It takes four days for Sailor to travel to New Mexico by bus. He arrives broke, sweaty, and ready to get what’s his. It’s the annual Fiesta, and the locals burn an effigy of Zozobra so that their troubles follow the mythical character into the fire. But for former senator Willis Douglass, trouble is just beginning.Sailor previously worked as an assistant to Douglass (the Sen) and is the only one who knows what happened when the Sen's wife died in an apparent robbery at their home. He has come to Santa Fe to extort money from the former senator, who has political ambitions at the state level. Also in town is MacIntyre, a cop. All three have come by different routes from Chicago. MacIntyre wants Sailor's help in taking Douglass down.
Sailor has come to town unaware of the Fiesta celebration. He cannot find a room to stay in, not even the cheapest, rattiest room. MacIntyre and Douglass have been in Santa Fe for a week. For the next few days after Sailor's arrival the three keep running into each other, the Sen trying to avoid Sailor and Sailor trying to avoid Mac.
Sailor is befriended by an old man who runs the merry-go-round. He calls him Pancho Villa.
'This is a spic town. Why'd the Sen pick a spic town?' He didn't know he'd spoken aloud until the brigand answered.
'Spic?' He said it 'speec' like a spic. 'Spic? I do not know that spic?'
Spic. Hunkey. Mick. Kike. Wop. Greaser. Sailor felt for translation. 'Mex,' he said.
Pancho was solemn. Big and sweaty and shapeless, he was dignity. 'No,' he said. 'This is not a Mex town. This is an American town.'
'Then why does everybody talk—' He halted at the word. He supplied, 'Spanish?'
Pancho was no longer offended. 'It is Spanish-American. The Fiesta, it is Spanish. It tells of my people who come so long ago and conquer the Indian. So long ago.' His sigh wasn't unhappy now. It was the leaf falling.Sailor in turn befriends a young Indian girl, treating her to a ride on the merry-go-round.
Pila walked to the horses, put out her hand to one, to another. He saw beyond her the old withered man encasing his fiddle. He dug for another dollar. 'With music. Gay music.' Sailor called to Pila. 'Ride the pink one.'
He felt like a dope after saying it. What difference did it make to him what wooden horse an Indian kid rode? But the pink horse was the red bike in Field's, the pink horse was the colored lights and the tink of music and the sweet, cold soda pop.In my review of the first book by Hughes that I read, The Davidian Report, I noted that the best parts of the book were the characters and setting. This book was the same for me. Dorothy Hughes lived and worked in New Mexico, so I assume the depiction of the area is authentic.
I liked the story, although it is at no point a happy story. It is not really a whodunit, more of a character study, following Sailor through his journey. I kept hoping for a "happy" ending but was pretty sure I was not going to get it.
I also enjoyed the depiction of Fiesta in Santa Fe. Santa Barbara also has a Fiesta celebration for a week in August. It started in 1924. Per the Old Spanish Days website, the mayor declared Fiesta week "one of festival and gaiety, during which period, which shall be known as 'Old Spanish Days,' the spirit of old Santa Barbara shall be lived again and again..." I experienced most of the Fiesta festivities in our first years in Santa Barbara, but we avoid the crowds that Fiesta brings nowadays.
Kate Laity has this to say in her review:
This is a gritty and atmospheric novel that showcases Hughes skill at rendering lost men struggling to find their way without the traditional cultural handholds. As usual, she’s brilliant as she allows the downward spiral to snake all the way down.The longer version of her review is here.
There is a lovely Dell mapback edition but the only copy I had was a later Dell paperback that was falling apart. I am going to have to get a better copy so I can reread it later.
Publisher: Dell, 1958 (first published 1946).
Length: 223 pages
Setting: Santa Fe, New Mexico
Source: Purchased at Planned Parenthood Book Sale, 2010.