by Vanessa Blakeslee
Curbside Splendor, 2015
340 pages, $15.95
Reviewed by Donna Lee Miele
Vanessa Blakeslee’s debut novel launches her into a heavyweight class, delivering on the promise of her short story collection, the highly acclaimed Train Shots, and then some. Juventud is not just a serious novel, but an important one, offering the English-speaking world a window into a nation trapped at the foundation of the drug trade. Comparisons with Don Winslow’s The Cartel are inevitable, but Blakeslee’s approach is completely distinct, delving into human emotion as affected by cultural and social history. Instead of modern-day Mexico, Juventud is set in Colombia in the years following the cocaine trade’s height, and instead of centering on law enforcement’s struggles, Juventud relates a nation’s recovery at the working-class level. In this chaotic setting Mercedes Martinez, daughter of a reformed drug runner, comes of age. Her wrenching experiences provide an apt parallel to the story of a crippled nation determined to heal.
In such a setting, we may imagine relentless forward motion, a race to the harrowing escape at the finish, but Juventud belies those expectations. The drug trade’s penetration to every aspect of Mercedes’s life somehow eases the pace. Mercedes, her love interest Manuel, and her closest friends are members of La Maria Juventud Para Justicia Social, roughly translated to Youth of Mary for Social Justice, a church-based group that stands against rampant violence and corruption, especially in defense of the working people and innocents that get caught most often in the crossfire. Mercedes’s father Diego, a prominent landowner, is rumored to have gained his wealth and property as an accessory to the cocaine trade that spurred the violence. As high tension becomes part of Mercedes’s daily experience, the emotional foundation of every secret meeting with Manuel, of every meal she shares with Diego, of every gathering with friends, the reader too learns to live with the stress. In the following sequence, for instance, Mercedes prepares for and embarks on a typical outing with her friends.
“In Ana’s upstairs living room with the Virgin Mary eyeing us from the wall, we cranked up Gracia’s dance music, sipped Fanta, and talked about our boyfriends. It was late Sunday morning. The rally was set to take place that afternoon… Ana had made reservations for Carlos’s birthday at the Mirador. Afterward, we might all go out to a club; she was thinking of booking a room at the Intercontinental and buying, for herself, some sexy lingerie…
At noon, Ana handed each of us a T-shirt printed with the names of a dozen groups with names like La Maria Juventud Para Justicia Social, some affiliated with Catholic churches, others with Cali universities… Across the front, the words LIBERTAD and COLOMBIA blazed in bold black lettering, a Colombian flag in the backdrop…
The square swelled, alive with whistles and chants. Our spot seemed ideal, until I looked up. Atop a roof a sniper in a black uniform crouched, the stage and its speakers an easy target for someone with a rifle or a bomb.”
Blakeslee takes her time getting at the political intrigue, the power of the drug trade, and the associated violence. Mercedes’s adolescent self-centeredness and developing understanding of social subtleties get equal time—more, really, as the story only follows Colombian history through Mercedes’s journey. The result is that when violence finally strikes at the heart of all Mercedes holds dear, its effects are devastating. Mercedes escapes a shooting that takes the life of someone close to her and must flee to the U.S., where she finishes her education, obsessively pursuing answers to lingering questions about her father’s involvement in Colombia’s cocaine cartel. Fifteen years later, now estranged from her father and unable to maintain a stable romantic relationship, she is a noted author and researcher for the U.S. government and American drug trafficking agencies. Her work and her need to resolve her own questions bring her back to Colombia to confront her past. The story’s resolution sweeps together Mercedes’s fading young memories and her accomplishments as a strong young woman, horrific as well as electrifying, and allows her to look forward to building her adulthood.
It’s so pleasurable to sink into a novel by a writer unafraid to unwind her narrative horizontally into plush, substantial sentences and scenes. Blakeslee’s style is not ornate or especially lyrical, but satisfyingly constructed, like a home-cooked supper replete with substantial everyday dishes. Her strong grip on setting, though, reminds the reader that a home-cooked meal in the Martinez hacienda is taken inside a guarded compound; that the family dogs, even the most obsequious and silly, are expected to bite; and that away from the table, the poor will stare as Mercedes’s car passes, chauffeured by an armed ex-soldier.
References to the various militant government and guerrilla factions can be confusing, as Blakeslee appropriately focuses on Mercedes’s struggle to understand rather than on making historic fact crystal-clear. The reader can feel nearly barraged by acronyms and references to which characters are tied up with what, as in this excerpt from a sequence in which Mercedes and her boyfriend Manuel come to terms with the kidnapping of Emilio, Manuel’s brother:
“Duarte had indeed condemned the rebels to be excommunicated, and ninety-five percent of the ELN guerrillas were Catholic…
‘If the Church excommunicates those five thousand ELN, things will not be good for Manuel or his brother,’ Papi said…
‘Oh, I despise the ELN just a hair less than the FARC,’ Uncle Charlie exclaimed. ‘They make me so tired of defending myself…’
As much as he distrusted my father, Manuel said he valued his foresight about how the ELN might react to Duarte’s decision. Some hostages’ families had received messages from loved ones through guerrilla contacts or negotiators. But no word on Emilio. We talked about this later that week at Emilio’s desk, now Manuel’s, our island in the midst of committee meetings taking place. As for Uncle Charlie… Manuel doubt[ed]that he might be an undercover U.S. drug official, as we had first thought. Instead, Manuel thought Charlie might be the elusive and notorious Carlos Castaño, leader of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, the AUC—the most ruthless and well-funded paramilitary.”
At times, too, the novel comes close to reportage instead of immersive narrative: “The following day I sought out my boss, spun the face I recognized in the footage into an urgent need to fly down to Bogotá for a lengthy investigation, conduct my own research into the Norte del Valle cartel’s connections to Mexico, now the hotbed of narco-trafficking and the focus of our efforts. She made a few phone calls, stopped by my office later that week with good news. She’d arranged for me to work out of the embassy, move into temporary housing for a month, longer if I needed to extend my trip.” An epic journey such as Mercedes’s may necessitate such summations, and they don’t detract from the novel’s otherwise gripping world-building and forward motion. If realism was one of Blakeslee’s goals, she has not let us forget that in the thick of day-to-day experience, there is little romance to tension and intrigue.
In the details of Mercedes’s family and social life Blakeslee offers an understanding of relationship and setting—or relationship as setting—that allows Juventud to transcend the trappings of both romance and thriller, though the story flirts with both genres. This is a novel that should generate a lot of discussion and response by future authors, to be pored over and remembered.