South by Lance Charnes is a dystopic thriller set in an alternate future, one in which American policy is driving citizens across the southern border (available November 12, 2013).
It’s been a long time since I’ve wanted so much for a character in a novel to kill a bad guy, or for the good guys to ride off into the sunset at the end. I have to credit Lance Charnes with writing a thriller populated with heroes who are thoroughly believable and sympathetic: even the brutish chauvinist McGinley is motivated by a devastating personal story and, more importantly, a patriotism untainted by avarice.
The main heroes of the book, though, are two unlikely figures: Nora Khaled, an FBI agent looking to defect from the country she’s loyally served for decades, and Luis Ojeda, a former El Norte drug cartel member with experience smuggling paying customers across the U.S.-Mexico border. These customers are not, however, heading north in search of jobs as the majority of border jumpers are today. Instead, they’re heading south in search of freedom, as this novel is set in a harrowingly dystopian future extrapolated from the ugliest parts of North America’s current political climate.
In the year 2030, most Muslims have become persona non grata, gradually stripped of rights and possessions and herded into camps unless they can escape to Mexico, which is itself rent apart by a drug-financed civil war. Security is contracted out to militias with little concern for professionalism or civil liberties, such as the group that Luis has the misfortune of encountering on what he thinks is his last run:
The area around [the fugitives] hushed, letting the little sounds fade forward. The breeze rattled the creosote and pushed pebbles around. Luis could hear the contractors’ voices—an off note in the wind—the shush of rubber boot soles on gravel, his heart going crazy, his sweat plopping on the sand.
Fucking contractors. Border Patrol agents had a code, they were civilized, they had to be nice and usually were. These contractor assholes shot people for fun, the way he had in the ‘Stan before Bel reformed his sorry, angry ass. A month ago, these idiotas were probably losing hearts and minds in the Sudan with every full magazine. Now they were doing the same thing here.
Two years after that fateful night, Luis thinks he’s clear of illegal activities, having established himself in legitimate business while Bel, his formidable wife, toils as a nurse at the local understaffed, overwhelmed hospital to help him support their extended family. Unfortunately for Luis, the cartel isn’t about to let him go so easily. When Nora offers El Norte a lot of money to smuggle her and her family out of the country, El Norte makes Luis an offer he can’t refuse.
Things get very complicated very quickly when it turns out that Nora isn’t defecting just because she and her family are Muslim. What started as a fairly straightforward smuggling operation turns into a running battle as Luis and the Khaled family find themselves needing to outwit not only Border Patrol, but the FBI, ICE, and the viciously murderous Zeta cartel horning in on El Norte territory as well. Worse for Luis, Bel is taken into federal custody by the ice-cold Agent Symonds, who illustrates how the America of the future has become a utopia for only the super rich:
“You locked our autopays?” Bel blurted. “How do we pay our bills?”
“I wouldn’t worry about that,” Symonds said. He didn’t even look at her. “We’ll unlock them if there’s no evidence in them. In three or four months, perhaps. […] Of course,” he went on while he placed her slate on the tray, “you don’t have to worry about your mortgage since we’ve seized your house—”
“—as the proceeds of criminal activity. They won’t foreclose until the property is cleared.” Symonds leaned back in his chair. “These days, that takes a year to eighteen months if we don’t file charges. If we do, it’s an average of seven years for a federal case to go to trial. A shortage of judges, you see.” He put a finger to his lips. “But I forgot, this is a national security issue. There won’t be a trial. We’ll simply sell the house after we close the case.”
South is a compelling futuristic thriller, as convincing a cautionary novel as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was in its day (and arguably still is). Many of the atrocities warned against in the pages of South have historical American precedent, and are presented here in ways that are all-too-plausible given the rhetoric that even mainstream politicians aren’t ashamed to spout nowadays.
But South isn’t simply a political screed: where Charnes really succeeds is in writing a thriller that deftly avoids most cliches. Unlike in most run-of-the-mill thrillers, our main heroes are middle-aged and devoted to their families, and, most crucially, enjoy a completely platonic, if occasionally prickly, relationship with one another. The female characters are just as well-written as the male characters. Most of the main characters have their own complex, if at times maddening, motivations. Civil servants and cartel members alike are never condemned by their job description as good or bad guys. I really got the feeling, reading this, that these were real people forced to live in terrible times, and I was only too happy to cheer them on—or cry over their tragedies—as the novel raced to its conclusion.
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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.
Read all posts by Doreen Sheridan for Criminal Element.