Texas twilight 

Crime fiction meets policy in DeMarinis' El Paso

Of all the writers who can be semi-legitimately lumped into what might be called the Missoula school, Rick DeMarinis has had perhaps the most varied career. A 1967 graduate of the University of Montana's creative writing program (which presented him with a lifetime achievement award at the 2015 Montana Book Festival), DeMarinis went on, over the course of the next four decades and counting, to publish 10 novels and seven collections of short stories—the latter being the form for which he's perhaps best regarded.

The body of work is diverse, from the oddball sci-fi of 1977's Scimitar to 1987's bildungsromanesque The Year of the Zinc Penny to 2001's A Clod of Wayward Marl, DeMarinis' inaugural foray into the crime fiction genre.

And because writing well and variously is a crummy way to make a living, DeMarinis has also followed a peripatetic career as a professor of creative writing, having helped wrap young minds around the mysteries of fiction at San Diego State University, Arizona State and, finally, the University of Texas at El Paso, whence he retired from full-time teaching in 1999.

That geographical and categorical breadth sets DeMarinis apart from his peers in the Missoula cohort—William Kittredge, James Welch, Jim Crumley, James Lee Burke, Jon Jackson, et al.—and while it has built him a well-deserved reputation as a writer's writer, it has probably also contributed to a certain precariousness in the marketplace.

It's hard not to consider DeMarinis' late-career output in terms of that precariousness. Since 2001, the lion's share of his work has taken the form of crime fiction, a genre that Crumley helped annex for literature, and that Burke—himself no slouch on the literary front—has developed into a commercial juggernaut. Unlike the sort of literary short fiction frequently lauded as "inventive" and "fabulist," genre work has at least an outside chance of selling, and as with Montana poet Richard Hugo before him (anyone remember Death and the Good Life?), you can almost hear DeMarinis, now 81, trying to crack the elusive commercial nut.

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El Paso Twilight, published this month by Bozeman-based Bangtail Press, continues the crime fiction exploration that began with A Clod of Wayward Marl (the Shakespeare reference should tell you everything you need to know about this or any genre's ability to contain DeMarinis) and continued with 2003's Sky Full of Sand (published with an intro by Crumley). Like both of those books, El Paso Twilight is set in the titular Texas border town, a geographical margin where worlds collide and combine, and thus fertile turf for stories of conflict. Like most of DeMarinis' work, it features mostly male protagonists whose lives are in the process of falling apart around them.

One of these is J.P., an El Paso native, whose initials suggestively "don't stand for anything," and Gulf War veteran with a Kuwaiti casualty on his conscience and a flagging career as an insurance company investigator. The other is Luther Penrose, a Falstaffian scion of local power brokers and a would-be novelist with Wagnerian ambitions. But it's Luther's longtime girlfriend, Carla, a professor of Latin American studies and social justice activist, who sets the plot in motion when she disappears with Hector Martinez, a grad student who may or may not be her lover. Regardless, hapless Luther hires slightly less-hapless J.P. to track her down.

That search sets in motion a plot that incorporates echoes of Crumley's hangover-road-trip school of sleuthing, a Three Kings-style subplot involving ill-gotten Gulf War booty and a strong shot of the ritualized hyper-violence that characterizes some of Burke's most unsettling bad guys. The scaffolding gives DeMarinis ample opportunity to indulge elegant metaphors contrasting the pure-water Hueco Bolson aquifer underlying El Paso with the wholly impure Rio Grande dividing El Paso from Juarez (Missoula writers, no matter how far from home, can be relied upon to plumb the primacy of water), noir wordplay (J.P. plays Marty Robbins tunes on an El Paso bar jukebox until "the regulars began to look at my neck with knives in their eyes") and slapstick action with a pair of meathead heavies named Huddy Darko and Spode Weems.

The current bubbling beneath the plot's surface is the immigration debate that Donald Trump—a character more unlikely than any DeMarinis would dare to invent—has kindly made a fixture of the daily news. And while genre fiction is hardly the place to go looking for solutions to that ball of wax, it's worth noting that J.P.'s stand-for-nothing pragmatism toward that longstanding conundrum is probably the sanest thing in the book—or in most of what passes these days for policy debate. It's just another quiet reminder that Rick DeMarinis' work, no matter how highly regarded or historically under-lauded, continues to deliver even more than its promise.

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