The Southland by Johnny Shaw
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I received a free advance copy of this from NetGalley for review.
If America keeps going like it has been for the last few years then we won’t have an illegal immigration problem because nobody will want to come to this shithole country anyhow.
U-S-A!! U-S-A!! U-S-A!!
The Southland focuses on three unauthorized Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles. Luz works several menial jobs and was able to finally bring her teen-aged son, Eliseo, into the US. Unfortunately, he turns out to be a sullen, angry, lazy kid who just complicates her precarious existence. Nadia had to flee Mexico and she’s got far more dangerous people than ICE agents looking for her so she’s trying to stay off of everybody’s radar. She copes with her situation by drinking heavily with her American friend and roommate, Gillies. Ostelinda was lured to America with the promise of a good job, but she is told that she has a debt to work off. Now she’s essentially a slave in a factory who hasn’t even been outside in over a year.
When Eliseo goes missing after an argument with Luz, she’s desperate to find her son, but since she can’t turn to the authorities she pays Gillies to find him. Gillies doesn’t plan on doing anything other than using Luz’s money to buy more booze, but at Nadia’s insistence they being looking for the missing teen. Meanwhile, Ostelinda is trying to find a way to escape the factory by outwitting the American woman who runs the place.
I’ve been a fan of Johnny Shaw’s for better part of a decade now, and this is undeniably his best book yet. His previous stuff was always entertaining and frequently hilarious, but there’s a real maturity and gravity to this one that makes it feel he tried very hard to get to a next level here. It’s not that his earlier stuff hasn’t featured real world issues, but he’s generally used humorous dialogue and a sense of chaos brought about by various dumbasses doing dumbass things to drive the plots. With the three main characters facing serious consequences for any misstep that could get them deported or worse, there’s no room for buffoonery, and that makes this book feel deadly serious throughout it all.
It’s not just that Shaw took a hot button issue and based a novel on it. He’s always had a feel for creating working class characters, and with his three leading ladies this time he’s outdone himself. Although each one shares the similarity of being an undocumented immigrant, they feel distinctive and real. Luz is a hardworking mother who feels like she’s failed her son. Nadia is a woman with a tragic history trying to outrun her past. Ostelinda is an innocent caught up in a bad situation who somehow finds small moments of grace to keep her spirit from breaking.
First he makes us care about these women, and then Shaw shows us how screwed they really are. They’ve all become part of a system that is happy to exploit them for their labor even as the people in charge vilify them. They are powerless against any random white asshole who gets irked at them. So Luz has to sit quietly on a bus as a man screams racist slurs at her. Nadia doesn’t dare complain when a boss cheats her on the amount of a promised wage. Ostelinda is told that she’s lucky to have a safe place to live and work while being a slave.
This also shows up in the plot of the story. Luz can’t afford to drop everything and look for her son so she has to do her sleuthing around her work schedule. Nadia doesn’t dare make too many waves when she’s investigating either lest she draw the wrong kind of attention. This is a far cry from the usual crime story where it’s the detective throwing their weight around and causing trouble as a way of drawing out the bad guys. It’s a lot harder to find someone when you don’t want anyone to notice that you’re looking, and when you don’t dare call the cops even when you’re dealing with real criminals.
It’s a crime story that also provides emphatic insight into what undocumented workers face in America these days. It’s not pretty. It’s not a lot of fun. But it’s an important story, and Johnny Shaw has told it about as well as it could be done.
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