Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Wednesday, July 31: Maximum Shelf: The Return

Henry Holt: The Return by Michael Gruber

Henry Holt: The Return by Michael Gruber

Henry Holt: The Return by Michael Gruber

Henry Holt: The Return by Michael Gruber

The Return

by Michael Gruber

Like most people, New York book editor Richard Marder has no idea when he will die. Unlike most people, though, he has a pressing reason to fixate on the timeline. A recently discovered and completely inoperable anomaly in his brain could burst at any time, causing immediate death if Marder's lucky and a permanent vegetative state if he's not. Any other man in the same position might take early retirement and spend his remaining days in the bosom of his loving family, but Marder, a widower, has other plans, plans that will take him far from home and require him to draw strength from a side of himself he thought he had buried, to use skills he never expected to need again. Instead of going gently into that good night, Marder sets his affairs in order, uses part of the fortune he made by stubbornly hanging onto his Apple stocks since the 1980s to buy a beach house in Playa Diamante in the state of Michoacán, Mexico, and bids goodbye to his old Vietnam buddy Patrick Skelly, keeping the details of his journey and destination as cryptic as possible.

As Marder expected, the secrecy proves irresistible to Skelly, who shows up unannounced in Marder's camper at a rest stop in Virginia. Although Marder pretends annoyance, he had counted on Skelly's curiosity to get the better of him. His plans will take him deep into areas of Mexico controlled by drug lords and gangsters, and a man of Skelly's skill set and practical yet somewhat warped moral code will come in handy. To Skelly, however, he maintains the pretense that he intends only to fulfill his wife's last wishes and scatter her ashes in her hometown.

Years ago, Marder met a girl named Maria Soledad Beatriz De Haro d'Aries--called Chole--in Playa Diamante. They fell deeply in love, but Chole's parents had already arranged a match for her with a powerful family. When the lovers eloped, Chole's father disowned her. Building a family with Marder in America never fully healed Chole's longing for her home, and now their son blames him for her untimely death. However, their daughter, Carmel, nicknamed Statch, not only remains in contact with Marder but actively keeps tabs on him. An MIT grad student, Statch uses her technological savvy to monitor her father's accounts without his knowledge, watching for any sign that Chole's death has triggered unhealthy behavior in her father. Although Marder tells her he's going to do some traveling, Statch becomes concerned when he stops answering his cell phone, concerned enough to track and follow her father all the way to Mexico, unaware of the dangers she will face.

Marder's memories of his time in Vietnam with Skelly are intermingled into the present-day narrative as Marder draws parallels between their experiences defending the Hmong culture from the Viet Cong and their attempts to bring a safe and prosperous way of life to the Mexican families they find squatting in Marder's new house and the surrounding development. With Marder's money and the technical know-how of Skelly and Statch, their compound is well on its way to autonomy, but the two local drug cartels won't relinquish control so easily. Skelly and Marder have set a collision course with a cabal of trained killers, and they'll need all the wits, firepower and help they can muster to survive.

Gruber certainly knows how to hook readers. A highly relatable protagonist with a wild-card sidekick, skillful pacing, smart one-liners and plenty of artillery tilt this thriller in the blockbuster-style direction. Gruber crafts action scenes compelling both in their clever execution and the authenticity with which he describes firearms without losing the tension of the moment.

However, Gruber offers readers food for thought as well. While his story is entertaining, he also manages to comment quite effectively on relations between Mexico and the United States. According to Marder, Americans are largely oblivious to Mexican life, even though Mexico City, one of the world's largest metropolitan areas, is a seat of culture and fashion. Mexican cynicism toward the United States' ignorance is personified in Pepa Espinoza, a beautiful and brilliant reporter who risks her life by reporting the truth about the drug gangs. Although Marder offers her assistance and safety, Pepa initially finds it difficult to trust him or their mutual attraction, but eventually finds herself in alliance with the quixotic American. Also highlighting the cultural differences is Statch, whose graduate studies at MIT focus on 3D printing, the success of which could end mass production as we know it. After spending time in her mother's country, though, Statch must rethink which half of her heritage lays greater claim to her heart.

A heady mix of military action, vigilante justice and modern-day Mexican life underscored by the question, "How would you choose to finish your life?", this meaty but never maudlin thriller is smart, inventive and sure to leave readers with pounding pulses and soaring imaginations. --Jaclyn Fulwood

Holt, $28, hardcover, 9780805091298, September 3, 2013

Henry Holt: The Return by Michael Gruber

Michael Gruber: Diverse Interests

photo: Nina Subin

Michael Gruber's previous novels include The Good Son and The Book of Air and Shadows. He has a Ph.D. in marine sciences and began writing freelance while working in Washington, D.C., as a policy analyst and speechwriter. Since 1990, he has been a full-time writer. He is married and lives in Seattle, Wash.

What called you to set a story in Mexico?

I was sitting in the very same chair I'm sitting in now, and I got this image of a man who was facing death and wanted to go to Mexico to die. He didn't want to be surrounded by his family. If he was going to die anyway, he wanted to die as a proud man, as himself. It was just that flash of image. Then I was thinking of the Carlos Fuentes novel The Old Gringo. That book is a meditation on Mexicans and Americans, and the relationship and similarities of these countries that were both built on the ruins of an Indian civilization by a bunch of Europeans. We built those countries in very different ways, and the tension between the United States and Mexico is very important to this day.

Why does Marder say Mexico City has become invisible to the United States?

Mexico City is one of the largest cities in the world, and it makes no sense that it has no importance to American culture. Paris is important. London is important. Berlin is important. Trends come out of those cities. We have no sense of what they're listening to in Mexico City, what they're wearing, and yet they're enormously important. We're talking about a billion people, but we don't make space in American life that I can see for Mexico City.

Even the idea of what Mexico looks like comes from the parts of Mexico you can see from El Paso. It's sandy, it's got cactuses, it's got sagebrush. Mexico's a huge country, with all kinds of different topography. It's like if you were to draw a map of the entire United States that looked like the Jersey Shore, because you saw it from a boat and assumed the entire United States looked just the same.

Of course, Mexico's gone through such a cataclysm of violence.

Is that what led you to weave in the Vietnam narrative?

Yes. The part of Vietnam Marder and Skelly were involved in is a part that not all Americans think about. It was a real effort by a very small group of people to defend a tribal people--the Hmong--from the depredations of their neighbors. It was an irony of the story that, of all the people that Marder should bring on his mission, it's a guy who specialized in leading a population against an oppressive regime, and so that's what he does in Mexico. The interesting thing is that truth follows fiction. There are now vigilante and popular resistance movements starting all over Mexico against the narcos.

What inspired Pepa Espinoza, the reporter in The Return?

I was interested in what it would be like to be a Mexican journalist. Of course, being a Mexican journalist is extremely dangerous because people want to kill you for what you might write. And yet, they're still doing it. There are people you've never heard of who are risking their lives every day just trying to report the news.

This story is heavy on the fire power. Are you a gun enthusiast?

Not exactly, but one of the things that irritates me about thrillers is when somebody makes up a gun. If you're going to write a thriller, and a gun is going to get shot, you should find out what the gun is for, what they can do and what they can't do, and how it feels to handle it. I shoot personally. I literally have the gun that I put in Marder's hand, a particular kind of .45 caliber. I know what it feels like to shoot it, and I know how hard or easy it is to hit a target. I think my descriptions are accurate enough for serious gun people, not like the classic mistake of someone screwing a silencer onto a revolver.

If you write a thriller, you're writing something that's essentially preposterous. In order to suspend disbelief, you have to fill the thriller with real stuff. You know, real background about this culture. If you're writing about assassins, the CIA, the NSA--all this stuff has got to be researched and laid out so that when the reader is reading, they're inside the CIA, at Langley. They know what the halls look like, what communication is like, because it's absolutely ridiculous what the CIA agent in the story is doing, and that's the art of the thriller.

What was it like to write a character like Skelly?

When Marder's on the page, you see things from inside Marder's head. Skelly never appears from inside his own head. Skelly is seen through the eyes of other people, so he's a mercurial character. You never quite know what Skelly's going to do. Is he a real monster? Yeah, he is a monster, but he's also an imperfect person with a very strange and aberrant code of his own. A lot of people who were in Special Forces during that era, and I have great accounts from some of them, share that odd view of life. It was a very terrible experience for them. Skelly is a guy from that era, and essentially he never moved forward. He's still in that era of violence and deceit, and this incredible instinct to protect people never died in him. He's a wounded hero. Marder is much more familiar, so he's much easier for me to write. I haven't had the experience of wondering if I'm going to drop dead in the next moment, but other than that, I relate more to Marder. Skelly is the spice in the stew.

What can we expect from you in the future?

I am writing a huge historical novel set in 1848, in Prague. The core of the book is an old baron of the old regime, an old cavalry officer who's been in battle, and he's talking to his grandson, who is liberal in the old sense of the word. This guy is engaged in the revolution and, at the same time, he's recording the memoirs of his grandfather.

Of course, in that era were born communism, the reaction to communism, extreme nationalism and essentially the seed of everything that happened for the rest of the history of Europe. The wars in the 19th century and WWI and WWII--the seeds were all laid during that period, and I want to show how that happened, and also to write a really good tale. I mean, the idea of the cavalry officers in the Napoleonic Wars! You never hear about that, about what it must have been like to go into battle with 10,000 horses. No one has ever seen 10,000 horses. Can you imagine 10,000 horses all in a row, all lined up? That's a Napoleonic cavalry core. They went through horses like we go through paper napkins. These guys would get on horses, and they would charge into cannons! Cannons, and guys with rifles firing at them! They just were a different kind of people than we are, so I wanted to capture that. --Jaclyn Fulwood

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