There are monsters all around us – and some are hiding within us. So Mario discovers in The Devil Takes You Home as his life shatters like a glass tabletop around him. He knew some of these monsters. As someone with “too many syllables” in his last name, turned down for jobs he was perfectly well qualified for, he had always been intimately familiar with racism in the United States. He and his wife, Melisa, struggled to make ends meet, but their four-year-old daughter Anita brought them plenty of joy. Until the doctor uttered the word “leukemia.” Suddenly, their life became endless drives between their home and the hospital in Houston, desperate prayers for a cure, and listening to medical professionals boil down their daughter’s losing battle as a “fascinating case.”
Soon enough, the monsters of our failed system rear their heads. [SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH STARTING HERE FOR THINGS THAT HAPPEN RIGHT IN THE BEGINNING AND ARE PART OF THE DUST JACKET SYNOPSIS.] Mario loses his job for spending too much time at his daughter’s side. Insurance doesn’t cover nearly enough of the costs of care and once Mario’s job is gone, even that paltry help disappears (ironically, Mario worked for an insurance company). Bills are piling up, the hospital calls more often to demand payment than to offer any solutions, and soon Anita is gone. Only the collections calls remain. Grief rips apart Mario’s marriage and just like that, he is alone, in debt, and unemployed.
Upon losing his job, Mario decides to contact an old acquaintance and former co-worker. Brian, a white meth-head, always had several side-gigs going, each of differing levels of illegality. In no time, Mario finds himself hiding behind a van in the dark of night with a gun, waiting for his target to appear. Brian assured him this man deserved to die, but didn’t provide many details. And Mario found that he didn’t really care. When he blows off the back of the head of the man, he discovers a monster of some kind made its home in this man.
Mario also finds there’s a monstrous side living in him as well. He takes on additional hit jobs, making money and finding a way to channel his anger and grief. But then Brian introduces him to Juanca, who proposes one final job with the promise of a big payday. All they have to do is survive a near-impossible job knocking off a cartel’s money shipment. Vaguely imagining a plan where the money will bring Melisa back, Mario agrees.
The rest of the story follows the men’s journey to Mexico and back. They encounter all sorts of awfulness – racists, cartel bosses, man-eating alligators, and violence of all kinds. Meanwhile, each member of the crew contemplates their companions’ potential to double-cross, as well as their own.
Overall, it’s a spell-binding book. I’m not huge on slotting everything into a particular genre, which is good, because it would be hard to figure out where exactly to place this. It’s located in the horror section and it definitely fits, but it’s also more than that. Then I saw some interviews with Gabino Iglesias where he describes this work as “barrio noir.” It’s a mix of horror, crime, borderlands, languages, and more, with a dash of the supernatural thrown in. (Just like in the last review, this is another book with a lot of non-English dialogue.)
The Devil Takes You Home sometimes evoked strains of Almanac of the Dead. It emphasizes the artificiality and arbitrariness of national borders. It does not shrink away from the destructive impact of centuries of racism in the United States. And like Almanac of the Dead, The Devil Takes You Home refuses to allow us to hide from the awful violence so many endure.
There’s also a level of the supernatural to the story, which was interesting but some of it felt extraneous. Mario has visions from time to time, brief warnings or whole scenes that felt incredibly real but didn’t happen. It plays into the feeling of vertigo the book creates, where you can’t quite seem to anchor yourself in its reality. It’s also terrifying to see how people’s faith and belief in spiritual powers results in horrendous cruelty and torture. (Including a scene of brutal child abuse.) All of that is really well done. The stuff that didn’t work quite so well for me was the suggestion of actual non-human or not-quite-human monsters. They don’t appear often, and it didn’t kill the vibe of the book by any means. But they could have disappeared and not been missed. There was plenty of horror in the human characters.
Overall, this is a bleak, creepy, haunting tale and hard to put down.