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The Illegal by John Mort

The Illegal

by John Mort

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Recently added byjellyfishjones, TimBazzett



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I first 'discovered' John Mort's writing only recently when I read - and 'savored' - his fine novel of the Vietnam war, SOLDIER IN PARADISE (1999). His latest novel, THE ILLEGAL, is distinctly different from that one, less autobiographical and more the product of voluminous reading and painstaking research. The result is a fascinating, if at times perhaps a bit fanciful, look at what it might be like to be an "illegal" in today's America. Mort's protagonist, an honorable young Mexican army officer named Mario Oliveros, becomes that old cliché, a "wetback," when he is pressured by a corrupt superior into an illicit drug deal, a transaction that goes suddenly south, forcing him to swim north across the Rio Grande where he takes up the shadow-life of an "indocumentado," - an illegal.

A man without a country, indeed without even an identity of his own, but with many useful skills combined with a strong work ethic, Mario works his way over the next few years slowly up across Texas with pick-up shady jobs in San Angelo and Dallas. His employments are many and varied, some legal, some not. He works in a scrap metal yard, then as a contractor renovating houses in Dallas for a calculating wealthy widow, disciple and contributor to a megachurch that preaches, generally, that it's okay to be rich and to pray for a new car or a mcmansion. At the same time he is an unwilling accomplice to some major larcenies, one of which results in some unintentional collateral loss of life. Mario flees the city, ending up deep in the desert of the Texas Panhandle where he becomes maintenance foreman at a corporate hog farm where some very questionable experiments mixing human DNA into pig breeding is going on. (The scientist who runs these experiments is nicknamed FrankenCarl.)

Along the way Mario is involved in a very passionate if doomed love affair with Rosa, a beautiful young PoliSci grad student. He also changes his name to Raul Zamora, when he inherits the green card and driver's license from a friend killed in a grisly construction accident. Mario's continuing dream throughout these dark, picaresque adventures is a simple one, to save enough money to buy some land and have his own farm where he can grow vegetables. At the hog farm he meets Carrie, a mannish awkward young scientist who is smitten with him. Mario, his affair with the fiery Rosa behind him, gradually falls in "like" with Carrie, and, when the hog farm closes down, travels further north to Kansas with her, still in search of his dream.

The fact is there is so much going on in this book that it is nearly impossible to adequately summarize it. Author Mort has been a librarian in the southwest for much of his life, and it shows. Not only does his narrative reflect a keen awareness of the social injustices of America's "border wars" and illegal immigrants, it also gets into environmental issues (especially the heedless exploiting of our country's finite water supply) and the death of small towns and communities resulting from the rise of the big box stores like Walmart, which Mort refers to as "America's true church." He also gives some sidebar attention to a small group of Mexican revolutionaries known as "Cibolistas" - after the mythical Cibola, a southwestern Shangri-La.

Mort's librarian background also comes through in the number of times libraries play a part in the narrative itself. Mario uses libraries every place he travels, both as a refuge from heat and/or homelessness, and as a repository of useful, practical knowledge. If there is a weakness at all in THE ILLEGAL it is this device, as I often found myself wondering whether a struggling illegal immigrant would actually spend that much time in that many libraries in his wanderings. But then Mort's bilingual Mario was an unusually educated, inquisitive and ambitious sort, which 'forces' the issue, I suppose, so the library device does work.

Bottom line: this is a fascinating and entertaining tale which moves quickly and seamlessly along, as well a thought-provoking look at a number of important issues that figure prominently in today's world. John Mort knows his stuff and tells a good story. Highly recommended. ( )
  TimBazzett | Oct 14, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0988310341, Paperback)

One hot night on the Rio Grande, a corrupt drug deal goes the wrong way. Police set themselves against soldiers, and soldiers die. Lieutenant Mario Oliveros should be among them, but he swims for his life to Langtry, Texas. Officially, he's a dead hero. Alive, in Mexico, he'd be dead soon enough. Through no fault of his own, he has become an illegal. Set in today's Mexico, Dallas, and the Texas Panhandle, The Illegal charts Mario's journey across desert and urban landscapes, seeking honest work and a place to rest. Slowly, an old dream--turned American Dream--asserts itself. But it's hard to dream when you're illegal. Current, prophetic, and often humorous, Mario's story brings a welcome, human dimension to the immigration debate. The Illegal is a fast-paced tale about one man's dangerous journey toward freedom.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:00 -0400)

When a corrupt drug bust goes the wrong way, Mexican police lieutenant Mario Oliveros swims for his life to Langtry, Texas. Officially, he's a dead hero. Alive in Mexico, he would be killed. Through no fault of his own, he has become an illegal. While he is struggling to survive in Texas, an old dream turned American dream asserts itself.… (more)

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