Before reading Ian Vasquez's new novel, Mr. Hooligan, I knew off the top of my head only a few things about the Central American nation of Belize.
I knew that its capital was also called Belize — at least until that little city was wiped out by a hurricane half a century ago, whereupon the government moved inland. I knew that the people of Belize speak English, and that the queen of England still pulls some weight in the onetime British colony. I knew that no one really knows where the name "Belize" comes from.
Now that I've read Mr. Hooligan, I can add several items to my store of information about Belize. For one, reggae is big there. For another, so is ganja. For still another, Charles Lindbergh spent time bopping around the place back when it was British Honduras, soaking up the rays and post-Spirit of St. Louis adulation. For still another, it seems a very nice place to get away from it all, live cheaply off one's savings, perhaps even retire without fear of losing access to health care.
That's the ideal, anyway. As Riley James discovers, getting away from it all isn't quite so easy, not if "it all" includes merchandising such goods as "aromatic resin-sticky Belize Breeze."
That would be the ganja part of the equation, to which must be added bales of white powder. Riley knows the stuff well. With drugs being most definitely illegal even in easygoing Belize, his longtime job has been to expedite shipments of this contraband with an eye toward avoiding the unwanted attentions of the Coast Guard. It's dangerous but remunerative work, and for two decades Riley has been doing it quite successfully on behalf of the wheeler-dealer Monsanto brothers, to their evident satisfaction.
Now, trying to keep a bar named for the aforementioned Lindbergh in business, Riley is tired of dodging reefs and patrol boats. He aims to pay off a long-standing debt to the Monsantos, settle down with his girlfriend, drink beer, fish, maybe catch up on lost sleep.
At this point, it seems pertinent to say that another thing to know about Belize is this: Running over a government official's dog has implications.
Indeed, doing anything at all in a small town like Belize City has implications. It doesn't take long for the Monsantos to realize that their former ward, who has been part of their crime family since boyhood, has plans that don't square with their own.
And so begins an elaborate game of cat and mouse, one that sees Riley as dinged and bruised as Philip Marlowe, and one that forces him to examine just who is friend and who is foe in a landscape he knows as well as anyone can. In the end, the reader who takes the cynical view that life is just a series of minor betrayals might well find his or her suspicions amply confirmed.
Vasquez, a Belizean who now works as a copy editor at the St. Petersburg Times, provides just the right bits of local color to give readers a sense that they're in another country, with judicious bits of patois. ("Things cool between me and you, my boy. We ain't go no beef.")
Moreover, Vasquez performs a delicate balancing act in portraying his characters, few of whom are definitively good or bad. Our ostensible hero, for instance, is often hard to like; he's headstrong, stubborn, wedded to self-interest. But Vasquez lets us know that Riley is really just a schmo like all the rest of us, a mark caught up in a game bigger than he realizes, for whom just about every effort turns out to be star-crossed, his bad luck helped along by smoke and booze and general difficulty in the business of growing up.
Though the Monsantos are the ostensible heavies of the piece, they don't sport waxed handlebar mustaches or rub their hands madly together in the way of villains everywhere. Sure, one of the brothers has a passing desire to trip Riley while he's shuffling around a hospital ward in socks and robe, but he restrains himself. "Juvenile maybe, but it would appear that Riley deserved it." Even so, the baddies have redeeming features as well. Call them goal-oriented.
Vasquez works conventional territory, too, with patches of tough-guy talk, the hint that some of the femmes are in fact fatales (and some of the dudes, too), the standard procedural scenes.
His latest novel (after In the Heat and Lonesome Point) does a nice job of addressing both the requirements of the noir genre and the loftier ambitions of literature. Riley is an heir of Hemingway, and perhaps even the Robert Stone of Dog Soldiers vintage, as much as of Chandler or Hammett.
Negotiate your way through the reefs of double-cross and errant smoke, and you might just learn a thing or two about Belize yourself.
Gregory McNamee writes about world culture and geography for the Encyclopaedia Britannica.