Brouhaha Below the Border No Simple Answers

by Abel Salas

by Paco Ignacio Taibo II

Picador USA, $13 paper Drinking gin by the case, an emaciated Stan Laurel watches from the window of a Juarez hotel as the legendary Pancho Villa is brutally gunned down in his automobile. Still an English vaudevillian trapped in a less-than-lucrative North American comedy circuit, Laurel has yet to begin the collaboration with Oliver Hardy that will reduce him to a one-dimensional character in a slew of successful films.

This unlikely scene sets in motion a rollercoaster thrill-ride through international intrigue, the crystal nostalgia of International Brigade veterans who came together idealistically as in pre-Franco Spain, unsavory drug lord shenanigans, and shadowy CIA operations during the worst of the Reagan/Bush covert excesses. And, as the book's chief spook says tellingly, it all points to a single, inspired observation: A good journalist does not believe in coincidence.

In Four Hands, the new novel by Mexico's preeminent crime and mystery writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II, two cynical, though not yet jaded journalists are pitted against a brilliant psycho mastermind known as Alex, who runs his dubious core of government agents -dwarves, as he calls them during a Disney mode - from a Manhattan rathole. As the intricately developed and poetically unfurled plot thickens like spiked gazpacho, Julio Fernandez, an overweight Mexican lovingly referred to as "Fats," and his writing partner Greg Simon, a Jewish New Yorker based in Los Angeles, inadvertently (or so they think) stumble onto the nearly indecipherable traces of global high-jinks.

Unfortunately, they are merely two unwitting pawns in a glittering game of manipulation, murder, and mayhem helmed by the enigmatically creative Alex, a rebel working for the greater glory of U.S. military-industrial capitalism and who uses the Cold War as his own convoluted canvas. Along the way, Taibo's command of historical fact is flawlessly woven through a cast of fictional characters and real-life figures that gives new meaning to bizarre. Add to the mix several cameo appearances by Houdini and the psychiatrist who treated him, an aging socialist-activist-turned-Hollywood-actor named Max Lewis, a Bulgarian communist who weathered Stalin's purges and maintains his poignant belief in the triumph of liberty, equality, and the end of exploitation by the world's moneyed classes, and you have a remarkable, if incendiary, novel.

Gleefully sinister and disturbing to a genuinely frightening degree, a CIA operation affectionately called the SD (Shit Department), is right there behind the suicide of a Polish labor leader, the assassination of a renowned Salvadoran writer by his own cadre of guerrillas, and the murder of Benjamin Linder, the young American engineer who died in Nicaragua at the hands of the Ronald Reagan/Oliver North-funded contras. (Name just about any other illogical or unexplained fall-out among the ranks of left-wing leaders during the Eighties and the novel makes you wonder if Alex or his real-life counterparts weren't actually involved. Scary stuff.)

Taibo's acute knowledge of film, literature, and world political history make for a fascinating adventure throughout the events and activities which came to shape destinies and continue to play themselves out on the contemporary chessboard of world power and military balance. His heroes and heroines are human; his villains are complex. Their individual trajectories are understood in a reality where there are never any simple answers.

Into this dark fray come the old guys, the Bulgarian communist and an octogenarian Spanish anarchist whose expert forgery skills have allowed him to erase his existence. Luckily, the wily Spaniard pops up again decades later in a Mexico City loony bin with a keen eye on the sights of his ancient revolver, accidentally foiling a $600,000 ploy to discredit a much-loved Sandinista vice-minister. Unaccounted for and undetected, the appropriately named Saturnino is just the coincidence Alex and his self-consciously stylish goons could not have predicted. Our intrepid pair of journalists, meanwhile, walk through revolutions with cameras and tape recorders, discovering a previously unknown spy thriller novel (written by Leon Trotsky under an assumed name) in the process. Racking up prizes and bylines in periodicals across the planet, the two are a lean, mean, four-handed writing machine.

With Four Hands, Taibo consolidates his mastery over a form which rarely sees the kind of innovation and clever tweaking he manages to instill. It is the book you'll feel compelled to read on a lonely highway or in mid-traffic, the paperback propped dangerously up against the steering wheel as you periodically check gauges, speed, or oncoming cars. Capable of bringing you to the edge of your seat in a way a screenplay based on story by John Grisham never will, it is the perfect hyper-espionage thriller to restore your faith in the formula.

It is also a touching and tender look through the eyes of revolutionary dreamers, poets who marched alongside Che and fought back Franco's tanks, street-hardened militants who, despite the hopelessly infinite onslaught of corruption and bureaucracy, have neither lost their ability to love nor their child-like wonder at a field full of daisies. n

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