Saturday, May 2, 2015



“Swing for the fences…Gut-shoot me and/or break my heart, because, tonight, I just want to feel something.”

In the beginning, there was BORDERLAND NOIR, the ezine.

This autumn, Betimes Books will be releasing BORDERLAND NOIR, the print anthology, a mix of old and new stories and essays about life and death as lived along the Mexican border—about dangerous crossings to build new lives that sometimes result in losing that old life in every sense.

This new edition of BORDERLAND NOIR also provides the opportunity to let in some fresh voices. More on that in a moment; first some background on this project...about its birth in 2005 and its return in 2015.

An old quote from a crime novel: “Nobody cared if I died or went to El Paso.” Raymond Chandler tossed off that line in The High Window.

Tom Russell, the brilliant songwriter, essayist and painter who lives in El Paso—an artist in every sense and one who also holds a master’s degree in criminology—excerpted that nugget for the sleeve of his album Borderland.

James Crumley, the godfather of the flavor of crime fiction I most revere, lifted the same line from Chandler as an epigraph for his novel, The Mexican Tree Duck.

As I said, the dark heart of BORDERLAND NOIR, and its title, go back many moons, to the waning days of 2005.

I had just completed drafts of two novels that were still a few years from publication. The first was Head Games (2007), my 1950-era, Edgar Award-nominated debut about an aging novelist called Hector Lassiter and his trials along the Mexican border after acquiring the long-missing skull of Pancho Villa.

The second was El Gavilan (2011), a novel about illegal immigration and its stresses on a small Ohio town. Games was written mostly from my imagination; El Gavilan was inspired by things I was seeing and covering as an Ohio-based journalist.

Back in 2005, before the economy went bust, it seemed as if the border was, well, everywhere. Border stresses—and all the bloody baggage tied to that invisible line—were very much on my mind as ought-five drew to a close.

A few days after wrapping El Gavilan, I was invited by Dave Zeltserman to guest-edit an edition of his distinguished but now long-gone e-zine, Hardluck Stories.

I impulsively pitched a theme of stories set along the border and sold Dave on going live with the collection on Cinco de Mayo, 2006.

I dubbed the collection BORDERLAND NOIR, partly in tribute to Tom Russell’s album, as well as the brand of fiction I felt I was writing at the time.

The term “borderland noir” has subsequently become a publishing branding slogan and a slice of frequently-seen book reviewer shorthand for typifying a certain sort of dark fiction set along the border.

With Mr. Zeltersman’s blessing, I wrote a solicitation pitch for stories that was really a thinly disguised mission statement for my two still-unpublished novels.

It went like this:

"La frontera … what El Paso-based songwriter Tom Russell describes as 'that delicious, dark-eyed myth of the border.'

"We’re headed way out west, out past where you’ve dared to go before. Out to Touch of Evil country (that’s the film, not the book, hombres).

"Our troubadours are Russell, Dave Alvin … Marty Robbins and Ry Cooder. Mariachi bands dominate the shortwave radios down this way, where tortured widower Orson Welles hands out justice with his ham-sized fists, all the while muttering under his boxy Stetson.

"We’re not looking to be slavish about the coordinates: The Border is a state of mind every bit as much as it is a geographic boundary. But fiction or nonfiction, I will be seeking that Malcolm Lowry/Day of the Dead/Cinco de Mayo vibe.

"Focus on that uneasy friction between Old Meh-hi-co and El Norte … because, way down deep, we all know that you can leave Brownsville, but you can never get Matamoros out of your soul.

"Give me stories about young lives snuffed out chasing the dream of more money and better futures up north.

"Show me guilt-stricken 'coyotes' who can no longer stand to roast peasants in locked freight cars, or to abandon babies and their too-young mothers in the scrub-oak purgatory of the Sonoran desert.

"Tell me tales of Narcotrafficante madmen with too much cash and bent imaginations who build crazy tunnels under miles of wasteland to smuggle drugs. I’m craving stories about bad bastards who kidnap tourists and mail them back one-finger-at-a-time, seeking impossible-to-pay ransoms from gringo wage-slaves whose one foreign vacation has gone so terribly south on them.

"To this day, cherry boys with butterflies in their bellies steal across the border to get laid … to drink rum at TJ’s infamous 'longest bar in the world' and to find out exactly what the hell a 'Donkey Show' is. But sometimes things take a turn. Rum and tequila and first sex are a treacherous mix. Show me how treacherous.

"Emiliano Zapata said, 'It’s better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.' So, in that spirit, swing for the fences, amigos. Give me strong and original voices. Gut-shoot me and/or break my heart, because, tonight, I just want to feel something."

Well, we at last put that issue out on May 5, 2006.

The sucker took on a life of its own. The next year, Head Games came out with its own borderland noir vibe and Touch of Evil aspects. El Gavilan followed a time after. Ken's and Manuel's stories were promptly anthologized. One of the other participants, Sam Hawken, has gone on to a distinguished career penning whole novels that fit the description of borderland noir.

Betimes Books will bring BORDERLAND NOIR back this fall in eBook and trade paperback editions.

At this writing, with another Cinco de Mayo looming, I'm looking up the original contributors and trying to get them back on board—putting the old band back together—while simultaneously seeking some fresh talent. 

I'm very interested in adding in one or two new stories to the mix, from really new voices. If you write fiction (or even nonfiction: this edition will carry at least a couple of subject appropriate essays) — if you've read the original solicitation pitch and think it's something you want to try—shoot me a line and give me a sense of what you might have in mind for consideration.