I had not read a novel by David Corbett, but I was in my favorite book store in LA (Book Soup) and this book caught my eye. I am glad it did. It is a complex story compellingly told.
Do They Know I’m Running
David Corbett’s latest novel, Do They Know I’m Running (452 pages, Ballantine Books, $15) tells not one harrowing story, but two. In the present, Corbett talks about a group of Salvadoran immigrants who live in Northern California. A hardworking man, Tío Fausto, and his wife, live with two nephews, Godo, an Iraq War vet who is badly scarred and still struggling with memories of the war, and Roque, a handsome young guy who shows promise as a musician and who tries to stay out of trouble. In the past, the past at least of several of the characters, he replays specific scenes in the Iraq War with devastating effect.
When the novel opens, Roque is carrying on an affair with an older woman, but she is pushing him off, in part because his innocence makes her feel guilty. She can’t let herself feel anything for him: life has taught her that love brings only disappointment.
In any case, Roque is destined for a different fate. When it happens that Tío Fausto is arrested at work and deported as an “illegal immigrant,” Roque is nominated to go to El Salvador and bring him back. Roque and Godo are legal—their mother was in the state when they were born and she died giving birth to Roque. Fausto’s son Happy, who is himself illegal, nominates Roque for this difficult job, telling him that it is time he take on some adult responsibilities in the family. In addition to transporting his uncle, Roque is asked to pick up a Palestinian as well. Samir is someone who saved his life in Iraq, and he feels that he owes it to him to help him in this way.
Roque takes all this on with resignation, but he knows what is expected of him, and he is willing to do his best. In order to pay the high fee that is required to guarantee a group of three men passage back to the states, Happy runs a complicated scam with local gang organizers. He pretends he is bringing in a shipment of cocaine and gets some underworld types to finance the venture in hopes of a big commission. Happy then tries to sell this information, as it were, to the FBI in exchange for resident status for him and his Dad.
This is a great plan, I suppose, but everything about it goes haywire. The gang leader insists that Happy bring in Godo, who although he is still living in the nightmare of war memories, is great with guns and a hot shot with naked aggression when it is needed. As Corbett tells us this uncomfortable tale, he offers flashbacks to Iraq. Both Happy and Godo served there and each has seen his share of war atrocities, and both are trying to get out from under the memories that haunt their every waking moment.
Meanwhile Roque finds that he is way over his head in El Salvador. The characters he has to deal with are hardened criminals and he feels like an innocent in their midst. When the boss he is dealing with tells him to take a girl, Lupe, and give her to the thug they will meet at the U.S. border in Mexico, he at first thinks nothing of it. But then he hears Lupe sing, and he is moved by the sorrow in her voice; before too long, needless to say, he falls in love with her. She wants nothing to do with him at first. She is sullen and battered, and she too feels that love isn’t what it is cracked up to be.
As they—Roque, Lupe, Fausto, and Samir—make their way through Central America, every phase of the passage is like a war of its own. There are renegade soldiers, violent police, drug lords, gang members, and every kind of gun slinging tough guy at every step of the way. They are shot at, run off the road, and chased until they barely know who they are. Corbett is making the point that this world is as tough as the war that Happy and Godo fought in the middle east.
Happy and Godo, meanwhile, screw up their plan, in part because of their greed, in part because Roque and his crew needed more money, and in part because the suppressed violence of their gang just couldn’t be controlled. After an attempted theft of guns leads to murder, even the FBI can’t help them, and they take off to Mexico to escape the law.
The two groups do meet up at last, and by then Roque and Lupe have found each other in the soul-baring experience that faces them in Central America. Fausto is killed and their guides are too, and they find themselves having to make their own way. When they meet Happy and Godo, and Happy is still insisting that Roque hand over the girl to the Mexican thug, there is a parting of the ways.
The novel began with a young man and girl struggling across the border, and that is the way it ends. A local man is running at them with a shotgun, and Roque is trying to insist that he is an American.
Corbett has told a wonderful tale. It is deeply moving about Iraq, but it is also chillingly eye-opening about the border wars as well. This is a California tale to match with the best of them.
Pick it up at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.