AUSTIN, Tex. – At the beginning of the pandemic, Gabino Iglesias had already been living in Texas from paycheck to paycheck for more than a decade. Then the public high school where he taught had devastating news: he was fired.
Iglesias, a Puerto Rican writer, found himself without a salary or health insurance. Unable to find other work in the bleak 2020 job market, he set his sights on finishing the book he began writing during his lunch breaks.
For months, while Covid-19 raged outside, he wrote at a feverish pace on The Devil Takes You Home, his haunting noir thriller, which Mulholland Books will publish on Tuesday. Adapted from the Book of Job, it follows an Austin father who loses his job and health insurance, his young daughter to a terrible illness, and finally his marriage.
At the end of his wits, narrator Mario accepts the offer of a meth-addicted friend and begins a new career as a cartel killer. This shift produces a frontier odyssey that blends noir and magical realism, meditations on religiosity and human cruelty, and social commentary on guns, the drug trade and resurgent racism.
“I poured all my anger at the healthcare system into this book,” said Iglesias, 40, author of “Zero Saints” and “Coyote Songs,” two novels that were critically acclaimed and enthusiastically received, albeit by relatively few Reader.
In contrast, with praise from noir masters, an in-works book tour and film rights already settled, the arrival of Iglesias’ new book is shaping up to be a breakthrough for a writer who has long worked just to make ends meet.
As America’s healthcare system continues to confuse and flare up, Iglesias taps into a well-known source of torment. The book parallels Breaking Bad, the series about a high school teacher with cancer who descends into the meth underworld to secure his family’s future.
But unlike Breaking Bad, which received widespread acclaim but was criticized for the unconvincing way in which some Latino characters were portrayed, The Devil Takes You Home revels in the ethnic and linguistic diversity of American west.
Some characters only speak English, confused by the Spanglish that is prevalent along much of the border. Others prefer the Spanish of the streets of Ciudad Juárez; Grief-stricken Mario switches effortlessly between English, Spanglish, Puerto Rican Spanish and variants of Mexican Spanish.
Though the contextual cues of meaning abound, most of the book’s non-English dialogue is untranslated and unvarnished, reflecting how millions of people in Texas actually speak, be it in downtown El Paso or the grittier parts of Austin .
“I made it clear that we don’t italicize,” Iglesias said during an interview conducted on Spanglish at a busy Austin cafe, emphasizing his sense of relief when his editor at Mulholland, an imprint of Little, Brown , took his side.
Developing into a writer moving across languages and cultures wasn’t always in sight for Iglesias. He grew up in Puerto Rico, the Caribbean island that is a territory of the United States, and spoke only Spanish (like many Puerto Ricans, Iglesias often prefers the word “colony”).
As a young reader, he was drawn to authors such as Stephen King and Edgar Allan Poe, which was part of what he called a self-supporting “very steady diet of terror.” He said he learned English in part by reading HP Lovecraft, dictionary in hand, looking up words he didn’t know.
In Puerto Rico, he got accepted into a marine biology program in college and then switched to a business degree while working construction to pay the bills. Realizing the business world wasn’t for him, he “wasted two years in law school,” began trying his hand at journalism, and was accepted into a postgraduate journalism program at the University of Texas at Austin.
Iglesias arrived in Texas with $236 and went two years without a car. To make ends meet on a stipend of about $930 a month, he taught college students radio reporting, sold life insurance, and taught English as a second language to Spanish-speaking immigrants.
This last experience, in addition to his extended contact with Spanish from Mexico and other countries in the Americas, reminded him of some advantages he had. Like his students, many of whom had crossed the border illegally from Mexico, he had followed his star to Texas.
But unlike them, Iglesias noted, he didn’t have to worry about immigration officials knocking on his door and deporting him at a time of resurgent xenophobia in the United States.
“Puerto Ricans may be second-class citizens, but this American passport is extremely helpful,” he said. (Puerto Ricans have been citizens of the United States since 1917, but islanders cannot vote in presidential elections and have no voting representation in Congress.)
However, Iglesias said he was often asked about his immigration status when looking for a job, and as he sought one low-paying clerical job after another, he was often greeted with indifference or skepticism by potential employers.
“My education and resume don’t match my looks,” he said. “If you’re a stocky brown guy with an accent, there aren’t many people who are pushing to give you chances.”
Even after receiving a Ph.D. In journalism, Iglesias said he still harbors dreams outside of science. Continuing with his own writing, he said more than once that colleagues suggested it would be a good marketing decision to change his name to “something with fewer vowels in it.”
Then there are the many sacrifices made by newly minted scholars to secure permanent jobs. He saw contemporaries moving from one college campus to another across the country, churning out ultra-specialized work aimed at polishing their professorial credentials.
“I didn’t want to spend my whole life writing articles for magazines that no one will read,” he said.
So he focused on his writing while simultaneously doing various gigs like producing book reviews, grading papers, and teaching online writing classes to help pay the bills.
It’s enough, he said, to provide a roof over his family, which includes his 9-year-old son, his wife and a rescue pit bull. They still live in low-income Austin housing, even as Iglesias is finally gaining wider recognition.
The results of his dedication to his craft are not for the faint of heart. He cited practitioners of Appalachian Noir such as David Joy and SA Cosby as influences and said the aim of his work was “to take it to the gutter”.
Several scenes in The Devil Takes You Home vividly examine how religious zeal can justify almost any course of action. In other sections, he examines the blood-soaked hypocrisy of border security policies that allow guns smuggled out of the United States to fuel Mexico’s drug trade.
Then there are the spooky scenes in the smuggling tunnels under the border where the criatures Life, or the sense of surprise at confronting an extraordinarily brutal drug lord who speaks with the eloquence of a theologian.
“Being around monsters is fine as long as you don’t think too much about what they’re capable of,” says Mario. “The scarier thing is when you realize what you’re capable of.”