Daniel Peña’s debut novel tells grim tale mixed with desperate hope

Uli knows if they can make it to the highway, they’ll live.

With 25 feet to go before impact, he can’t even scream before the prop plane his brother is piloting crumples into the ground, the sound a “thundering crack of flesh on metal.”

Surviving the crash turns out to be the least of Uli’s worries, though, as Daniel Peña illuminates in his keenly observed debut novel “Bang” (Arte Público Press, $17.95). Peña, an Austin native and English professor at the University of Houston whose short fiction won the Pushcart Prize in 2016, will be at BookPeople on Friday.

Uli has grown up on the border in Harlingen and barely remembers the Mexico his family fled so long ago. But the crash happened on the Mexican side, and his older brother Cuauhtémoc is nowhere to be found.

Peña shows readers what Uli doesn’t yet know – that while Uli woke up in a Mexican hospital room, Cuauhtémoc shambled into town, collapsed on a bench and was snatched by a drug cartel worker. Cuauhtémoc’s skills as a pilot – until now used to fly crop-dusting planes – are leveraged to transport drugs across the border. Their mother, Araceli, marshals her strength to drive into Mexico to look for her boys, not wanting to lose them the way she lost her husband after he was deported.

In chapters that alternate between each of the trio’s perspectives, Peña uses his prodigious gift for detail to take us inside the horrors that befall this family as a result of the fateful flight that started as a dare between brothers.

Uli swaps his birthday cash for pesos and travels to his family’s former house in San Miguel, now occupied by a squatter who ekes out a living collecting scrap metal. The pair tiptoes through a field scattered with the remnants of a bomb that claimed the lives of a man and a woman, their rings still glittering in the sunshine and fair game for the scrappers.

“He is wearing a plaid shirt,” Peña writes. “She is wearing a navy blue dress. The clothes are the only way you can tell them apart, where one body starts and the other begins.”

Such bleak scenes shock but are emblematic of Peña’s abilities to evoke the merciless world of the border, from the airborne pesticides that cause Araceli’s nosebleeds to the money she makes selling her hand-rolled marijuana cigarettes to American tourists.

Informed by Peña’s years studying drug trafficking in Mexico on a Fulbright scholarship, “Bang” is a grim yet gripping debut that hinges on the desperate hope of its characters.

Contact Sharyn Vane at (512) 632-8347.

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