At the start of Michael Gruber’s richly rewarding new literary thriller, Richard Marder, a Vietnam veteran turned New York book editor, is mourning his Mexican-born wife’s death when he learns that he has an inoperable brain tumor. With little to lose and bolstered by a fortune that he made in the stock market, Marder sets out to gain revenge on a Mexican drug lord he blames for his wife’s suicide.
He buys a mansion on an island connected by a causeway to Mexico’s Pacific coast, in a region where two drug cartels are battling for supremacy. When he finds the property overrun by scores of squatters, he invites them to stay and makes plans for a crafts center to produce native pottery and other goods. This is, at least in part, cover for his planned revenge. He also seeks out the warring drug lords, both of whom covet his island, and wins the protection of one of them by promising weapons that he has no intention of delivering.
Marder (the name may suggest both “murder” and “martyr”) has the stalwart assistance of his brother-in-arms from Vietnam, Patrick Skelly, who at 60 is a warrior, wild man and global dealer in weapons and drugs. When one of the cartels threatens to invade Marder’s island fortress, Skelly whips the would-be craftsmen into a well-armed fighting force. The violence that both men survived in Vietnam has prepared them for this new challenge 40 years later. Indeed, for Marder, the thrill of war “was a mystical cocktail that comes only from this one act, from killing men at the risk of yourself dying, a Pleistocene inheritance, disgusting and marvelous at the same time.”
The novel showcases three gorgeous women: Marder’s smart, strong-willed, grad-school daughter; an equally attractive Mexican journalist who becomes his lover; and a 16-year-old native beauty who dreams of movie stardom as many men lust for her.
In short, Gruber has assembled all the ingredients of a big-time thriller: two fearless Americans confronting loathsome villains in an exotic setting, plus sex, suspense and the probability that one or more of the women will fall into the hands of the sadistic drug lords and their drooling minions. Such elements are often the recipe for thrillers that are exciting, titillating and highly commercial.
However, anyone who knows Gruber’s earlier novels, which include “Tropic of Night,” “The Book of Air and Shadows” and “The Forgery of Venus,” will expect more from him than a routine thriller. The beauty of “The Return” lies in how much more the author has on his mind.
A thriller becomes a literary thriller not simply because it is exceptionally well written, although that is always to be desired, but because it possesses an intellectual dimension. In “The Return,” along with shootouts, decapitations and endangered women, Gruber is concerned with love, marriage, parenting, politics, religious faith, the thrill of war, the soul of Mexico and how we should live our lives.
A series of flashbacks shows Marder and Skelly on a virtual suicide mission along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Vietnam; it’s as vivid and hellish as any fiction I’ve read on that misbegotten war. Gruber’s descriptions of Mexico — its people, its food, its flowers and festivals, its ancient beauty and drug-era horrors — are brilliant. His evocation of a sunset over the Pacific — too long to quote here — is exquisite. You read him not just for the action but for the elegance of his prose, the depth of his characterizations and the endless surprises that spring from his imagination.
Is there anything to dislike about this novel? That depends on you. If you’re an impatient, cut-to-the-chase sort of reader, uninterested in Marder’s memories of his marriage or his daughter’s creative sex life or the celebration of the Day of the Dead, or Skelly’s love of the Hmong tribesmen who fought alongside him in Vietnam, or the enduring relevance of D.H. Lawrence’s writings on Mexico — if those and other digressions are likely to bore you, you should look elsewhere. But if you’re interested in fiction that tickles the intellect as well as excites the gut, seek out “The Return” and Gruber’s earlier novels. This man didn’t publish his first novel until he was 60; he’s in his 70s now, and he continues to perform at a level that precious few writers of any age can equal.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.
By Michael Gruber
Henry Holt. 366 pp. $28