- Mule: A Novel of Moving Weight
- Mariner Books, 304 pp.
Travels with JoJo Bear: Tony D’Souza’s Recession Novel
Tony D’Souza’s newest novel, Mule: A Novel of Moving Weight, appeals to a generation of post-graduate, post-professional, 30-somethings who have found themselves sounding the depths of the worst economic recession in generations. In fact, D’Souza’s novel speaks so clearly to this particular moment, that its future relevance will have to contend with the tendency of all things “of a moment” to quickly lose appeal. With that said, though, most people who have found themselves searching hopelessly for jobs in the floundering labor market today will respond to the depressingly familiar truth of D’Souza’s story.
In Mule, a professional young couple—James is a successful freelance writer for publications as esteemed as Esquire magazine, Kate makes decent money after working her way up the ranks in retail management—suddenly find themselves not only mutually unemployed but expecting a baby. A development that might have sealed their trajectory down the familiar path of American success narratives is instead devastatingly complicated, though welcome. When their early optimism flags after repeated run-ins with a sparse and unyielding labor market, they are forced to give up their relatively swanky condo in Austin, Texas, and move closer to Kate’s family in a small, northern California town.
After a happy, if lean, year spent in a tiny mountain cabin, struggling to get their bearings—financial and otherwise, James receives an offer he is unable to refuse. A friend of Kate’s, he learns, has been living the high life for years off of his prospering business in the marijuana industry. Darren owns several properties with untold numbers of workers and can afford to spend half his time and a good chunk of his money in Thailand, sleeping around and supporting a small farming industry of some sort. When Kate and James begin contemplating a cross-country move, to stay with James’s mother for a change, Darren offers him a cash windfall in the form of several thousands to transport a package of marijuana (“weight”) from California to Florida. Though terrorized by the danger and risks he’s taking, James finds himself unable to turn down the chance to provide for his small family.
Unfortunately, what starts out as a stunningly and heart-breakingly believable story about a generation’s desperation in the face of widespread economic downturn rather quickly slides into something that could fairly be described as a moralistic PSA on gateway drugs and the life of crime to which they inexorably lead. By the end of the novel, the largely sympathetic and well-rounded protagonist, James, has flattened into a suburban netherworldish boogeyman and finds himself—and the reader with him—pushed to ever greater heights of escalating violence as he sinks deeper into the drug trafficking underworld. As in similar stories, the punishment faced by the otherwise likable protagonist could best be described as knee-jerk. Mule is a tale of the American shadow economy with none of the nuance and insight offered by television shows like The Wire and Breaking Bad. In D’Souza’s world, all the drug dealers are bad, even the good ones. Such a narrative may have worked in the media world before David Simon got his hands on it, but not after.
Setting those criticisms aside for a moment, though, D’Souza does admirably capture a few moments of ironic self-awareness as his white protagonist, driven to a life of crime, occasionally encounters characters for whom the recession has simply broadened a familiar economic reality. At one point, for example, a group of small town loggers in Northern California laugh at his not-so-subtle moanings about his career trouble. Similarly, one of James’s potential “connections” in Florida, a black “scholarship boy” named Micah, blows off James’s explanations about his career transition: “‘Don’t cry that shit in here. From my point of view? Shit’s exactly the same as shit’s always been. Y’all feeling it for a change is all.’ He smiled at his hands. ‘I have to admit it. To tell you the truth, I kind of like seeing it.” In these situations, D’Souza casts the protagonist’s seemingly rational—if bizarre and illegal—decision to take up “moving weight” as a career as even more questionable. The insinuation is that the drug money he rapidly accrues while working as a mule represents a quick and easy way out of sticky financial trouble. As Micah says a little bit further in the same passage, “Man, don’t you got no struggle in you?”
This moralistic commentary, though, belies the earlier descriptions of the character, who develops alopecia in his beard as a direct result of his internalized stress. And throughout his experiences in the novel, it never grows back in. The repeated references to James’s shaving off his beard patches becomes a semi-hysterical motif reminding the reader of the conditions of duress under which he is operating.
It’s also worth mentioning that, self-reflexive moments mentioned above notwithstanding, young black males have suffered the highest rates of unemployment in the whole country during the recession. But you wouldn’t know that from D’Souza’s novel, and it isn’t a question he seems seriously interested in exploring. Instead, we watch as the protagonist slips, apparently seamlessly, from a family man reluctantly ferrying drugs from one state to another accompanied by his daughter’s talking bear, which says only “I love you,” into something else entirely. Thus, D’Souza privileges sensationalism over realism, drama over nuance, and his novel suffers for it.