By Rudolfo Anaya
University of New Mexico Press
298 pp., cloth
REVIEWED BY DANIEL A. OLIVAS
With Jemez Spring, Rudolfo Anaya brings to a close his quartet of novels centered on the literate and spiritual private investigator, Sonny Baca. All the elements of a great hayride are present. First, we have a corpse. But not just any dead body. Sonny is beckoned to crack the mystery behind the death of New Mexico’s governor whose bloated, half-cooked body is found in the Bath House at Jemez Springs. Second, we have something worse than a dead governor: someone (al-Qaeda?) has planted a bomb in the Valles Caldera, not far from Los Alamos National Laboratories, where it apparently is set to blow in just a few hours. Third, enter the crooked politicians and greedy developers who might be behind the murder and bomb in order to secure water rights and make a fortune. And the evil, powerful Raven (Sonny’s nemesis and polar opposite) might be mixed up in all this, too. Finally, there’s a troubled love interest: Sonny and Rita adore each other but she is healing (emotionally and physically) from a miscarriage and needs space.
But Jemez Spring is not your typical mystery. We can’t forget that this is Anaya’s world. So, in addition to the murder and ticking bomb, the mystical otherworld is as real as anything else. Sonny enjoys extended dialogues with the spirit of his late mentor, don Eliseo. Sonny also wears the powerful Zia medallion which Raven desperately wants to possess. Sonny’s one-eyed dog, Chica, dreams which eventually leads to a heated and protracted debate in the community. Even a group of European intellectuals debates the question of the dreaming dog in a hilarious send-up of ivory tower literary analysis:
“But you can’t deconstruct folk memory! Does the dog wag the tail, or the tail wag the dog? You are going in circles. The essence of the dog dream lies in the artist as myth-maker. Which leads directly to the myth of Aztlán and its use as an identity in the Weltanschauung of the Chicano.”
You can almost hear Anaya laughing as his “intellectual” character spouts such pretentious and overwrought opinions.
Include with all this Anaya’s poetic and loving descriptions of New Mexico mixed in with plenty of digressions on religion, politics, sex and culture. Anaya’s characters are fully-realized portraits, people we see and know. Sonny Baca couldn’t have asked for a better way to end his career. But he’ll be sorely missed.
Daniel A. Olivas is the author of four books including Devil Talk: Stories (Bilingual Press, 2004). He is currently editing an anthology of Los Angeles fiction by Latino/a writers and co-blogs each Monday at La Bloga. He practices law with the California Department of Justice and makes his home with his wife and son in the San Fernando Valley, California. [This review first appeared in Southwest BookViews.]