Crime fiction written from the law's point of view overflows bookstore shelves. Crime fiction from the criminals' point of view is less common — and crime fiction from a criminal's point of view that is as chilling, compelling and engaging as Tony D'Souza's Mule: A Novel of Moving Weight is downright rare.
D'Souza, an award-winning journalist, has published two earlier novels, both set in places or cultures unfamiliar to most Americans. Whiteman (2006) takes place in Ivory Coast in the midst of civil war, while The Konkans (2008) chronicles a Catholic Indian clan's history in India and the United States.
Mule is at once exotic and painfully familiar, a gritty and powerfully written chronicle of what some people will do to survive when the U.S. economy crashes.
In 2006, James Lasseter is 30 and a successful freelance journalist, publishing stories in Esquire and Playboy and "the mighty New Yorker" and enjoying the party life in Austin, Texas. At one of those parties on an October night he meets a beauty named Kate, manager of a chic clothing store. Soon, James tells us, "We were always together in the restaurants and clubs, celebrating our success like an endless coronation. All the loud people around us were doing the same thing." They spend New Year's 2007 madly in love and happily "leafing through baby books" because Kate is pregnant.
Six weeks later, neither of them has a job. She's fired as soon as her employer finds out she's pregnant; his freelance work dries up as magazine ad revenues evaporate in a nosediving economy. Neither of them has a Plan B.
They hang out with Kate's stoner friends Mason and Emma until their lease in Austin runs out. Job applications vanish into the void. They don't have much in the way of family resources to fall back on: James' mother is a retired widow living in a little house in Sarasota, Kate's parents are "worn-out drunks" more likely to mooch off them than lend a hand — but they do have access to a tiny, remote cabin in the Northern California mountains where James and Kate can regroup.
It's an idyllic setting where they fish for trout and pick wild blackberries, and where Kate introduces James to her former boyfriend Darren, who's descended from a long line of marijuana growers and the successful purveyor nationwide of extremely powerful — and profitable — Siskiyou kush.
James mentions that his mother lives in Florida. "Without looking at me, Darren said, 'A smart guy can put up big numbers in Florida if he's interested.' "
James figures he's a smart guy. He and Kate marry, their daughter is born (after James spends an hour digging them out of the snowbound cabin and 2 1/2 hours driving Kate down the mountain to a birthing center), and they take up his mother's offer to move into her house.
James has, like any good journalist, thrown himself into the research: "I was Googling 'drug trafficking' and 'interstate drug trafficking.' I was reading about the marijuana laws and the protocols for highway stops and searches." He learns about High Intensity Drug Trafficking areas, banking laws about large amounts of cash, drug dogs and profiling (accumulated fast food wrappers in the car are a tipoff for cops of a cross-country muling run).
James, who doesn't even smoke the stuff, is scared out of his skin, but, he assures himself, he's only going to do it once. Just one load, just one time, with a profit of a cool $29,000, enough for a new start. Why would a guy like him take that risk again?
Let him tell you: "Three and a half months later, I had a new career. I was a full-time drug mule. I'd done the run six times, always dropping off weight in Tallahassee, Sacramento and Austin. Kate and I had nearly $175,000 in dirty drug money sitting in two anonymous safe-deposit boxes the size of microwave ovens at the Florida Vault Depository," a vividly rendered private facility in the toniest part of downtown Sarasota. James likes to take baby Romana there to roll around on the floor playing in piles of bills — and to divert anyone who might try to rob him while he's carrying all that cash.
He and Kate (who's pregnant again) have moved from Mom's spare room to a sketchy rental to a house with a pool on Siesta Key. While Kate goes back to college and shops enthusiastically, James gets in deeper and deeper. His major buyer, a handsome charmer named Eric Deveney who lives in Tallahassee, keeps pushing James to work for him — or to reveal his California connection, which would cut James out of the lucrative middle. Eric keeps an assault rifle on his kitchen counter and, it turns out, even has a protocol for disposing of dead bodies.
By the time James finds that out, that semi-innocent one-time run to get back on his feet has turned into a very dark ride. D'Souza crafts a relentless, often frightening plot and skillfully manages James' narrative voice — he really is a smart guy, bright and self-aware enough to recognize his own rationalizations and moral decline, but never sure where he'll be able to stop.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.