to create a believably bleak world. Most of James’s friends are living in the margins, jobless and dispirited. It’s easy to see why James would find running marijuana across the country attractive in such an economic wasteland.
But anyone with a conscience isn’t going to keep making such runs without some kind of reckoning — with morality, with fear, with the limits of exhaustion. One of the most powerful scenes in Mule is when James is holed up in a dreadful Texas hotel room, unable to move:
[I]t was the afternoon and I was still in that bed. The phone started ringing and ringing. Then there was a pounding on the door. It was the East Indian. Was I staying or was I going? he asked. I told him, “I don’t know.”
You won’t want to put D’Souza’s novel down. And after you’ve finished it, you won’t stop checking your rearview mirror. Those flashing lights? The party just might be over.
Mark Brazaitis is the author of three books of fiction, including The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and a book of poems, The Other Language, winner of the 2008 ABZ Poetry Prize. His short stories, poems, and creative nonfiction have appeared in The Sun, Ploughshares, Witness, Confrontation, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Passages North, Poetry East, and other literary magazines. He is an associate professor of English at West Virginia University, where he directs the Creative Writing Program.
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