LONGLISTED FOR THE CENTER FOR FICTION FIRST NOVEL PRIZE. One of Tor.com's Best Books of 2019.
"Readers of this breakout work [will leave] thrilled and disoriented in equal measure." --Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal
One of The Daily Beast's Best Summer Beach Reads of 2019, one of Lit Hub and The Millions's Most Anticipated Books of 2019, one of Buzzfeed and Tor.com's Books to Read This Spring, and one of the Chicago Review of Books' Best New Books of May
A parallel universe. South Texas. A third border wall might be erected between the United States and Mexico, narcotics are legal and there’s a new contraband on the market: filtered animals—species of animals brought back from extinction to amuse the very wealthy.
Esteban Bellacosa has lived in the border town of MacArthur long enough to know to keep quiet and avoid the dangerous syndicates who make their money through trafficking. But his simple life gets complicated after a swashbuckling journalist invites him to an underground dinner at which filtered animals are served. Bellacosa soon finds himself in the middle of an increasingly perilous and surreal journey, in the course of which he encounters legends of the long-disappeared Aranaña Indian tribe and their object of worship: the mysterious Trufflepig, said to possess strange powers.
Written with infectious verve, bold imagination, and oddball humor, Fernando A. Flores’s Tears of the Trufflepig is an absurdist take on life along the border, an ode to the myths of Mexican culture, and an introduction to a staggeringly smart new voice in American fiction.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
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Bellacosa walked carefully over the rotting planks, unsure if this was the shack where he was born. Its roof was missing, and he looked up at the aluminum sky. It hadn't caved in, so he figured some South Texas zephyr galloped away with it. He stomped down hard and fine orange dust lifted and formed a ghost in his own image, eager to dance or play cards, then sank back down into the cracks. He lit a Herzegovina Flor cigarette and murmured, "Somebody out there isn't doing their job," noticing he'd dirtied his authentic, ostrich-knee Wingham dress shoes. He tried to imagine what the place could've looked like all those decades ago — where his mother gave birth, what the hustling midwife looked like, where his father stood wringing his hat. The shack was small, as he'd expected. He didn't know why, but he thought there'd be no floor. The planks surprised him.
He walked out of the threshold as if emerging from quicksand and smoked the rest of the Herzegovina Flor by his old Jeep, admiring the cavity structure on the dry, barren farmland. The sky was different than it appeared from inside, giving the impression time had never changed in the shack, and the rooms where we are born keep giving birth to us forever. The sun was rising. It was a roosterless dawn, in the part of South Texas where no beast yawned.
The old Jeep sped down the even older military surplus road. It had one of those stereos with the knobs and the needle, and quietly a corrido sang to Bellacosa, "Y llegaron Noviembre, y Diciembre, y Enero, Febrero, Marzo, y Abril."
He was doubtful now that that had been the shack, and as the pavement ended and the old Jeep hit the powdery road Bellacosa slowed down, feeling strangely relieved that his birthplace was still a mystery to him.
A few days prior, when he learned he'd have to make the drive to Calantula County, Bellacosa stopped by the records office for a copy of his birth certificate. His parents had been migrant workers and Bellacosa was the only of their two sons to be born in America, for which he felt grateful. Though he'd always been poorer than his brother, Oswaldo, down in Mexico, he could still cross back and forth without too many problems, and in his line of work this came in handy. Bellacosa was a widower trying to pull himself out of debt, but he never felt that he lacked for anything. He'd learned, unlike many people in South Texas, not to curse God for his problems, for his deep losses. All my grievances and disgraces have been my own, he'd say, and it's the divine spirit that throws me bones now and then.
Bellacosa arrived at the McMasters property on time, 7:30 a.m. He parked by the doghouse-sized mailbox on the edge of the property, turned off the old Jeep, and waited for the cloud of dust from the road to pass by. Bellacosa knew he'd have to talk to the Aranaña Indian farmer who cared for the land, and he was ready. He had no problem talking to these working Aranaña Indians. A lot of people now did, because of the stigma from the syndicates and shrunken heads, the filtering of animals. But it was all an accident. It wasn't these people's faults, these fucking Indians, he thought. After all, I'm a fucking Indian, we are all fucking Indians in the Valley. That's why we're here. And what the hell is a Mexican Indian, a mistake. Columbus thought he landed in India somewhere, so that's what he called all these Mexicans. Fuck Columbus. Fuck the Indians. I'm an Indian, too. Fuck me.
Bellacosa got out of the old Jeep and climbed an embankment of dry ferns onto the property. There were moaning whirlwind pillars and tufts of raisin-eyed, pockmarked chickens clucking around. Before even saying a word to anybody, Bellacosa was already exhausted from the encounter he was about to have. He looked around for the 7900 Rig — what construction people call La Mano de Chango, and what the Americans call "the Claw," a machine used to dig up large holes in the ground. He spotted the giant yellow bastard out back, moping, wanting to hug the ground like a friendless drunk with its one mechanical claw. It was nearby a tiny green trailer, where the farmer presumably lived, and about fifty feet to its left was a carpet of grain and feathers, boards nailed together like small bleachers, and a short, dry trough. It was the chicken coop, apparently, but the chicken wire that kept it together was missing. Markings on the thirsty ground outlined the coop about twenty-five by twelve feet, and standing on the feathers and grain, waving a denim hat around, was the farmer.
"You're the one about the machine?" the man yelled at Bellacosa, in his high, singsong, campesino Spanish.
"I am. You Tranquilino?"
"Here to serve you. It's just that this wind in the middle of the night, it took away the roof and the fences of my chickens. Mire nomás." Tranquilino sighed. "The ground here is so dry the posts in every corner came off like toothpicks. My wife woke me, she thought the wind would take our little trailer, too. I'm a heavy sleeper since I don't get much sleep, and when I woke everything was shaking, and the chickens were making a racket like they're being attacked by coyotes like when I was a boy, y ayayay."
Tranquilino pointed with his hat to an old black van propped on cinder blocks at the other side of the property, with chicken wire mounted where the doors ought to be, under a mesquite tree hunched like the Hermit in the tarot. Installing the chicken wire was a boy no older than seven dressed like a barefoot basketball player, with taut and rugged features brown like the sun, his small hands pinching and twisting the wire using needle-nose pliers.
"I have my son Matador making a temporary coop out of my old van, where I lived as a bachelor. That pinche van gave me nothing but trouble. Maybe the chickens will have something else to say about it, we are giving it a chance with them." Tranquilino squinted his eyes as if Bellacosa refracted light, then put his denim hat back on his balding head.
"So you just here for La Mano de Chango? Still runs well. I turn it on once a week and move it so it won't expire. Just like everything else here expired. After the land expired first. You know, right before you got here I was standing there thinking the chicken coop flying away serves me right. It reminded me that it was me who let this land expire. Doesn't look like much now, but that is my fault. I let it get this way." Bellacosa looked around at the bones of the land as he listened to the farmer, and for a moment wondered if it still had running water underground.
"The jefe McMasters instructed me to let the crop die some time back. It was fine by me. To this day he still pays me to look after this land. Mr. McMasters no longer wanted to farm and distribute naturally grown onions since his company makes them now the filtering way much faster. But I could have continued maintaining the land myself without a problem. After all, I'm still living here. I could have found buyers for the onions, because people always want food that is grown organically. But I didn't bother in those days, and everything died. Now the land has gone bad and nothing will grow. So after my son finishes, and all these chickens are put away, and you get what you came for, I'm gassing the tractor. My family and me will bring this land back to life. It's what needs to happen."
Tranquilino motioned Bellacosa to follow him. Bellacosa checked the time. It hadn't been two hours since his last smoke, but he was on an empty stomach. He plucked out a Herzegovina Flor, offered one to Tranquilino.
"No, gracias," Tranquilino said, pointing at a pile of bloody, pale leaves on the ground. Thick blood appeared to be slowly trickling away from its center, like organized army ants leaving their nest. Pinching the cigarette with his lips, Bellacosa took a good look: They were bright red ants, yes, the size of sunflower seeds, crawling all over a dead, twisted chicken. The ants were slowly carrying the chicken away.
"They are dragging the dead away like the calaveras del diablo. It is because of these ants my coop flew away, you see. Listen," Tranquilino said, looking around. "Can you hear all that racket? That's the company working for McMasters now drilling for something way over beyond that field of mesquite. They are in business with the government, I think. They must be drilling for gases or petroleum for the economy. We have been getting a lot of big ants here, because with the drilling they are driving them away. Now here they are all over this property. You think there is nothing under us but a world of ants now, with all the drilling?" Bellacosa held the cigarette between two fingers like a pen and carefully surveyed the property. Everywhere he looked, there were veins of army ants draining the land itself of blood from right under them. The dried field where the onions had once grown was cracked, pallid, and tubercular. Through his peripheral vision Bellacosa thought he saw the earth shifting, felt like it was being encircled by an invisible army. It bothered him how confidently the ants carried that dead chicken, and whereas earlier he was confused as to why the farmer hadn't stopped them, now he understood. Death was the order of the day.
Bellacosa was impatient to talk business and said, "I don't know anything about the habits of army ants. So, the machine works?"
"It works. You want me to start it for you?"
Tranquilino mounted the lonely yellow beast and started it up, moved the claw on the hydraulic up and down and side to side, then tilted the claw as if about to take a bite of the ground. Bellacosa was thankful and, satisfied, clapped his hands. As Tranquilino climbed down the rig muttering to himself, Bellacosa saw that the man barely had any teeth. He was dirty and everything about him should have smelled like sweat and squalor, but Bellacosa admired Tranquilino's composure, bordering on nonchalance.
"I'm calling a company to pick up this machine tomorrow and I'll call your jefe Mr. McMasters at his office to get the transaction rolling," Bellacosa announced. "The people picking it up for me will ask for a signature."
"Oh, no, I never sign anything," Tranquilino said, waving with his hands.
"Okay, then I'll figure something out."
"Do what you need. McMasters and his men just came and left that thing anyway. Nobody uses it."
The chickens around the land looked brain-dead and hobbled about, pecking at pebbles and clumps of dirt off the ground. They looked as if they'd already been fried and digested, imitating the people who would consume them. Occasionally a gust of wind would frighten them and their wings fluttered; feathers would dart out like the nine of clubs or five of hearts in a card game gone bad.
Bellacosa noticed his left thumbnail was longer than the other fingernails on that hand, like he was a guitar picker. In his mounting anxiety he dug his index finger under the nail, then lit another Herzegovina Flor. Tranquilino suddenly looked very familiar to Bellacosa, as if he'd been a friend in a distant dream.
"All of this on this wacko day," Tranquilino said. "Have you listened to the news already? The police in Mexico found El Gordo Pacheco, dead. His ostriches ate him up. They killed him and his entire family. Can you believe that?" He laughed. "El Gordo Pacheco, he was a bad man to the end, you know. He had all the birds he could ever want, only to be killed by real ostriches. They ate him and his entire family. This powerful, rich person, the king of Sindicato Casablanca. Look at that now, you know, with the ants and the chickens, and the ostriches of El Gordo Pacheco. It's the earth finding ways to fight back. That's why I need to continue cultivating this land, to please the laws of nature so the ants don't come for my family next. I need to tell the jefe McMasters this." Tranquilino removed his hat. He held it in his hand like a large compass, or a magic eight ball. "Doesn't matter if natural onions are no longer a moneymaking business, it is still good land, and we need to continue working it."
As Bellacosa processed this news about the untouchable Pacheco, Tranquilino's son had finished turning the van into a chicken coop and was going around grabbing each pockmarked chicken to crowd it inside.
Bellacosa found this a bit bleak, and he mentioned to the man and his son that it'd be better to let the chickens run free. Tranquilino protested, telling him that he couldn't lose the rest of the chickens.
"But there's nothing around for miles," replied Bellacosa. "Where would they go?"
"Still," Tranquilino said. "I can't lose the rest of the chickens. As a human being, I can't lose the rest of them."
Bellacosa, slightly dismayed, shook Tranquilino's calloused hand and as he walked away watched him and his barefoot son in the basketball jersey pluck chickens from the ground and stuff them into the van. He thought he saw a plump purple one sitting on the steering wheel.
From inside the old Jeep he heard the horn of the van honk and saw a flutter of feathers fly upward like hats at a graduation ceremony. But Bellacosa was thinking about the red army ants now. What are they doing down there? How many can there possibly be?CHAPTER 2
As long as it's only men that are our problem, not diseases, Bellacosa thought. As long as it's only men who are the diseases. Men we can get rid of. With diseases you're in the doctor's hands and it's over. A doctor is just a different kind of killer. Hospitals and me, never again. Had enough hospitals when they took my daughter, then when they took Lupita, que en paz descansen mis mujeres. Me, when it's my time, I will go standing up. Walking in the middle of the street in the sunlight, the divine switch will be flipped, and that will be that.
Rodrigo Esparza, a great friend of Bellacosa's for many years, was only forty-six when he suffered a heart attack. Nothing brought him back; he died instantly. Young guy, what a shame; but lucky bastard, too, Bellacosa thought. His kids were still in school, though, and his wife didn't work. Pobre señora. Varo Sanchez, he's gone, died in an expressway car wreck on the way back from the beach with his wife, they both died when the paramedics arrived. The ones still around are either limping, diseased, or missing their teeth. Me, gracias a Dios, I'm not limping, am healthy, and have almost all my teeth, though at times they've given me trouble and Oswaldo's checked them out.
Bellacosa phoned his client Don Villaseñor, who was visiting his offices in Piedras Negras, Mexico, and gave him the good news, that he'd found the 7900 Rig faster than he'd anticipated. Don Villaseñor expressed his gratitude and reminded Bellacosa he was his favorite freelance scout for his construction company, even told him he was the best in all of Texas. Don Villaseñor was in a hurry, so he gave Bellacosa a seventeen-digit transfer code, which he sloppily jotted down, to pick up fifteen thousand dollars in cash at the small bank built into Tin Can Spur Truck Stop in order to purchase the rig from McMasters.
Relieved now that he'd advanced to the next step of the deal, with money coming his way, Bellacosa told himself it was time for breakfast. He drove downtown, found a good spot to park around the corner from Baby Grand Central.
It was a calm hour of day, and Bellacosa jaywalked across Broadway along with el elotero, the man who sold roasted corn out of his shoddily painted purple pushcart. In the barrow of the cart, covered with many thick blankets, the man kept the plastic ice chest filled with the piping hot roasted corn, next to the skewers and homemade hot sauce in tin containers.
"Qué fue, señor," the elotero said to Bellacosa, "you hear the news about El Comisario?"
"Pues nuestro señor Pacheco. He can rest in peace now, no longer living his life evading the law. Who knows why we do the things we do on this earth. Now that he's no longer with us nobody will know the real truth of his story."
A couple of young businessmen in shades approached the elotero, each signaling with dollar bills for roasted corn. The elotero parked his pushcart along the curb and began peeling away the layers of blankets in the ice chest as Bellacosa walked toward Baby Grand Central.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Tears of the Trufflepig"
Copyright © 2019 Fernando A. Flores.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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