Shya Scanlon’s Border Run is a story of love and purpose in the face of fading, or changing, idealism. The novel, available as a free e-book, is set in a dystopian near-future in a small Arizona border town of Arivaca, which squats near the complete U.S.-Mexico border wall and is dominated by the George Saunders-esque tourist attraction Border Run!, where tourists can “Catch Illegals in the Act!” of a mock attempt to cross a historically accurate border.
The novel follows two characters and utilizes both points of view in a doubled structure. Jack Lightning, the owner of the attraction, struggles with a fading business that is going the way of his seemingly dead idealism, purpose, and connection to his Seminole roots. His activist ex-girlfriend, Jo, rekindles purpose and romance in Jack when she shows up in town, asking for his help smuggling the clone of Che Guevara into the United States – a real border run. What Jack doesn’t know, however, is that Jo’s plan isn’t all that it seems, and Jo discovers that she still cares for Jack and must choose between betraying him and getting help for her gravely ill son.
Border Run textures and builds its immediate world with a loving, if sometimes bemused, touch. The prose takes moments to admire the sparse beauty of the scrubby desert plants, adobe buildings, and tenacious population of the little town. As Arivaca prepares for its annual Busk festival, “outsized papier-mâché crops were tied to the unused telephone poles and hung like they were there to teach bad crops a lesson,” and the sacred mountain of Baboquivari stands as a monument to the largely ignored Tohono O’odham tribe, “rising out of its range like a broken knuckle.” Border Run is populated in ways that make it feel lived in, as though Jack and Jo’s stories are only two of many worth telling from this place. Scanlon creates fascinating characters without getting distracted by them: the non-elected, formerly promiscuous mayor, Jack’s anal-retentive sales manager secretly turned snake charmer, and a particularly “resourceful” (or otherwise called “thieving”) entrepreneur were stand-outs.
While the novel’s teaser describes it as a Sci-Fi Western, the book does not dip very deeply into either genre. Part of this stems from the town’s remote location and its placement in a near future or alternative present. The Sci-Fi elements exist mostly as rumors and talk and, if they’re real at all, are far away from the day-to-day doings of the characters. While the novel does use ideas of cloning, skin-walkers, and a dystopian, secretly corporate-controlled state for the premise and context of the story, the Sci-Fi elements themselves seem to have little direct impact on the characters for the majority of the novel. The purpose seems to be to down-play the Sci-Fi elements to instead focus on the characters and their internal fears and struggles, but the elements are downplayed to the point that they feel as though they could easily be written away. This world has touches of Sci-Fi (Dystopian Sci-Fi, if we consider that a sub-genre), but far less than I expected going in, and far less than a fan of the genre will likely anticipate.
The book is certainly set in the West, the landscape features more cars, busses, tourists, and hippies than it does horses or cowboys, though Indians and Indian culture (if a fading one) do play important roles in the book. Other Western themes are present in the novel, such as individualism, progress versus tradition, and a sense of frontier, as with the Sci Fi characteristics, it never quite matches the expectations of the label. Though, perhaps if anything these characteristics reveal the inadequacies and stereotypes of these labels.
The novel’s shifting point of view between Jack and Jo makes for a well-rounded, though often repetitive, understanding for the reader. Early in the novel, the two perspectives rapidly build tension around the former lovers’ secrets, lies, and miscommunications. The doubling structure reveals new insights and development of both characters that would not have been possible in a single point of view.
However, this structure becomes more burdensome as the novel progresses, and it creates the curious effect of treading water. Many of the switches in point of view also involve a jump backward in time, giving the reader a new perspective on events that have already happened. This can be a valuable tool, but for many of the jumps in this novel, it became frustrating. The gain from seeing the same events again was, in most cases, not enough to outweigh the subsequent jerks and starts to the pacing of the novel, making the reading sometimes akin to learning to drive stick shift in a hilly neighborhood. The re-telling of almost every chapter also forced the narrative to slog through unimportant or unchanged information in order to maintain the established structure and get the new point of view from Point A to Point B in the physical events of the plot in order to arrive at the more revealing moments. Particularly toward the climax of the novel, the retellings undercut the emotional impact of the surprises, decisions, and changes the characters undergo – which is a real shame when the climax worked so well to generate new, sudden dangers and tie existing threads together in unexpected ways.
Border Run would have benefited from a more stream-lined structure and judicial use of the doubled points of view, but it still has a lot to admire – it resists the dangers of letting genre or political material overpower it, puts characters in genuine, meaningful dilemmas and threats, and imagines a world that kept me fascinated and wanting to see more.
I’d also like to note that the free e-book format is doing what it’s supposed to – it got a writer’s work to me, a reader, and I know I’ve found an author I want to read more of.