Mulholland Books is pleased to announce the acquisition of Richard Lange’s new novel Angel Baby. Celebrate with us with the below guest post from the Guggenheim Fellowship recipient and author of the acclaimed novel This Wicked World and short story collection Dead Boys. Welcome to the team, Richard!
Tijuana lies sprawled along the line where the U.S. and Mexico crash into each other like two tectonic plates. This convergence leads to a certain seismic instability, and the city is constantly being rattled by tremors of one sort or another, whether it be drug murders or a political scandal. Business continues as usual, though, because that’s what business does, barely taking notice of all of the little calamities that somehow miraculously never add up to a major catastrophe.
It’s a city of two million hardworking people, 7,000 stray dogs, and lots of noisy black ravens. Technically, it sits in Mexico, 20 minutes south of downtown San Diego, three hours from L.A., but it’s a border city, perhaps the quintessential border city, and as such is neither Mexican nor American. “Tijuana isn’t Mexico,” people say, and they’re right, but it’s not a suburb of San Diego either. It’s not even some strange amalgamation of the two. Instead, like all great cities – Los Angeles, New York, Paris – it’s completely unique, possessing a personality that sets it apart from every other place in the world. It has its own culture, its own language, its own dreams and nightmares.
The city was a sleepy backwater until Prohibition, when Hollywood and the mob began to come down to drink and gamble. Later, it became the playground of servicemen stationed in San Diego, offering all the depravity an 18-year-old sailor could want. Regular tourists started venturing across the border in droves in the 1950s. They came in search of spicy food, cheap margaritas, and souvenirs for the folks back home — an oversized sombrero, maybe, or a silver ring that would turn your finger green after a week, or a life-size plaster skull wearing a Nazi helmet.
Today Tijuana isn’t the tourist Mecca it once was, but it’s still one of the fastest-growing cities in Mexico due to the many foreign-owned factories that have located there in order to take advantage of cheap labor. These maquiladoras attract workers from all over the country. There is also a sizeable transient population made up of people who are waiting to slip cross the border into the U.S. or have been deported from there.
The scrappy metropolis has long fascinated me. I’ve written about it in a couple of short stories, and a portion of my new novel, Angel Baby (Mulholland, Spring 2013), takes place there. Some of my visits are chronicled in the half dozen blurry black-and-white photos I have that show me sitting in carts behind different sad-eyed donkeys painted to look like zebras, all shot by various Tijuana street photographers over the years.
I’m 8 years old in the earliest one. It was taken during a trip with my family. We were only there long enough to have lunch and do a little shopping, but the child-beggars, garishly painted nightclubs, and extravagantly costumed mariachis made a permanent impression. I remember it as a slightly scary whirl of loud music, glaring sun, odd smells, and hectoring voices.
When I got older, it was the city’s strippers and free-flowing booze that drew me and my college buddies like moths to flickering neon. The joke was that if you were old enough to see over the bar, you could get a drink, and we’d drive down from L.A. to spend long, messy nights pounding beer and tequila and stumbling in and out of various dens of iniquity.
One favorite was the Unicornio, where the dancers were transsexuals. We’d bring in a first-timer and sit back and watch the fun as he gradually realized what was going on – or, even better, didn’t. The city felt like the Wild West back then. Anything could happen there, and we hoped it would. Dudes got ripped off by deaf bar girls, thrown in jail for pissing in alleys, and busted for trying to bring fireworks and switchblades and Quaaludes back into the U.S. , and we tell the stories to this day.
My most recent visit to the city took place in January. About to put the finishing touches on the manuscript for Angel Baby, I went down to see if anything had changed since the last time I’d been there a couple of years ago, changes that might need to be reflected in the book. I also planned to hit the dog races and a food stall in the red-light district that I’d been hearing about, one that specialized in chicken-neck tacos. Research, you know.
I parked in San Ysidro and walked over the border on a brand-new pedestrian bridge, part of a massive construction project that will add more traffic lanes at the crossing, more inspection bays, and more office space for the Department of Homeland Security. I’d described the old port of entry in the novel, picturing it in my head as I wrote the scenes that took place there. The area would look very different by time the book came out, so I’d have to do a bit of editing.
Other changes quickly became apparent when I reached the heart of the city’s tourist sector, Avenida Revolucion. While I knew that tourism had dropped off sharply due to negative publicity about drug violence and police corruption, I was surprised to find that I was the only gringo on the street, and one of the few pedestrians of any stripe — there weren’t even many Mexicans around. And while I’d seen some of my favorite haunts disappear or morph into new businesses over the years, this time I barely recognized the neighborhood.
Most of the restaurants were closed, their once-crowded second-floor terraces boarded over with graffiti-covered plywood. Many of the souvenir stores were gone, too, and the colorfulness of merchandise in those that remained had a desperate, pleading quality. The strip clubs had been gutted and converted into pharmacies, and the same skeevy barkers who once tried to lure you inside to see the girls now stood on the sidewalk in dingy white coats, touting cut-rate Viagra and vicodin. A new casino had opened, but nobody seemed to be having much fun there.
It was disorienting. This was no longer the Tijuana I’d written and fantasized about over the years. I wondered if the changes had happened so gradually that I hadn’t pieced them together until that moment in the same the way you might see an aunt of yours every once in a while and not notice anything new about her until one afternoon the sunlight hits her just right and you exclaim to yourself, “Man, she’s gotten old!” Then again, perhaps I was just too busy being and not looking the last few times I’d visited. Or maybe I’d willfully ignored the transformation with a nostalgist’s selective blindness.
Whatever the explanation, by the time I reached the old Jai Alai Fronton Palace – shuttered in 1998 – I needed a drink. I ducked into a cantina called Dandy Del Sur, a dark, divey survivor of the old TJ, and ordered a tequila, something cheap.
I write for a variety of reasons. The main one, of course, is because I can. Writing is the only natural skill I possess, so I experience a feeling of completeness when working at it, a sense that I’m doing the thing that I’m wired to do. Another reason is that people sometimes pay me for what I write, and I need that money to live. And then there’s the fact that I like the me that comes across on paper more than the me I am every day. The writer me is smarter, wiser, kinder, funnier, and much more interesting.
Another motivation is that through writing I’m able to fix in time favorite cities, streets and buildings and thereby arrest the evolution of my personal universe by creating a kind of scrapbook of places that I’ve loved. That day in TJ, though, as I slouched in front of my drink, I brooded over the fact that, in reality, the world changed faster than I could ever write it into permanence and that almost before I’d finished setting down the details of a locale, that locale would become someplace else. A depressing thought.
The owner of the cantina sat at the end of the bar, an old woman wearing a big blonde wig. Faded photographs of her posing with various people lined the walls. She was younger in the pictures, and if I was supposed to know who any of the people were, I didn’t. I ordered another tequila and raised my glass to her. She was lucky to have this memory box, this eddy in the river of time, where she could await her fate with style and grace surrounded by familiar faces and ghostly smiles.
Me, I was destined to go out ugly, running a race there was no way to win, attempting to wrestle into words people and places and feelings that fought like hell to get away. Some days it seemed like a noble pursuit, other days, like that one there in Dandy Del Sur, it felt like nothing but foolishness.
It’s always what you do next that counts though. I finished my drink, nodded a goodbye to the old woman, and flung myself back into the current. I found that taco stand in the Zona Rosa and ate deep-fried chicken necks while watching the streetwalkers troll for customers. I hit a couple of winners at the dog track and saw a blind man play the accordian. I walked over the bridge leading back to the U.S. at sunset, just as the homeless who lived in the riverbed gathered around their campfires.
And the next morning I picked up my notebook and pencil and began to write. The feeling that it was pure folly lingered, but somebody had to capture that cloudy January afternoon in the new Tijuana, or at least somebody had to try. A few more babies had already been born there, an old woman had decided to paint her house hot pink, and one of those stray dogs had been hit by a car. The city was changing as I scribbled, and I was going to have to work fast to get it all down.
Richard Lange was born in Oakland, CA and grew up in California’s San Joaquin Valley. He’s the author of the short story collection Dead Boys and the novel This Wicked World. His short stories have appeared in The Sun, The Iowa Review and Best American Mystery Stories, and as part of the Atlantic Monthly‘s Fiction for Kindle series. He was the 2008 recipient of the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award for Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a finalist for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2009.