"The verb is the writer sticking his nose in," Elmore Leonard famously wrote in his rules for fiction. The award-winning American crime writer was referring to dialogue attribution – advocating the use of the word "said" – but it's a good principle for verbs in general. Of course a strong, distinctive verb can do much to elevate a line, but the wrong verb can be worse than boring old "to be".
From the opening pages of Call Him Mine, the debut from Irish writer Tim MacGabhann, his choice of verbs draws attention to the writing and takes the reader out of the story. Billed as a literary crime novel set in the dark heart of Mexico, the busy storyline – drug cartels, police corruption, murdered journalists, a love story, a quest for revenge, a second and underdeveloped love story – is made busier still with the choice of language.
In the opening section, the narrator Andrew, an Irish journalist in Poza Rica, Mexico, discovers a dead body whose “teeth climbed black” before he sees “a wounded dog clitter past”. Over the next few pages, more of the same: “His boots gritted as he shifted for the right angle … tyres squalled ... my breath skittered loose grit ... the sky loured ... cold gulp rocked my throat ... Lucio glugged a bottle over the floor”. These are descriptions that aim at literary but miss the mark in terms of accuracy. That dog, meanwhile, is later to be found “jogging out of sight”.
Descriptions that don’t chime are a feature throughout, with images that lack sense or are overwritten. Here’s a man having a shower: “Hot white needles stung down from the showerhead, dimpling my skin.” Or a cup of coffee brewing: “Hot water rode the sides of his cup. The grounds seethed, thick and brownish.” This is not literary writing, or it is certainly not good literary writing.
Elsewhere the language veers to the other extreme, with a journalese style and poor syntax: “My phone pinged just the one time as I was driving back to Mexico City, and it was when Carlos sent the photo of Julián Gallardo’s dead face.”
Carlos is the narrator’s recently deceased ex-boyfriend, a relationship that is strangely obscured from the reader until later in the narrative. After the pair find the dead body, Carlos, a Mexican photojournalist, delves further into a murky narcos underworld. The text messages that he sends to Andrew from this solo mission cause concern: “Delete this number. My chest was an empty liftshaft. Don’t go to the house. My heart kept dropping. You’re not safe. My gut was a dusty basement.” Andrew is right to be concerned, as Carlos soon turns up dead.
The story plays out as a quest for justice that sees Andrew investigate the oil-hungry cartels. It is a bleak, gritty world whose violence and tragedy is at times ably rendered by MacGabhann. His familiarity with the territory comes through in the text.
The author, from Kilkenny, has worked as a journalist in Latin America for outlets including Reuters and Al Jazeera. His fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in Gorse, The Stinging Fly, and Washington Square, and he holds an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia. In 2017 he was awarded an Arts Council bursary.
His debut, in the accompanying blurbs, is compared to the likes of Hunter S Thompson and William Burroughs. In terms of subject matter and world building there are likenesses. In Call Him Mine, the violence inflicted on innocent farmers and their families by cartels and corrupt police is vividly rendered. Memorably, one woman loses her husband and then loses her son – the dead body of the opening – as he seeks to avenge his father's death.
Andrew, a supposedly hardened hack (and a recovering alcoholic at 31) is inured to seeing dead bodies on the streets of Mexico but this one is something new: “a nest of pubic hair around a bloody hole, his cock and balls, peeled like grapes, left resting on his broken hands”.
Elsewhere, there are tense scenes where Andrew’s new friends in the drugs world explain the climate: “And it’s a wet heat out here, cabrón. Four days, you wouldn’t have a face.” But despite the occasional good line, dialogue is patchy at best and overly long with attempts at humour that don’t land.
In a didactic section at the end of the book, MacGabhann explains the genesis of his novel: “In Mexico, there’s a strong tradition of the crónica, a hybrid form that owes its subject matter to reportage, its questioning of objectivity to autobiography, and just about everything else to fiction.”
Yet in his narrative as a whole, there is little of the immediacy and panache so integral to the gonzo style. In him Call Him Mine, the dizzying amounts of fear and loathing fall flat on the page.