Under the Skin
by James Carlos Blake is a noir thriller set in Texas during the Depression, and includes a number of characters that live on the border of Mexico, giving the book a Latinx twist. The main character is Jimmy Randolph Youngblood, the child of a prostitute named Ava from deep Texas and notorious Pancho Villa's legendary “enforcer,” a soldier named Rodolfo Fierro. Bringing together the violence of the Western frontier with the chaos of the Mexican Revolution, Jimmy is a violent and yet empathetic character, an anti-hero who struggles to find his place in a violent world after he falls in love with another wanderer, a young, beautiful runaway named Daniela.
The book begins with Jimmy's conception – his mother Ava has a relationship with Rodolfo Fierro, and soon discovers that she is pregnant with a child she never intended to have. The atmosphere is one of desperation and violence along the Texas-Mexico border during the Depression era. Struggling against diseases like cholera and dysentery and the violence of life on the Texas frontier, Ava is a hard-edged woman with a drive to survive, no matter the cost. After discovering she is pregnant and thus no longer able to make money selling her body, Ava agrees to marry a local cowboy named Cullen Youngblood, who had long been asking her for her hand in marriage. Upon learning about her pregnancy, Cullen agrees to help Ava raise her child, though it isn't his own. The couple marry, and agree that Ava's son Jimmy will believe himself an orphan. Jimmy is raised thinking that Cullen and Ava are his aunt and uncle, and that his real mother is Ava's departed sister.
Jimmy eventually leaves the ranch where he is raised after he gets into a fight with one of the neighbors and accidentally murders the man in cold blood. During the fight, the neighbor reveals that Jimmy's real father is the notorious Fierro, but Jimmy leaves town before Ava reveals that she is his real mother. After Jimmy's departure from the ranch, Ava sells the land and leaves town, never to be seen again.
Jimmy travels to nearby Galveston, a big city with a thriving gambling and prostitution ring, all held in relative order by the local Maceo gang. Jimmy arrives looking for work and uses his reputation as Fierro's son to get a job as a thug, working in collections for the gang and doing the same dirty work as his father, working as an “enforcer.” Despite the gritty nature of his work, however, Jimmy is an appealing character. He is loyal to his boss, hard-working, and kind to his friends and neighbors. Much of the book consists of Jimmy's relations with the gang in Galveston, revealing some of his exploits as well as some of the softer elements of his character.
In Galveston, Jimmy falls in love with a girl named Daniela, who he later discovers is a runaway from the estate of a powerful man named Don Cesar who kidnapped Daniela when she was young and forced her into marriage. Don Cesar is a cruel man who whips his laborers and is abusive to Daniela, who never loved him. Eventually, Daniela pays a worker to bring her to the local train station where she can escape, and Jimmy meets her in Galveston and promises to help her. But Don Cesar won't let his beloved wife go without a fight, and he soon sends his men to kidnap Daniela again, leading Jimmy into the heart of some serious trouble when he follows her back to the estate to take her back. The novel ends in bloodshed, with Jimmy and Don Cesar going at it to fight for Daniela, and for their honor and reputations.Under the Skin
toes the line between historical western, romance, and thriller. Blake focuses on the characters and their nuanced lives, bringing some human elements to the typically one-dimensional western trope.
James Carlos Blake is a Mexican-American author of novels and essays, as well as a memoir about his childhood in Mexico titled The Outsider
. He is known for chronicling the history and nuance of Texas outlaw culture. Blake was raised in Mexico, and educated in Brownsville, Texas and Miami, Florida, after which he served in the US Army. After his stint as a paratrooper, Blake decided to go to college to study writing and received an MFA degree from Bowling Green State University. His books include A World of Thieves
and a series of four books in the Wolfe
series, among many others. He also wrote a memoir and collection of short works entitled Borderlands