Rio Gangesby David Theis
Winedale Publishing, 262 pp., $20 (paper)
Perhaps the most refreshing refrain in David Theis' skillfully orchestrated first novel is the protagonist's refusal to accept his wife's desire to sleep around. In the hands of a Richard Ford or a Rick Moody, Dan would most likely slink off into an amoral wasteland of suburban indifference and wallow in pathetic resignation. But when Jane, Dan's libidinous spouse, takes up with a perfectly sculpted dancer -- a man with whom sex was like "two neighboring rivers that had torn through their banks to get at each other" -- he convinces her to take their toddler, May, and travel with him on a road of redemption from Austin to Central Mexico. It's there, in the hills outside of Mexico City, where a plum teaching job awaits, in a school run by the enigmatic and wealthy Carlos Valparaíso. And it's there where Dan hopes to reclaim his relationship with the woman he deeply loves, infidelities and all.
That's wishful thinking, of course. Dan's self-inflicted demons dog him with unforgiving persistence and Jane, oh that Jane, soon finds herself in the sack with Valparaíso, "she on top of him, he grinding her down into a mattress," as Dan imagines the tryst. Dan, like his father before him, reaches his breaking point and runs, catching his breath in Mexico City, but not before a failed attempt to murder a caged hawk that he bought from a roadside vendor. Honoring the hawk's miraculous resilience (he placed the thing in front of a barreling truck), he bears the bird like a cross into the polluted city. The hawk circles Dan's emotional demise with a fierce eye, and waits for him to go limp and float like the stiff corpses that course down the Ganges River as ritualistic evocations of life's cruel brevity
"If they could ever dig Mexico City out from its own shit," Dan thinks, "it would look just fine." Indeed, one could say the same for him, as he immediately starts digging himself out. Theis, in languid, rich prose, creates a Mexico City that Dan ironically calls "Deepest Darkest Mexico." In fact, in Theis' clever portrayal, Mexico City becomes a transparent, carnivalesque playground, replete with misfits, eccentrics, and forlorn expats. Not only does the city thankfully provide a backdrop for some much-needed humor, but it guides Dan through a bewildering, almost hallucinogenic, maze of enlightening experiences. Like his caged hawk, he not only survives, but flourishes, hungering for the elusive redemption he deserves. When Dan heads back to Valparaíso's compound, where Jane and their now two children live, we're reminded how great literature ultimately deals with birth, death, and, most importantly, all the stuff in between.