The Devil Takes You Home
by Gabino Iglesias
(Mulholland Books, 2022)

The title on the front cover of the book is written in English. The effusive blurbs on the back cover are in English. The jacket copy is in English. But if you’re going to read this book, you will need at least a modicum of proficiency in Spanish. Of the 305 pages of mediocre prose in this barrio noir novel, 125 of them are infused, a little or a lot, with Spanish-language writing. Barnes and Noble ought to throw in a free translation dictionary with every copy sold.


The Devil Takes You Home is the latest novel from Gabino Iglesias.  Our central character, Mario, has fallen on financial hard times after his daughter’s illness and extended hospitalization. His insurance doesn’t cover all the expenses, his employer fires him for absenteeism, and to pull himself out of the hole, he decides to take a job as a hit man. Not only has he never killed anyone before, he’s never even held a gun in his hand until the day he’s given a photograph of his target and told to go shoot him. It seems like it would have been easier for Mario just to walk down to the bankruptcy court and be rid of the medical bills, but there was something about the heft and feel of the gun in his hand that compelled him. Off he goes to whack his first target. Mario’s hiding in the dark shadows, waiting for his victim, sweating and morally agonizing (“I didn’t know his crimes, but the desire to punish him was there,” Mario thinks to himself), pistol in hand, but he flawlessly pulls it off. He gets paid and it’s almost enough to pay off his medical bills. He’s hooked. He discovers he has a talent for assassination and takes on even more work. No bankruptcy lawyer would be collecting fees from Mario.

Iglesias, an NPR contributor and anti-racism/classism activist, uses his characters as stand-ins for his activism. At one point, the main character Mario complains that he cannot get a job because there are too many vowels in his name, claiming that even McDonald’s wouldn’t hire him. Anybody who’s ever visited a McDonald’s near the U.S./Mexico border of course knows that isn’t true, but it adds more credibility to the concept that Mario is “forced” to become an assassin to lift himself out of poverty. Iglesias also uses Mario to take a shot at American classism when Mario says, “Poor people have the same haunted look. We share something that makes us part of the same breed regardless of color or language.” Of course, anybody who’s ever lived in a crowded, moldy tenement or run-down trailer park knows there is no such thing as a brotherhood of the poor—desperately poor people are more likely to stab each other than to hug each other. Mario also says of white people, “All white people share an aversion to being forced to step momentarily into otherness.” Rachel Dolezal and Shaun King might beg to differ.

The publisher, Mulholland Books, is reluctant to classify the book, calling it a “genre-defying thriller.” The reader is asked to suspend disbelief at an absurd money-laundering scheme by Mexican drug cartels using American life insurance companies; cartels give folks in the U.S. money to take out a policy, wait a few months and fake some good news like an inheritance, then ask for their premiums back. In truth, American life insurance companies do not refund premiums unless it is during the “free look” period, which is typically only about ten days. We’re asked to be a little indulgent, too, at some bizarre Catholic mysticism including walking corpses. Genre defying, indeed.

In a Texas roadside diner, Mario and his friend Juanca are confronted by a group of three boorish white racists. Juanca quickly gets the better of them, and with his pistol waving in full view of all the diners and traffic on the road, proceeds to give them a long lecture on racism; a list of Hispanic names that they are to remember, informs them that he and Mario are citizens of the USA, warns them not to call the cops (because, gosh, wouldn’t it be embarrassing to admit you got your asses whipped!), takes the two teeth he knocked out of one of the racists’ mouth and pockets them, and then tops it all off by slighting President Trump. They speed away in their car, leaving the sniveling racists in the dust of the parking lot, never to be bigots again.

One of the most savage killers in the book owns a Smith and Wesson 500, a pistol that she’s very proud of. She displays it for her friends, licking it with her tongue and says, “You know why this only holds five bullets in the barrel? ‘Cause it doesn’t need six to kill!” Uhm, the bullets are in the cylinder, sweetie. Put that thing away before you hurt yourself.

The Devil Takes You Home actually had the potential to be a good story, but is ruined by Iglesias’ sophomoric writing. He writes as though he’s a struggling student in an eighth-grade composition class: “Her voice impossibly sharp and velvety.” “…felt like an alpinist who runs out of bottled oxygen.” “Her cheekbones looked like weapons constantly threatening the world.” “The darkness around me stuck to my skin with the insistence of a child asking an uncomfortable question.” “The car seat stared at me.” “Spit flew from his mouth like fat white bullets.” Describes a meth addict’s mouth as, “a tiny cave full of dark tree stumps covered in brown moss.” “AC units like plump metallic tumors.” “Her chest rattled like an old car trying to do eighty on the highway with a trunk full of rocks.” “I knew that death was serious business.” “Guns say a lot without words.” “Tomorrow would be full of death. I only had to make sure the death wasn’t my own.” Raymond Chandler is guffawing in his grave.

Iglesias is an avid Tweeter and is quick to tweet his displeasure at one- and two-star ratings on Goodreads. “Looks like I’m pissing off the racists today!” he Tweets after seeing a new one-star review. His colleague at NPR, Ilana Masad, gave The Devil a gushing review, beginning with a screed on immigration rights, abortion rights, transgender rights, and other hot-button issues that appeal to NPR listeners. People promoting social justice seem to make a sincere effort at making the world a better place, but let’s leave crime fiction to people who have at least a glancing familiarity with things like firearms and money laundering and can write about it without a surfeit of hackneyed simile.

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