The third part of this epic begins with artistic-sounding dreamy reflections, hinting at the possibility of a welcome change of style. The narrator mentions a "vaguely familiar Aztec lake" which sounds evocative, but what does it evoke? Nothing, really, it's a lake. But we are just hoping something will happen after these many pages.
And finally, it does. "Quincy Williams was thirty when his mother died." Not quite "aujourd'hui Maman est mort," but at this point we will take what we can get in the way of characterization and motivation.
Alas, not much comes of it. The novel about nothing marches on. One begins to suspect that the author was paid by the word. I brought this book on vacation, where I had entire hours with nothing to do: no errands, no bills, no internet. Yet I still struggled to make progress. I found myself reading about Leonardo DeCaprio flyboarding in Ibiza in a tabloid magazine. Finally Hello! reminded me of my duty to Bolaño.
There is a lot of description of Detroit that might be of interest to readers familiar with the area, including a description of an elaborate mural on page 241. The gritty environs seem an apt location for a dialogue between the protagonist-of-the-moment and a bartender about the barman's past as a boxer. He describes months of traveling around North and South Carolina, going from one "shitty-ass motel" to another with his trainer, "this old man called Johnny Bird," culminating in his last fight in "Athens, in South Carolina." (Presumably he means Georgia, but the gentle reader blames the malapropism on the speaker, who describes himself as "wobbly ... because I'd got hit so much.")
This little episode actually started to have some gravity. I imagined a dark scene in a rough, urban neighborhood, with motes of dust drifting through sunbeams filtering through the grimy windows. I had to imagine it, because Bolaño couldn't be bothered to provide a single word of description about the bar, though he made space for "a short guy in a Pistons T-shirt and a sky-blue tweed jacket" who had four words of throwaway dialog and nothing more. Nevertheless, I was into the scene, especially the story of his last fight, which was fixed. "The promoter told me to go down in the fifth." Yes! We have drama! Cliché too, but who cares after two hundred pages of actionless meandering? At last it's a proper scene with mood, tension, and menace.
Butch: In the fifth, my ass goes down.
What will happen? Will the young fighter sell his dignity for a double paycheck? Will the promoter keep his promise? "Who do you think won?" the bartender asks. •
Screw you, you'll never find out. As a reward for your interest you get a bullet for a section divider and then more plodding. In fact, I'm pretty sure my description of the scene here is longer than the one in the book.
So if this is not an action novel, it must be an ideas novel, right? There must be some ideas in there somewhere. Race is employed in this part as a sort of Hamburger Helper for gravitas. The African-American magazine writer, in Mexico on assignment, argues with his editor over whether the killings would be appropriate material for their demographic. Out of his usual element, he has a sudden identity crisis after identifying himself as simply "American."
No, he said he was American because a cashier spoke to him in Spanish and he didn't understand. That's all. The cashier then repeated herself in English and the conversation continued. Americans in America don't say "I am American" because it is not very distinctive. When Americans travel, their nationality becomes more significant, and this does not reflect on their heritage -- which in any case must have been obvious to the cashier.
Doubling down on the race card, this part introduces a fictionalized version of Black Panthers co-founder Bobby Seale. Renamed Seaman, he gets quite a lot of space to deliver a rambling sermon which, perhaps, could be justified as providing background and characterization ... except this character like so many others will soon be dropped from the story without doing anything.
More annoying, he makes being a Black Panther sound about as exciting as leading a Neighborhood Watch group. We read that his partner, Huey P. Newton ("Newell" in the book), "liked to go to the rocky beaches on a Sunday and breathe the smell of the Pacific." The real Seale saw in Newton the "baddest motherfucker in the world." And with good reason, as a writer not allergic to action and character will tell you.
Oh well. Back in México we await some acción. There's alcohol again, now with more vomit. It's hard to know who to root for. Drunken conversation in dingy locales. Another boxing match, which has driven the story since page 262, is summed up in eleven lines on page 312.
More eating, drinking, and drudgery. Finally, on page 324, a gun is drawn, a punch thrown, and the hero is on the run. He flees with the girl, plotting an escape. Yay, agency! It's almost like No Country For Old Men. Certainly no country for those with short attention spans. The first chase scene is interrupted by reminiscences about sex. It hardly matters, they all get away, or it is implied that they do, by the end. Only the characters ever get a climax.
So, I just binged part 3 in about 90 minutes. I find that's the only way to read this goddamn book. There's less cohesion than part 1 (am ignoring part 2 entire), but more imagery. I much prefer the portraits of the places and people that overlap in parts 1 and 3 from the perspective of our intrepid journalist, who's the only character so far I've found interesting. I keep wondering why he's black. What does Bolano of all people have to say about Harlem and the Panthers? (And what's the reaction when he does discuss that stuff -- witness the recent hubski post on the Asian guy who wrote the bestseller about the American south.)
You know in advance that the boxing match will be dismissed in moments. You know the outcome, too. You know that the Panther isn't going to be acknowledged as a revolutionary or an action-hero from the moment he's introduced. How do you know these things? From reading part 1. You know there's going to be alcohol, and time spent in small taquerias (probably the same taquerias as were inhabited in part 1), and you thought you knew there would be sex but somehow "Fate" fails to have sex with anyone, defying expectation.
And yet, and yet. This book is extremely fun to write about, I find, and extremely fun to imagine. Maybe it's just because I've seen movies like No Country for Old Men, and I've read books like The Devil's Highway and Tortilla Flats and every other little thing that influences my imagery which accompanies part 3. Maybe it's because I've been in and out of south Texas all my life.
I dread reading this book but I like thinking about it.