Consider this: In 2021, 596 migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border died or went missing, according to the Missing Migrants Project — and this year, so far, the number is 252. Due to the recent SCOTUS decision regarding reproductive rights, Americans are now traveling to or ordering medications from Mexico in order to gain access to abortions. Meanwhile, this year, there have been at least 356 mass shootings in the U.S. (and it's only August); at least 21 trans people have been murdered; climate change is continuing apace; the most common COVID-19 variant as of late is more vaccine resistant than previous ones; and monkeypox was declared a public health emergency by the World Health Organization.
Feeling nihilistic enough? Good. That's exactly how you want to be when reading Gabino Iglesias' riveting new novel, The Devil Takes You Home a barrio noir that invites readers to consider the depths of darkness in this world, its material effects, and the cycles of violence we both willingly and perforce enter into.
At the novel's opening, Mario, the narrator, and his wife Melisa have just received news that their daughter Anita has been diagnosed with leukemia. A few weeks later, Mario is fired from his job after taking too much time off to care for her. The bills, medical and otherwise, pile up, and in desperation, Mario reaches out to Brian, an old coworker who told Mario once to "Call if the damn poverty noose gets too tight, yeah?" In short order, Brian gives Mario a gun, a mark, and the promise of $6,000. Mario shoots the stranger he's been charged with killing and, despite wrestling with himself beforehand, admits: "I didn't feel bad about it. I felt good. It freaked me out a little and I couldn't breathe, but it also felt like energy through my veins... He deserved it. He was as guilty of Anita's illness as everybody else."
When Anita dies and Melisa leaves (this is early enough in the book to not count as a spoiler, I promise), Mario is left with nothing but grief, rage, and the hounding of collection agencies. When Brian makes Mario an offer to join him and a man called Juanca on a two-day job that will net them each $200k, Mario — both entirely aware of what he's doing and desperately hoping that the money will somehow help him get Melisa back, accepts.
The Devil Takes You Home is written in both English and Spanish — the former outweighs the latter, and any Spanish dialogue too important to the plot or mood is translated — and takes readers on a journey to hell and back. Whether hell is the American racism, the Mexican cartel industry, Mario's grief and increasing comfort with violence, or all of the above, it works; as Juanca says, "the devil is everywhere."
According to Otto Penzler, owner of the Mysterious Bookshop in NYC and one of the editors of The Best American Noir of the Century, noir fiction (often confused with hardboiled detective fiction) is about lost characters "who are caught in the inescapable prisons of their own construction, forever trapped by their isolation from their own souls, as well as from society and the moral restrictions that permit it to be regarded as civilized."
Iglesias, who is the author of several books including Zero Saints and Coyote Songs as well as a book critic (for NPR, among other venues), certainly draws on these elements of noir. But he has a more expansive definition for barrio noir, which "is any writing that walks between languages, borders, and cultures [and] that occupies a plethora of interstitial spaces and isn't afraid to engage with all religions and superstitions as well as to bring in supernatural elements."
The mix of religious, superstitious, and supernatural elements add a dimension to the novel that heightens its horror, but also its social commentary. Mario, whose mother used drugs, always said he had angels watching over him, and he's had waking visions all his life; early in the book, a neighbor from Mario's time in Puerto Rico as a child, who might not even be alive anymore, shows up to issue him a warning. Increasingly over the course of the book, however, Mario's visions become the least of his problems as both gods and devils are called upon to bless a series of horrific acts that don't make sense. But as Mario knows "things that don't make sense happen all the time." Things like Mario, bilingual and college educated and smart, being turned down for jobs because of his race; things like racist white men getting a cut of Mexican cartel money because they can so easily buy guns in Texas; things like priests needing to make peace with the violence surrounding them in order to continue caring for their communities; things like doctors calling a dying child a "fascinating case."
The Devil Takes You Home may not be a cheerful book, but it still allows glimpses of love, moments of connection, and glimmers of beauty to exist. Even if those can't save us, they point toward what, with some effort and luck, just might.
Ilana Masad is a fiction writer, book critic, and author of the novel All My Mother's Lovers.