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Charlie Vazquez gave me nightmares.
Okay, so maybe it was the unfortunate combination of Theraflu and Robitussin I ingested to knock hell out of a cold I caught on the plane back from Saints and Sinners. Still, last night I found myself in dark, rank tunnels running for my life from Republican Guards in pursuit so hot I dared not stumble or I’d risk capture and who-knows-what at their merciless hands. Just like Volfango Sanzo.
Sanzo is the point of view character in Vazquez’s latest novel, Contraband. The book takes place in a near-future America racked by revolution and civil war. Afraid of what a mandated “gene test” would reveal in his DNA, government worker Sanzo vanishes underground, barely managing to survive in a series of subterranean worlds until he finds himself the central figure in a plot to bring the government to its knees.
Like many post-apocalyptic books, Contraband is less concerned with the factors that has caused the country to collapse than it is with the world its collapse has created. And Vazquez paints that world in vivid, poetic colors—squalid, rancid hues of red and green as dark as the tunnels the “undersiders” inhabit. Well-paced between breathless spurts of action, harrowing episodes of senseless violence (The Hidesman and Miss Natasha) and enough exposition to make it all believable, Contraband is a thrill ride whose prose elevates it far beyond other books of this nature.
Volfango Sanzo, our hero, is not necessarily a likeable man. Although he does have some heroic qualities, he also has a tendency to sell out some of the people he meets up with. Oh sure, he regrets it later—remorse is always within his grasp—but hooking up with Sanzo is not always a safe bet. Still, Vazquez makes this character work from his first sojourn underground to the oddly effective emotionless ending.
My favorite device here, however, is that of Don Carlos and the underground circus Sanzo and his friend Teodoro end up working for. Keeping animals, acts and the circus tradition alive in underground tunnels in the middle of an apocalypse is a wonderfully bizarre concept that not only works in terms of the story but also provides the reader with some breathing room between adventures. Brilliantly conceived and deftly executed, this interlude totally won me over.
Even if circuses aren’t your thing, you’ll still be swept away by the action, the pacing and the depth of characterization in this entertaining read. Contraband is an E-ticket attraction that will have you turning pages as fast as you can read them. Just don’t go into the tunnels before bed. And stay away from the Robitussin.
I’ve learned my lesson.
Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler