With little effort, one could draw a line that commences at a place in the midst of John Steinbeck’s shorter fiction, continues through Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, and ends at THE CARRION BIRDS by Urban Waite. THE TERROR OF LIVING, Waite’s 2011 debut novel, more than fulfilled its own promise; THE CARRION BIRDS, his sophomore effort, manages to surpass his first with a dark and violent tale of attempted atonement and redemption that seems doomed to fail from the start, set against the dusty, fluid backdrop of the contemporary U.S.- Mexican border.
Waite’s tragically flawed protagonist is a modern-day hired gun named Ray Lamar, who has left a trail of devastation and troubles in his wake. As we meet Ray in the early stages of the story, he has begun to grudgingly blaze a somewhat troubled and checkered path toward redemption by accepting a job from Memo, a drug dealer and Ray’s former employer, who is at odds with a Mexican drug cartel. Ray’s plan is to use the money from the job to return to Coronado, where he had lived, worked, married and raised a family an eternity ago. Things had started off well there over a decade before, but when Ray lost his job as an oil worker, he used the skill set he had acquired overseas in the Army to serve at Memo’s behest. A hit-and-run accident, believed to be deliberate, left Ray’s wife dead and his infant son disabled for life.
"THE TERROR OF LIVING, Waite’s 2011 debut novel, more than fulfilled its own promise; THE CARRION BIRDS, his sophomore effort, manages to surpass his first with a dark and violent tale of attempted atonement and redemption that seems doomed to fail from the start..."
Ray hopes to become reacquainted with his son --- now a stranger to him --- and to live quietly and at peace. To do this, however, Ray must complete two tasks. The first is schooling Memo’s nephew, a young braggart named Jim Sanchez, in the ways of being a successful gunsel. The second is to lead the two of them into a hijacking of some cartel narcotics and to deliver them to Memo. Ray fails spectacularly in both tasks, in no small part due to the ineptitude of Sanchez, who is all hat and no cattle and could screw up the construction of a soup sandwich. By the time the dust settles and the smoke clears, the understandably angry though no less morally compromised cartel is after Ray and willing to move through anything and anyone to get to him. The ultimate result is that the people with whom Ray had hoped to reunite are instead put foursquare in the crosshairs of danger. Ray has more courage and ability than sense.
Waite’s ability to demonstrate the obvious and major weak points in Ray’s plan, even as such are layered over by Ray’s blind optimism, is pure genius. The reader senses much earlier than Ray that the road to salvation does not run through Memo, nor does it lead to Coronado, a dying town that has been bled dry of oil, its major industry. Further, Ray’s presence can mean nothing but trouble for his family, particularly his cousin who, loyal to a fault, lost his job as sheriff in town 10 years ago due to his indirect but deadly involvement with Ray and now spends his days working as a hired hand on a neighbor’s cattle ranch. One can sense from the beginning that things are going to end badly for all involved. The question of how badly is merely one of degree.
The dust and despair that infuses the book’s backdrop is so thick that it almost rises off the page. Ironically, the individual who is the ultimate catalyst of the death and destruction that propels the story is not directly presented until practically the end of the book, though he is presented to devastating effect nonetheless. This literary style point is but one of many elements that makes THE CARRION BIRDS another triumph for Waite, with the promise of more and even better to come.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on April 19, 2013