James Carlos Blake knows about outlaws. He has spent his career mining the rich and violent history of the American West and early 20th century to craft a string of novels chronicling the lives of notorious gunslingers, desperadoes, and gangsters.
From John Wesley Hardin (The Pistoleer; Berkley, 1995) and “Bloody” Bill Anderson (Wildwood Boys; Morrow, 2000) to boxer Stanley Ketchel (The Killings of Stanley Ketchel; Morrow, 2005) and jazz era gangster Harry Pierpont (Handsome Harry; Morrow, 2004), Blake has excavated the mythology to bring these often misunderstood characters to life.
With his third novel, In the Rogue Blood (Avon, 1997), a tale of two brothers who make their way west in the 1840s and end up on opposite sides of the Mexican-American War, Blake hit his stride, winning the Los Angeles Times Book Award for fiction. “The mid-19th century was more violent than most people can imagine,” Blake says. “I wanted to write a novel that depicted that violence as realistically as I could.” In the years since, his books have sold respectably and earned him a devoted readership and critical acclaim, but Blake has never achieved the widespread attention that his work deserves. Luckily, that may be changing soon.
With his second book, The Friends of Pancho Villa (Berkley, 1996), optioned by a French film company with Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica slated to direct, Blake, 66, is poised for breakout success.
In his corner is the current awareness in books and TV shows like Breaking Bad of the region that has been Blake’s milieu for years. Both the history of the Texas border country and the Mexican revolution have been frequent touchstones along the way, due in no small part to Blake’s own colorful family history, which informs his two most recent works, the epic historical Country of the Bad Wolfes (Cinco Puntos, 2012) and Rules of Wolfe, coming from Grove/Atlantic/Mysterious this month.
A fourth-generation Mexican born in Tampico, Mexico, in 1947, Blake has American, English, and Irish ancestors, notably one Robert Blake, “the black sheep of a landed English family,” who became a pirate and was executed in Veracruz, Mexico, in 1829. The author uses his family history as a jumping-off point for the sprawling and raucous Country of the Bad Wolfes, which spans three generations, beginning in the 1820s, and centers on two sets of identical twins and their extended families, chronicling their rise to wealth and power. From New England to Mexico, the Wolfe family’s story connects with that of Edward Little, the enigmatic American who was Porfirio Díaz’s chief of police—Little’s early history was recounted in Rogue Blood. Over a period of decades that concludes with Díaz’s overthrow in 1910, we witness the Wolfe clan grow in power, often through violence and illicit commerce. The story is told episodically, and Blake’s rich prose resonates with the flavor and cadence of the periods it recounts. “I like for the style of a book to reflect at least somewhat the character of its setting, of its time and place and social nature,” the author says. “The styles of my 19th-century novels, including Country, tend toward the phrasings of the pulpit, the schoolhouse, the journalism of the day. Such a style also has a dense texture that helps steep the reader in the feel and decorum of the time.”
Rules of Wolfe advances the story forward to the present day, which demanded a completely different tone and approach. The Wolfe clan remains involved in both legitimate and underworld activities, notably gun-running. Over the years, the family has survived in an increasingly hostile and chaotic environment, but developing its own “rules” of conduct. Asked if these rules are a variant of the classic “honor among thieves” theme, Blake clarifies: “I don’t think it’s a matter of ‘honor among thieves’ so much as ‘honor among us,’ where us is family or a gang or simply a partner. Or honor with one’s self. Such individuals can shape a personal code far more rigorous and demanding than society’s. The point is that there has to be a set of rules, some code of conduct to judge yourself by—a code by which to bestow reward and to render punishment, both to others and to yourself.”
The family rules are complicated and unnecessarily restrictive to Eddie Gato Wolfe, the 19-year-old protagonist of Rules of Wolfe, who is restless and anxious to prove himself. One such rule is that he must complete his college education before entering into the family’s illegal enterprises. Eddie decides to turn his back on the family and heads deep into Mexico to take a job working security for La Navaja, a brutal drug cartel lord. Soon after arriving at the isolated compound, Eddie falls for a beautiful young woman named Miranda, but he learns too late that she is the property of the boss’s brother. When the couple is discovered in flagrante, Eddie kills the man, and the couple are forced on the run.
What follows is an action-packed thrill ride as Eddie and Miranda race toward the border, pursued at every turn by the ruthless La Navaja. Blake adopts a crisp, terse prose style for this modern tale: “the speed of events and the prevailing mood of relentless danger demanded a writing timbre to match: a noir story of quick pulse, calling for a quicker style.”
While new readers who discover Blake with Rules of Wolfe will enjoy the book on its own merit, others who’ve read his previous book will appreciate that it is part of a much broader canvas. At the heart of the book is the Wolfe family’s 109-year-old matriarch, Catalina Little, who feels a particular kinship with Eddie. “The Wolfes venerate her as the living history of the family,” says Blake, “even though she’s a woman of many secrets and shares little of herself.”
“I’m fascinated by families,” Blake adds. “Maybe in part because my own was sundered when my father and his sisters returned to the U. S., separating us from the far larger branch that remained in Mexico City, a family that has remained very close to this day. I envy them.” Blake’s father, a civil engineer, traveled la frontera from Texas to California building roads from Mexico into the United States, settling for a time in Brownsville, Tex., and later Miami, Fla., where Blake completed high school and university. He moved around after this, and, with his mixed-race heritage, felt the perennial outsider, caught between two worlds. He’d later articulate this feeling of otherness in a personal essay that begins his collection of short fiction, Borderlands (Avon, 1999).
While the Blake clan may have inspired the fictional Wolfe family, the author is quick to maintain that this is not autobiography: “Although the narrative frame of the early parts of Country of the Bad Wolfes is based on the history of my own family, readers shouldn’t really make too much of that parallel. The book is a novel, after all. As for Rules of Wolfe, the only connection with my actual family is the long-held suspicion among American Blakes that the Mexican Blakes’ highly prosperous and generations-old import-export business has always included extra-legal commodities, the most profitable of which was said to be firearms. I can’t say whether that was ever true, but I am absolutely certain that my kinfolk south of the border today are each and every one leading upright, civic-minded, law-abiding lives. (That’s in case any of them should read this.)”
What’s next for Blake? The author, who has lived in Tucson, Ariz., for the past decade, has no shortage of material. “In books to come, I want to tell Wolfe stories that connect the family’s past and present, stories infused with the truth that the past is always with us and there’s no escaping the effects of our ancestors’ actions....” As for Catalina Little, “Is she still alive in the book in progress, which is set four years after Rules of Wolfe? We shall see.”