James Carlos Blake has looked at men who mirror our nation’s past, starting with his look at gunman John Wesely Hardin (The Pistoleer). He’s looked at Civil war guerrilla Bloody Bill Anderson in the lyrical The Wildwood Boys and John Dillinger in the tough and funny Handsome Harry. His worlds are filled with brutal crime and adventure and men that must be accepted own their own terms. Sam Pekinpah would have loved adapting any of his novels of earthy poetry. In his latest, Country Of the Bad Wolfes, he takes story to a grander and more personal scale, basing the novel on two sets of twins who are his own ancestors and covering two countries and one century.
Born of a New England pirate in 1828, Samuel and Roger Wolfe have a wanderlust and need for fortune in their blood. Their lusts and their disposition to get into a fight put them into one adventure after another, and on the other side of the law many a time. To avoid imprisonment, Samuel joins the army and fights in The Mexican War while his brother attends Dartmouth. Their skills, will, and fate lead them to Little, a mysterious businessman who sets them up in Mexico. There they find themselves involved in US adventurism and Diaz, the country’s president. Both find themselves in more than a few duels and seducing a more than a few lovely ladies.
One such woman, Alma Rodriguez, saves Samuel’s life in a duel and marries him. From that union come another set of twins, Sebastian and John. The two grow to be like their father and uncle, but even bolder and more free minded. Running from the law brings them back to the US via Texas, where they found their own town. Samuel also begets a bastard son, Blake Cortez, sealing the fate of his other sons.
Blake employs a style that is a mix of historical account and legend handed down from generation to generation. This allows him to move through time to focus on the the events that define the family. It also works well when he weaves Diaz’s history in with the Wolfe’s, showing how their fates are tied. Blake also employs his trademark realism and immediacy in his portrayal of violence.
Combined with his humor and pathos, Country of the Bad Wolfes has a more epic feel than some of his previous work. His female characters also bring a different perspective to this work. They have a greater impact on the story than in previous novels, influencing the four men we follow as both lovers and nurturers. A stand out character is Marina, a scarred servant girl Sebastian and John both fall in love with. Blake Cortez’s mother sets the climax Lady Macbeth-style.
What makes Country Of Bad Wolfes such an exciting read is the feeling that this is a book of transition for James Carlos Blake. There is shading of character, skillful shifts in tone and ambition, from an author who has already delivered solid novels time and time again. Country of the Bad Wolfes tells us the best is yet to come.