Claustrophobics beware: John Vaillant’s novel The Jaguar’s Children ($26, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) takes place almost entirely inside the 10,000-gallon tank of a Dina water truck stranded near the Arizona-Mexico border. Hector Gonzalez and his friend Cesar decide to leave Oaxaca for the United States; Hector for family reasons, and Cesar, a plant geneticist, because a Mexican Big Ag corn cartel wants him dead for exposing a sprawling conspiracy involving GMOs. The two buy in with coyotes, who seal them—along with 13 other immigrants—inside the sand-colored truck with AGUA PARA USO HUMANO inscribed on the tank. (Someone has tagged it with a J and an R, so that AGUA now reads JAGUAR.) Once safely across the border, the plan goes, the coyotes will cut a hole in the tank and free the passengers.
Though the geography of the story is that of Cormac McCarthy, the plot shares more territory with Edgar Allen Poe, and it soon becomes clear that the Dina truck is not a jaguar but a Trojan horse from hell. Cesar is critically injured when a jounce on the road knocks his head into a sharp pipe. Then the truck breaks down a mile inside Arizona and the drivers flee like, well, coyotes, leaving the passengers trapped. “The screen on Cesar’s phone makes everything look cold and blue like we are underwater, or dead already,” Hector says as he uses it to record an audio file. The story is told mostly through these files—which Hector hopes to eventually send to a woman named AnniMac, the lone American contact in the phone, once he regains service.
Eventually, though, the other travelers grow tired of Hector’s constant yammering and violence erupts—think Lord of the Flies in a drum. “I couldn’t hear the coyotes anymore, only one bird outside warning the others, because the sound in here was terrible, a frenzy,” Hector says. “I was trying to get them off, shouting, pushing and kicking them away, but we were like a bucket of crabs with the lid on and no place to go.”
In the wrong hands, this story could come off as overbaked or schlocky. But Vaillant, the author of the 2011 award-winning nonfiction book The Tiger, guides us to an ending that is improbable, dripping with irony, and entirely satisfying. Border fiction has a new top-shelf title.
Book Reviews in 30 Words or Less
Two other debut novels on our nightstands:
Blood-Drenched Beard, by Daniel Galera
$27, The Penguin Press
After his father’s murder, a triathlete with face blindness moves to a Brazilian surf town to swim, fall in love, and find the killer. Brilliant prose from a big-deal translator.
Descent, by Tim Johnston
A young girl disappears in the Rocky Mountains on a morning run, and her family sets out to discover why. An original and psychologically deep thriller.