Book Review: ‘The Family Izquierdo,’ by Rubén Degollado

THE FAMILY IZQUIERDO, by Rubén Degollado

Often when a story is set in the Texas borderlands, a certain narrative is expected, almost demanded. There will be violence, trauma, desperation. Coyotes and border agents, narcotics and trains. There will be injustice and emptiness — of both the landscape and emotional variety.

But those are not the only stories of the region. Consider, instead, the borderlands as a gorgeously fluid state of mind, less a realm of political boundaries than one where speaking-in-tongues Christianity fuses seamlessly with rooster foot witchcraft, where armchairs take on the gravitas of sacred thrones, where a hairdresser’s fingers can pull the darkest shadows from a customer’s mind and the eternal singer Selena is as holy as the Virgin Mary. Such is the Texas borderland in Rubén Degollado’s “The Family Izquierdo,” a novel of Tejano plenty blooming among the literary plains of desolation, which follows three generations of a family in McAllen, Texas.

The story’s central plot begins with Octavio, the patriarch of the Izquierdos, who builds a successful drywall business but runs afoul of a neighbor, Emiliano Contreras, who lays a curse upon the family. Initially, the curse’s only victim appears to be Octavio, a man of calm fortitude who is ultimately withered by dementia to the point where his descendants “see him fading before us, his skin going gray.” But later members of the Izquierdo family seem to be damned too: “Dianira had sewn wavy gold trim onto the robe, and dropped gold glitter to make the stars. This was before her mother had become too afraid of life, too afraid of the zanate birds who she believed could give her ojo, could utter curses against her.”

The curse, while returning multiple times to haunt the family, is only part of a much larger set of struggles. In chapters that move between Izquierdo generations, we witness unsettling quinceañeras, vicious diet pill addiction, whispers of marital infidelity, nascent alcoholism and suicidal postpartum depression, all with the curse’s shadow lurking in the background.

And so we as readers wonder: How much of what happens is truly attributable to the dark magic and how much of it is self-sabotage and bad luck? If the curse is the problem, will the family ever be free of it?

If this sounds like the stuff of telenovelas, it isn’t. Part of the way the novel avoids melodrama is its effective use of multiple perspectives, which results in a rich mosaic of voices that skillfully encapsulates the complexity of family. Another way is the language itself, a mezclando Spanglish one narrator describes as “our pocho mix-and-match Spanish we used on our side of the river,” a language pitch-perfect with sentences like: “Whatever, ladies, right, get over it, por favor. Why would the boogeyman want your feote kids?” And then there are the more profound insights, sentences that deeply mine the human condition: “Victoria had held you then like she held you now because — despite how everyone in the family would always see you as the one who had saved them — she saw you as the one that needed saving. If only you would let her.” In switching so effectively between high and low, Degollado makes it impossible to predict what’s coming next.

In the end, the novel’s mix of elements — a plot that draws on magic, language steeped in Tejano specificity, deftly rendered insight into the nature of humanity — makes for a thoroughly satisfying read. As the Izquierdos and McAllen go, Degollado convinces us, so goes life: polyphonic, mixing across borders, expanding with a musicality that only strengthens as it grows.

Kawai Strong Washburn is the author of “Sharks in the Time of Saviors.”

THE FAMILY IZQUIERDO | By Rubén Degollado | 284 pp. | W.W. Norton & Company | Paperback, $16.95