I’M LUCKY. I work at a bookstore. And this bookstore, like most, is largely populated by cynics and weirdos, a mismatched crew of strange little pirates sailing the seas aboard the SS Fuck Amazon. This one co-worker, he’s originally from El Paso. Twenty, maybe 30 years ago, he played in a thousand bands. One band dressed like sheep, one lied their way onto a Christian public access television show, one crisscrossed the entirety of Texas, the Southwest, the country, the continent. One day, this co-worker hands me a tiny book from a tiny press. Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas. “It’s good,” he says. He was right.
Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas is Fernando A. Flores’s first book, a collection of stories set largely in the fictionalized micro-universe that was the Rio Grande Valley punk and art scene of the 1990s. Readers who’ve outlasted their tour through the disaffected halls of any number of punk subcultures will find themselves massaging each bruise, precious as a badge, earned at an all-ages show, a house party, a dubiously legal warehouse. The writing was lyrical and exuded a preternaturally cool charisma. There’s genuine affection in these stories, for the characters, their lives, and the world that surrounds them. In short, the collection announced a new talent, buzzing with all the promise of a three-piece garage band. The fine people at the Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation agreed and awarded Flores a grant in order to complete his debut novel, the book that would become Tears of the Trufflepig. Where Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas was hyper-specific, insular, and deeply personal in the way that most first books often are, Tears of the Trufflepig takes all the verve and wit of Death and uses it in the employ of something much more ambitious and much, much stranger.
In film parlance, Trufflepig is something of a two-hander — the tale of two men, winding their way through a labyrinthine conspiracy. Esteban Bellacosa, ostensibly our protagonist, is a laconic repo-man charged with recovering lost construction equipment. Paco Herbert is a Czech journalist tasked with writing a story about black market dinners for the extravagantly wealthy. The two men weave in and out of each other’s plots until the story’s countless themes and curiosities are braided together and it’s nearly impossible to unravel them from each other.
Now, about the plot. Drugs have been made legal, so the cartels have taken to trafficking “filtered” animals, bio-engineered exotics brought back from extinction and served at black market dinners for the incredibly rich and extraordinarily vacuous. The death (by filtered ostrich, no less) of El Gordo Pacheco, the leader of the world’s most powerful cartel, has led to a global turf war for control of the filtering syndicates. Australia, Helsinki, Tangiers, New Hampshire: They all want in. Enter Leone McMasters, the silver-mustached head of McM Imports, a shadowy multinational corporation. Think Pynchon’s Golden Fang. Think Monsanto.
Also, there is a thriving black market for the shrunken heads of the Aranaña Indians, a fictional tribe of indigenous people at the heart of Trufflepig’s mystery. Having been vanished for over 400 years, their sudden reappearance portends something. Perhaps it’s doom, but perhaps it’s nothing at all, simply the passing of time. Still, tokens of their existence have led to a Möbius strip of tragedy, “with Indians now killing other Indians for their heads, because they are left out on the margins of the modern world and have few recourses to feed their families.”
Also, 18 colossal Olmec heads have been stolen by thieves, and this, it seems, is the last straw. Protests have broken out all over Mexico: “After years of gruesome violence and widespread fear, it seemed people were finally fed up and unafraid to confront the impunity in the country’s municipal and federal governments, which had gradually been hijacked by the syndicates.”
Also, there is not one but two walls separating the United States from Mexico, with a third on its way. Border Protectors, a specialized military unit, patrols every inch of it. Phantom Recruits, an underground network of spies and “Robin Hoods,” wages a shadow war against the forces of corruption and injustice. In this kind of story, you can expect to find a Border Protector who is secretly a Phantom Recruit, much as you can expect to find a police chief working on behalf of McM Imports.
Against all this, Bellacosa needs to recover the Mano de Chango, a 7900 Rig excavator that went missing from an McM construction site, and Herbert needs to infiltrate a dinner featuring filtered animals, see it for himself, and expose it. Lay it bare. Consequences be damned.
If this all seems like too much, it’s probably because it is. Does the mystery tie together? Every single stitch of it? I’m not entirely sure that it does, but that isn’t the point either.
The plot lines in Trufflepig are funhouse mirrors, reflecting the horrors of both our history and our headlines. The narco plot with cartels generating living, breathing, biological miracles for the sole purpose of exploitation, echoes colonialism’s shadow. The shrunken heads plot, where the heads of the Aranaña are highly sought-after tokens of taste and sophistication, echoes imperialism’s blood.
But it’s the narrative that delights. When so much fiction feels like elegant dioramas, like masterfully crafted ships in bottles, Trufflepig feels organic and amorphous, like some biological organism, shape-shifting its way through the literary landscape, leaving a thin ribbon of goo in its wake. The plot is beside the point. There is a world to be discovered here.
In Trufflepig, Flores takes the well-worn, time-honored tradition of the psychedelic-sci-fi-punk-western-horror-noir and turns it on its ear. The psychological, the spiritual, and the political all intertwine in a cicatrix pattern, one stitch pinning the other into place. Trufflepig is a narcocorrido for the Island of Dr. Moreau. It’s Roberto Bolaño and Gloria Anzaldúa dropping acid and staring into the desert sun. It’s a metaphysical detective story about genocide, corruption, and families. References are layered over top of one another, like concert flyers on a light post. Pomade and pyramids. Caldo de res and the cosmos. Coyotes and the south Texas moon. The language is propulsive the way a jet engine is propulsive, a landspeeder screaming across the desert of today’s headlines, the pilot’s lips flapping in the wind behind him. The images are totemic in nature, and Flores pushes them past their natural breaking point to find something beautiful and unsettling waiting just beyond the other side. A man walks like a spider missing two legs. A pyramid appears beneath the surface of a frozen lake. Nighttime crawls out of the tailpipes of zooming automobiles. Silence stares down like a gargoyle. A pig, with green skin and a pair of wings, is spirited away like a stolen car radio. This is to say that, while Trufflepig is many things, what it is not is a river rock of a novel, a smooth stone polished to perfection by the soft gurgling of peer-review workshops. It is more like the freshly charred husk of a tree, severed sui generis, and still smoking from a lightning strike.
But make no mistake: there is a familiar scaffolding holding the narrative in place. Bellacosa is the classic pulp noir protagonist — right down to the tragic loss of his daughter and wife — who finds his way into a mind-bending conspiracy, with a secondary character, in this case, a journalist, leading him through a very specific vision of Hell. The setting is the US-Mexico border, and Bellacosa, like every noir lead before him, flits easily between the two countries, between the various strata of society, between the levels of class and wealth he encounters. In fact, so much of Trufflepig takes place in this liminal space that the novel would have you believe the border between nations to be as permeable as the border between the flesh and the spirit, between the desert dust of the real world and the deep psychic communion of the subconscious.
But when Bellacosa is brought face-to-face with the titular trufflepig, a hooved-animal, barrel-shaped like a pig, with wings and a beak and green, shimmering skin, he soon realizes that this is no ordinary once-extinct species filtered back into existence. This is Huixtepeltinicopatl, “el cerdo de los sueños,” a spirit animal once worshipped by the Aranaña people, a god. And here’s where things get weird.
To say anymore would be to spoil one of the most thrilling debut novels in recent history. Tears of the Trufflepig is funny and thrilling and tragic. Loose and sometimes unwieldy, yes, but also mesmerizing and ambitious. It might not suit everyone’s tastes, but neither does Galápagos Gumbo. And let’s face it: you’re already seated at the table.