It’s difficult to predict how we’ll end up titling or categorizing this generation 100 years from now, but one thing is undeniable: most of us have already started trying. And in fiction, as in real life, the need to identify our era within some kind of self-imposed historical timeline comes alongside an equally strong urge — to grasp one glaring aspect of societal trauma and hold it up, arms outstretched, for all to see.
But Mule is just a book about a married guy with two kids who deals pot, right?
Not really. That’s why, for a few reasons — and unlike T.C. Boyle’s immature but lovable Budding Prospects, another one of my favorite books about the sticky, green, leafy stuff — Tony D’Souza’s new novel as an especially American one. Just as he sacrifices the mental and physical health of his (initially) semi-autobiographical hero by sending him down the rabbit hole of illicit transportation, so does D’Souza lay him at the altar of our national narrative of the Great Recession.
James is a freelance journalist who, at the novel’s outset, is just beginning to strike it big in the world of print (as D’Souza in fact did). After meeting, falling in love with, and impregnating his belle Kate over the course of about two pages, the recession hits — and nothing is ever quite the same for either of them. That lightning fast descent into economic desperation is reminiscent of Boyle’s novel, as both show that, for those who turn to drug-based enterprises in times of crisis, the need for cash immediately outweighs all. So it is for James and Kate, but the difference here (besides, or, perhaps, because of the fact that Budding Prospects was written in 1984) is that, from the first moment James strikes up his first gig to drive ten pounds of marijuana from a friend in California to dealers in Texas and Tennessee, every moral choice and unexpected danger ends up leading back to thoughts of that shared American fiscal crisis.
The thing is, although James and Kate have saved themselves from the recession, their method of doing so has left them in a constant state of paranoia. Sure, once James starts raking in tens of thousands of dollars per trip across the country, they don’t have to worry about collecting unemployment benefits. But as the piles of green (both paper and plant) start growing taller and taller, and more high rolling dealers are brought into the loop, James faces death threats, witnesses a murder, and starts to wonder: is he truly protecting his infant children from poverty, or is he simply risking their safety?
D’Souza, although his dialogue tends to fall back on some repetitive tropes, turns this into a really engaging piece of work. His eye for detail within both James’ vehicular drug mule experiences and his interactions with stoned dealers is worth digesting — and since we hear so much about Mexican drug trafficking on the nightly news (as it’s still much weightier), it’s interesting to recognize the fact that this stuff still does take place right on our own soil. More importantly, life as a marijuana mule fundamentally changes James, and the novel is well crafted simply because we end up knowing that the change is inevitable. After reaching a point of no return, D’Souza traps him in the trade; and even though the act itself never really gets any easier, what once was just a method of survival becomes a somewhat animalistic lust for money.
But that lust isn’t greed. It’s something else, and it’s a direct, outward reflection of the overall state of American pessimism and economic failure. The recession, as a result of its sheer overexposure within the novel (and, just as heavily, within our own everyday lives), creates an aura of fear around James’ body, mind, and the choices he must make each day. Even at those moments in which he desperately wants to escape the drug game (and there are many), he remembers the shame and helplessness he felt while he was out of a job — and he can’t stop. He needs more. Nothing and no one can change James’ mind: not his wife, not his children, even though he had only taken the plunge to save them. D’Souza does the extremely difficult job of presenting that mentality in a way that makes sense, and he does it with flair.
So James, heedless of danger and death, rides his hellish journey to the bitter end. That fact in itself is no real shock, but it’s still part of what makes the novel great. Through a haze of handguns, rental cars, and massive duffel bags full of the finest, most fragrant buds, James has been offered a deal he can’t refuse. He never does — or, at least, not until it’s too late to turn back. And as he leaves the reader, D’Souza reminds us, in a final crescendo of droning, paradoxical prose, that:
“…there was the recession and there was not the recession and there was fear from the recession and there was not fear from the recession. And there was America and there was not America and there was me and there was not me.”