By Tim Murr
Fernando is a drug dealer from Mexico living in Austin, Texas. He works for a man named Guillermo and is doing all right for himself since crossing “la frontera.” Then one night he’s attacked, shoved into a trunk, and presented to a man named Indio. Indio isn’t the kind of man you usually find in Austin; a large, powerfully built monster, covered in so many tattoos that his skin is almost black. He wants to take over much of Guillermo’s territory and wants Fernando to deliver a message. Part of that message involves having to watch the torture and murder of his colleague Nestor. So begins Zero Saints, a fearful, fast-paced descent into what may be the final few days of un hombre invisible.
This horrible twist in Fernando’s life is the exact reason he had fled Mexico. He made it to Texas via a coyote (someone who helps people cross the border for money) and tried to become invisible. Running from the death mark on his head had made him feel like a coward and his encounter with Indio doesn’t change how he feels about himself. Circumstances put Fernando in a position, though, where running won’t be an option this time, especially as people he can turn to for help start running out on him.
Gabino Iglesias has crafted an amazing, tight, and scary horror-noir, modern western in Zero Saints. He liberally peppers the English narrative with Spanish, from a short word or phrase to longer passages of dialogue and prayer. But to be honest, the horror/crime aspect of Zero Saints is mostly the bread and cheese; the real meat of the tale is the personal struggle of Fernando, an illegal immigrant escaping and overcoming incredible, violent, and terrifying circumstances. He deals with a loss of identity, a need to not just blend in but to also disappear –to be the aforementioned hombre invisible. He had carved out a comfortable niche for himself in Texas, but Indio jerked him out of his safe zone and hung his ass out like a tattered flag in a hurricane.
The constant presence of Santa Muerte through the book is another important feature Iglesias explores. Not in the history of the Saint, but in Fernando’s relationship to her. For many Americans, Santa Muerte is just that cool Mexican saint with a skull face that we might wear on a T-shirt, a cartoon character from a recent film, or simply an aspect of the Day Of The Dead festival. Many completely ignorant of her significance to a whole subculture within our southern neighbor’s borders and beyond. Worshipping Santa Muerte is actually condemned by the Catholic Church in Mexico and a NPR news story from a few years ago (where my interest began) tied the Saint to cartel members and drug dealers.
This is probably in part because:
“The cult of Santa Muerte first came to widespread popular attention in Mexico in August 1998, when police arrested notorious gangster Daniel Arizmendi López and discovered a shrine to the saint in his home. Widely reported in the press, this discovery inspired the common association between Santa Muerte, violence, and criminality in Mexican popular consciousness.”
That can’t tell the whole story though, as there are nearly two million devotees to Santa Muerte. This is, of course, beside the point, but not irrelevant to the potential reader. After all, if you’re like me and you’re really moved by something that’s coming from a perspective that’s alien to you, you’ll want to do some more exploring to understand what you’ve just read. I think that is the mark of a truly great piece of art, and Zero Saints is exactly that.
Zero Saints was published by Broken River Books and is available to purchase from Amazon.