Dan Slater Raises Wolf Boys: “…they would bring live captives from the rival cartel who had been detained, into the camp, essentially as human target practice…”

slater-wolf_boysIt was a small article in the newspaper that caught Dan Slater’s attention. Two teenaged boys from Laredo, Texas had been arrested – as assassins for the Zeta cartel. At first he thought there was not enough story to give him more than a magazine article. But where life is parsimonious, story can be generous. The story of Gabriel Cardona and Bart Reta – and policeman Robert Garcia – as told in Wolf Boys: Two American Teenagers and Mexico’s Most Dangerous Drug Cartel bears more resemblance to a novel by Don Winslow or T. Jefferson Parker than anything you’ll find in the paper. Credit Dan Slater for not only sensing a great story, but as well for the research and tenacity to bring it all together in the manner of a page-turning novel.

Slater is a smart writer, who knows how to engage the reader both with story and history, that is to say, the background readers need to understand the strange currents that turned two pretty average-seeming teenagers into rock-star style assassins. He begins his story with Robert Garcia, whose parents had “emigrated from Piedras Negras, Mexico, to the Texas border town of Eagle Pass—an international journey of one mile.” There they built their house themselves, on a patch of land, and brought up their children. Robert ended up in the military, then married, then moved to Laredo, where he became a cop.

Slater gives us Gabriel and Bart’s back-stories as well, crafting a trio of characters we want to like even a we know where this is headed. Slater expertly weaves the personal stories of these men into the larger story of drug smuggling in Mexico, which serves an American market eager to consume. It’s not a matter of whether the drugs will reach us, but how and from whom – in this case, Gabriel and Bart.

The trick of the non-fiction writer is to make is to make us care deeply about the characters and to lucidly illuminate the history that drives them. Even if we know what happens, the reading is engaging and gripping, and Slater deliver on all counts. He crafts a narrative that is every bit as compelling as any thriller and utterly true. Slater’s craft is such that he makes the revelation of the information a plot point for tension, as we turn the pages faster and faster to find out how it came to a point when two teenagers night live like rock stars in Laredo, driving Mercedes, wearing Versace and killing with impunity.

dan_slater-2016Part of the reason this is all so effective is that Slater never editorializes, even if he’s quite clear that drug prohibition never works. Slater’s focus on the personal lives and the true-crime elements, on the driving story and intense tension, is perfect. He and I talked about his book and the means by which he corralled his huge story into a taut tale of non-fiction suspense. His easygoing conversation complements the precision of his style. Ultimately, Wolf Boys evokes a complicated set of emotions and understandings. We know these people well enough to recognize that in other circumstances, we might be these people.

You can hear the lightning round, executive summary interview by listening below.

Or settle back and enjoy the long-form discussion….

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T. C. Boyle Launches The Terranauts : “…a lot of people couldn’t believe that they would stay in and that they’d sneak out at night to McDonalds…”

The search for immortal scientific truth is, alas, undertaken by mere mortals. Humans, in fact. As much as we might like to think otherwise, it turns out that our humanity tends to get in the way of science. We do manage to turn up a truth now and again, but the journey to those discoveries is fraught with humanity. We are unable to control ourselves, even when the fate of the world we create is at stake, even when that world is domed-over and walled-in. The pristine, austere environments created by the bio-dome E2 should be the perfect place for science to unfold. But in T. C. Boyle’s The Terranauts, it’s 1994, and the experiment about to unfold tells us more about humanity than science.

boyle-the_terranauts.jpgBoyle’s story unfolds in three first-person narratives. The plan is to lock up four men and four women for two years. we meet the team just before they enter, when they are still competing for spaces. Ramsay Roothoorp is something of a Lothario, and one of the lucky ones to get chosen as a Terranaut. Before he even gets inside, he’s measuring up the women who might be chosen, and honing in on the one he plans to seduce. Dawn Chapman is also chosen, unlike Linda Ryu. By giving us both perspectives [those inside and outside the dome], Boyle is able to easily up the mischief ante. As the science spirals out of control, them humans create interpersonal tension with no effort.

Of course, it’s the sex. It’s always the sex. The affairs, the trysts, the covering thereof, the uncovering thereof, the complicated attractions and rejections that are the dynamics behind all our lives manage to come a bit more to the front when isolated under (or outside of) the dome. Lynda is jealous and spiteful and yet wants to support the effort within, on the faint hope that she will be selected next time. Connections inside and outside the dome are woven and rewoven with Boyle’s narrative expertise. It’s funny and tense and intense all at once.

For a book that essentially locks the door and throws away the key for much of its length, Boyle finds plenty to keep us tense and engaged. And trust me, every time you think you’ve twigged to every wrinkle, another is revealed. While you might intuit that this does not end well, you might also be quite surprised by Boyle’s deep affection for the flawed creatures he knows so well. For all the science they attempt, the experiment that works best and offers the most substantive results is the one performed by fiction writer T. C. Boyle, who crafts fully-rounded, living characters in his prose Petri dish and brings them to life in the slippery agar of his gripping plotline.

Given the title it comes as no surprise that The Terranauts is a journey to Earth at its most human. Whether you are in or out of E2 makes little difference. E1 is teeming with humans, who spend an inordinate amount of time engaged in courtship and mating rituals. And yes, the same behavior that gets us in trouble does now and again, give birth to answers that might be a ray of hope. But when those hopes become human, all bets are off.

tc_boyle-2016Listeners who have been tuned in to this podcast for a while will know that I’ve spoken with T. C. Boyle many times over the years. We’ve always had fun and this time was no exception. Before we even got into the studio, I was reminded of the first book by T. C. Boyle I read, World’s End. And here we are hurtling into a future that was only described by science fiction back when The Terranauts takes place. In fact, as Boyle himself observed, his actual set-in-the-future SF novel A Friend of the Earth might well have been set in 2016, not 2016. The merde has hit the fan quite early. Science fiction is, at heart, an optimistic genre of fiction when it purports that there is a future to predict.

You can hear T.C. Boyle and I in the ‘lightning round” interview below.

Or settle back and enjoy the long-form discussion….

Colson Whitehead Boards The Underground Railroad: “…the book is being rebooted every sixty pages…”

How can we understand the truth? How can we ensure that our understandings of the past are clearer than our hopes for the future? In theory, the past is fixed.   But if this is so, it is not because the events themselves are immutable. It is because the past is enclosed by language, trapped by our descriptions of it. The difference between our histories of the past and our fantasies of the future is more a matter of tense than of accuracy.

whitehead-the_underground_railroadColson Whitehead re-imagines the past using the accuracy of the fantastic to create a world that did not in fact exist, but feels just as realistic as anything we are told did happen. The Underground Railroad describes an America where the means by which slaves were in rare cases able to escape were not improvised routes, but rather, an actual underground railroad line, not surprisingly built by enterprising slaves. Once we step on board, history becomes very different, even if it always feels right.

We meet Cora as a slave in a setting so savage and awful, it feels utterly fantastical, like something a racist, fetishist creep might dream up. Yet we know that this opening section hews quite closely to accurately recorded real events. But the feel is so terrible, it’s hard to hold it in. We dissociate whether we want to or not. It’s a pure relief when Cora escapes and begins her journey on the railroad. And that is when Whitehead’s anti-fantastic inclinations kick into overdrive, all to the better for the terrorizing, gripping, beautifully told story.

Instead of veering into some sort of alternate history timeline, Whitehead takes Cora on what feels like an otherworld journey. Each stop along the railroad has its own feel, and its own sinister re-weaving or our world into something different that nonetheless captures the essence of horror and dread implicit in the American slave trade. The fantastic aspects are dialed far back as Whitehead remixes the worst bits of our history into a story just as terrible as that which leads to the present. Everything in The Underground Railroad feels right, but it just looks wrong.

Whitehead’s approach is hardheaded and hermetic. He never lets enough reality in to let you question what is on the page. The Underground Railroad is reality, or might as well be. But the elements of fantasy do more than externalize the horror of the slave trade. They allow us as readers to both enjoy the low-key dissonant strangeness of the narrative and to immerse ourselves in this story where our own involvement and awfulness hovers relentlessly in the background.

History prefers to be seen as non-fiction. We always want to believe that we are just, that we need but, record what has happened and that will tell the tale. Upon hearing what we have just lived through reported back to us, most of us beg to differ. No matter how right the facts may be, the story itself just feels wrong. Alas, experience is ever dry. Life, on the other hand, for better or worse, cannot help but feel fantastic.

I remember finding so many years ago, Colson Whitehead’s first novel, The Intuitionist, and really being struck by the combination of realism and fantasy in that novel. It was a while before we actually got to speak, but he and I have been talking regularly for many years of his career. I must admit that it was particularly thrilling this time around though.

colson_whitehead-2016On the day Colson Whitehead and I spoke, The Underground Railroad was both nominated for a National Book Award and became #1 national bestseller. [The latter according to our local newspaper.]  While it deserves a Hugo, a Nebula or a World Fantasy Award, it is perhaps only in a work in one of those genres where a book like this gets nominated for a genre fiction award.

You can hear our lightning round below.

And here is our long-form conversation: