Howling for You
The Ways of Wolfe
by James Carlos Blake.
New York: The Mysterious Press, 2017.
290 pp. $25 cloth.
In his latest novel, The Ways of Wolfe, James Carlos Blake returns to the exploits of the Wolfe family and its “shade trade” in Brownsville, Texas. In this case, however, family history takes a back seat to the story of Axel Wolfe, convicted and incarcerated for his part in a jewelry heist gone awry (though not a heist for jewels). Now, after twenty years at Charles Zanco Prison, Axel escapes with the help of a young inmate named Cacho, finds himself pursued by the law, and seeks to connect with his daughter, Jessie, who knows little about him. While this basic premise is common and somewhat predictable, Blake manages to cook up a doozy of a book. He skillfully uses setting and flashback to present a modern cautionary tale.
A challenge for Blake is that his main character has few redeemable qualities. One is his unquestionable love for Jessie and the heartache of not seeing her. Another is his unwavering loyalty to Billy Capp, a friend and one-time baseball teammate, who planned the heist. The “ways” of Wolfe are not the ingrained family ways, but rather Axel Wolfe’s own ways, which include a fate-sealing refusal to rat out Billy in the heist.
Through the first half flashbacks of Axel’s life, from teen years to the ill-fated heist, Blake constructs an account of a life abandoned. Axel could have had an education, a wife, a daughter, a family. The novel’s second half focuses on Axel’s escape from Zanco, and the manhunt that ensues. It is here that past collides with present, as Axel is forced to face the harsh realities and motives behind his past crimes. What is truth? What can be forgiven? What must be forgotten? The answers to these questions are so unsettling, it turns out, that Axel would have been better off staying in prison. Indeed, there is a price to pay for wanting to confront his daughter and “tell her everything he wanted to tell her for so many years.”
Not surprisingly, the Texas-Mexico border region is its own character, as was the case in Blake’s previous Wolfe family novels, The Country of the Bad Wolfes, The Rules of Wolfe, and The House of Wolfe. No doubt, Blake knows his way around the borderlands, from Brownsville to Laredo, and in The Ways of Wolfe, the landscape’s barrenness is matched by the barren, desperate life of the novel’s main character. Blake effectively offsets this landscape with thunderstorms, downpours, and a “pitching, yawing, whirling” ride down the Rio Grande.
With The Ways of Wolfe, Blake examines the true impact of one fateful decision, decades later, and the festering wounds it has left. In this border noir, the past is inescapable and, like the current on the Rio Grande, it leads people to places they cannot control.
David Pegram is a Professor of English at Paradise Valley Community College in Phoenix, Arizona. He has published and presented research on a number of topics, from James Bond films to baseball graphic novels.