Stallion Gate by Martin Cruz Smith (1986)

Martin Cruz Smith is best known for the series of eight novels he’s written about Moscow-based police detective Arkady Renko, which kicked off with the international best-seller Gorky Park. Having read all eight I was dazzled by Smith’s ability to create memorable characters, to conjure up eerily powerful scenes, and to make the English language dance and shimmy like a sand snake. He is a marvellous, magical writer. Before during and after writing the Renko series, however, he has written over 20 other novels, in a variety of settings.

This one is set in 1945 in New Mexico at the famous Los Alamos facility, which was built to house the hundreds, and then thousands, of scientists and military personnel involved in the creation of the world’s first atom bomb.

It’s a third-person narrative but it’s told very much from the perspective of Sergeant Joe Peña, a ‘huge, attractive’ native American. Joe left his parents’ pueblo, or village, young and headed to the big city where he made a name for himself as a boxer, but also as a mean jazz pianist in the era of swing and stride piano. (There are several extended descriptions of what it feels like to play jazz piano, with technical descriptions of Joe changing tempo, melody, how he syncopates left and right hand, in the styles of Art Tatum, Duke Ellington and so on.)

One drunk night he and his band-mates broke into a nearby US Army base with the cack-handed idea of entertaining the troops. But they were caught, arrested, and given the choice of gaol or enlisting. He enlists. After basic training, Joe found himself packed off to the Philippines, shortly before the Japanese invaded (December 1941). Joe is wounded but his squad of Filipinos managed to get him into a rowing boat, which they pushed off from a remote bay, and he was eventually picked up by an American submarine and repatriated to the States.

Here he recovered from his wounds and was on garrison duty when he made the bad mistake of sleeping with the colonel’s wife, who finds out about the affair and has Joe sent to prison on a trumped-up charge. The novel opens with Sergeant Joe Peña locked in solitary confinement at the Military Corrections Complex, Fort Leavenworth, in Texas.

Ten days of solitary confinement have given Joe hallucinations, visions – we later discover – related to his Indian heritage. To his surprise he is visited by Captain Augustino, head of security at the top secret Los Alamos facility. Augustino reminds him that, years before, Peña’s father had worked on the old ranch out at Los Alamos (which is near Joe’s pueblo) and that Peña often helped out. It was a ‘dude ranch’, offering a taste of desert living, horse-riding and so on, to city slickers and their families. Among the many urbanites Peña had taught to ride, to hunt a little, and so on, had been a scrawny, sickly kid from New York named Oppenheimer.

Now that very same J. Robert Oppenheimer is all grown up and head of the top secret ‘Manhattan Project’, leading a team of top physicists (mostly European emigrés) working to build the world’s first atom bomb. Augustino says he can spring Peña from the hole on one condition – that he goes to work for Oppenheimer as his driver and fixer and – spies on him; that he reports back to Augustino everywhere Oppenheimer goes, everyone he meets and every conversation he has.

OK says Joe, and the novel begins.

Plot

A lot happens in this novel and Cruz Smith is an expert at intertwining half a dozen different plot strands in a deliberately demanding, teasing way. The reader struggles to keep up sometimes and Smith likes springing surprises with no warning.

Driver for Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer (who everyone calls ‘Oppy’) is delighted to be reintroduced to Joe as his driver, a man who knows the local country intimately, can liaise with the various Indian staff and locals, and can reminisce with Oppy about happier days.

Joe sleeps with Augustino’s wife

At a party for the faculty Joe plays jazz piano and, to his horror, finds Augustino’s bored wife flirting with him. That night he returns to his room to find her already stripped naked in bed waiting for him. They have sex. Bad idea. Augustino is not the forgiving type. In an eerie scene, the next day Augustino takes Joe hunting up into the snow-covered hills and then suddenly turns the gun on Joe. Joe scarpers through the snow just in time to throw himself behind the body of the deer they’ve just shot, pulling out his army Colt .45. But as quickly as he got angry, Augustino relents, puts his gun up and they return to the base; but Joe realises the man really hates him and, when his usefulness is up, won’t be merciful.

Augustino thinks Oppenheimer is a Soviet spy

One of the central threads of the novel is that Augustino is convinced that Oppy is a Soviet spy, taking as evidence the fact that Oppy’s wife, brother and girlfriend are communists, and he has hired lots of dubious Europeans to work on the project. Augustino has taken his suspicions to the ultimate head of the Manhattan project, General Groves, who overruled Augustino – for the time being.

We see and hear a lot from Oppy, who gets progressively more emaciated and tense as the deadline for testing the bomb (in July 1945) approaches. He is, of course, a real historical personage, so it’s fascinating, as it always is, to see a novelist imagining the character and dialogue of someone we know was a real person. Similarly we also introduced to a number of the other key scientists on the project who were real people – the Italian Enrico Fermi, the Englishman Foote, the Hungarian Edward Teller, and so on.

Joe and Indian culture

But Joe’s role in the novel is not only player in the Oppenheimer-spy plot, but as doorway to alternative cultures. He hangs out with some of the common soldiers assigned to guard this and that, and sympathises with their gripes, so that we get the ordinary soldier’s perspective on the grandiose ‘project’.

Most obviously, Joe is part of the local native American culture. He grew up not far from Los Alamos and he returns frequently to the pueblo of Santiago where he still owns the family house. His mother, Dolores, was a stern taskmaster. She never forgave him for setting a macho example to his kid brother, Rudy, who enlisted in the Army and never came back from the Philippines. Dolores always blamed Joe. She was also a leading maker of native-style clay pots, one of the staple products of the local Indians, who make money selling them to tourists.

It is through this connection with neighbours and kin that Joe finds himself getting drawn into a strange sub-plot about two old Indians, Ben Reyes and Roberto (who is blind). This odd couple carry out traditional ceremonies at some of the remoter canyons which surround Los Alamos. Joe is tasked with escorting a new arrival at the facility, the attractive female German émigré mathematician, Anna Weiss and the aloof and arrogant physicist Klaus Fuchs, on a trip into the surrounding countryside, when the latter gets lost. Joe comes across steps to some kind of cave and discovers Fuchs being held at gunpoint by blind Roberto. Fuchs is petrified and Roberto seems inclined to shoot him for intruding on a native ceremony. Slowly, calmly Joe talks Roberto round and extracts Fuchs to safety.

This incident snowballs into a major plotline for it triggers the arrival on the scene of two goons from the Indian Service, who have been tasked with tracking down Roberto and Ben Reyes and arresting them. Joe finds himself forced against his better judgement into helping the fugitives hide and eventually escape to Mexico, which brings him into conflict with both the Indian Service toughs and his ever-vigilant boss, Augustino.

The lightning wands

Along the way Joe discovers that the Indian pair are also indulging in some kind of voodoo. they have carved a set of native wooden lightning ‘wands’ and are getting collaborators inside Los Alamos to scatter them at the sites of mysterious fires in the facility. It’s not quite clear to this reader whether one of them is starting the fires or whether they are just taking advantage of a sudden rash of bolts of lightning which have come with the hot summer weather and seem to be triggering random acts-of-nature fires, and which they drop the wands at to give the impression that they are somehow controlling the weather.

Anyway, they’re doing it because they believe the work going on at Los Alamos is blasphemous and should be stopped. There’s a conversation with Joe where they quote Hopi Indian prophecies about a gourd of ashes being spilt from the sky which will burn the earth – they suspect this is an ancient prophecy predicting the super-weapon being built at the facility, and they’re doing their little bit to discourage it…

The wands are found at the sites of various outbreaks of fire. When Augustino finds a few wands which had been stashed in a hiding place by the conspirators, it gives him the opportunity to plant them on Joe with a view to framing him for arson. He doesn’t necessarily want to get Joe, he just wants to have him completely under his thumb in order to achieve his obsessive goal of getting Oppy arrested.

The real spy is Klaus Fuchs

The irony of Augustino’s spy obsession is that there is a Red spy at Los Alamos (in fact we know from the historical record that there were actually three) but the most important one is arrogant, creepy Klaus Fuchs. Joe stumbles across Fuchs meeting his go-between, Harry Gold, in Santa Fe, sees them swap newspapers (presumably Fuchs is passing secrets to Gold folded in his newspaper) and then latches onto Gold and is about to question him when Oppy and Anna suddenly emerge from a hotel right in front of them. There have to be polite introductions and Joe is powerless to prevent Gold leaving.

Joe and Anna Weiss’s affair

Meanwhile the prim German mathematician, Anna Weiss, who we have seen accompanying the equally severe Fuchs, who Oppy obviously fancies (as is made clear at a party the Oppenheimers host and where his wife, Kitty, gets drunk and indiscreet with Joe) starts to flirt with Joe. Joe is, after all, a big handsome Indian, previously a prize fighter – ‘Big Chief Joe Peña’, as various characters mockingly or affectionately refer to him.

Joe and Anna end up having an affair. Cruz Smith describes them having sex in front of the fire, sex on the bed, sex when they go out skinny dipping under the stars, sex up against the wall – quite a lot of big-dark-Indian-on-white-skinned-German-blonde sex. As always, detailed descriptions of sex in a novel run the risk of making the reader squirm with embarrassment.

Once they are an item, Anna finds out about the help Joe is reluctantly giving to the two old Indians who are on the run. In the end she gets so involved that she offers to drive them hidden in an old pickup truck to the Mexico border, at the novel’s climax.

Joe is offered ownership of a jazz nightclub

Things speed up towards a climax in the last fifty pages or so. An old black guy Joe knows, Pollack, is the owner of the only decent jazz club in all New Mexico, the Casa Mañana. But he’s selling up and moving to the East Coast. Pollack laments, over a drink and a cigarette with Joe, that the buyers are going to knock the club down and turn it into flats. As jazz fans, both are appalled.

In a separate development a local hustler-turned-politician, Hilario, had been needling Joe from time to time about going back in the ring to make some bucks in one last big prize fight. Quite blatantly, Hilario is only interested in the huge winnings he can make by organising the gambling on such an event.

The two plotlines come together when Pollack, on the spur of the moment, offers Joe the freehold of the nightclub for half what he’s selling to the property developers – $50,000 – in order to save it for jazz. Joe doesn’t have that kind of money but realises that, if he accepts Hilario’s offer to do one last fight, the prize money combined with betting everything he possesses on the result, will just about scrape together the required sum. He says, ‘Yes, I’ll buy it,’ to Pollack. He tells Hilario, ‘Yes I’ll fight – but has to be in the next 7 days.’

Joe’s big fight

In the event, the fight is arranged for the very evening of the test of the first atom bomb at the Trinity test site in the New Mexico desert. And the very night that Anna has volunteered to drive the two raddled old Indian renegades to safety in Mexico.

The fight goes ahead in the car park of a motel in a town to the south of Santa Fe. There is an extended description of the four brutal rounds, which is fought in an impromptu ring, with knuckles bandaged not gloved, and time called erratically by the crooked Hilario, based on stopping at dramatic points to provoke more betting (and maximise his cut). Joe takes a lot of punishment from an angry youth half his age, but the kid fades in the fourth and Joe suddenly finishes him with a fierce attack.

Augustino’s deal

Joe takes his money but Augustino is there – turning up as he always does when least expected – having watched the whole thing. He tells Joe he knows Anna is taking the Indian runaways to the border; he’ll tip off the Indian Service toughs so that Ben and Roberto get arrested and Anna along with them as an accessory, unless Joe does what he tells him i.e. plants decisively incriminating evidence on Oppy, namely Harry Gold’s business card, which Augustino has got hold of. This would link Oppy with Gold who the authorities know is a spy.

This is the crux at the climax of the novel: what should Joe do? Save his lover by incriminating the man he likes and respects? Sacrifice his lover and the Indians (by extension his heritage) and betray his friend?

Joe tells Augustino he’ll do it and drives back to the test site. He had covered his absence for the fight by claiming to be policing the perimeter of the test site for Indians – based on the notion that only he would know where they would hide or break in. After all the local Indians have not been told anything about the bomb (no-one has) and just think it’s another example of the U.S. Army fencing off their ancestral lands. Oppy accepts this excuse but is glad to see him back just before the test explosion.

Climax at ground zero

The climax of the novel comes when Joe returns to Ground Zero, to be in attendance on Oppy as the final hours tick down to the test of the prototype atom bomb.

Throughout the novel we’ve met some of the more technical scientists, the ones responsible for building and assembling the prototypes. Now we watch them assemble an actual live bomb, with much back chat and jokes about ‘Don’t drop it!’ Oppy is a bag of nerves, emaciated as a walking skeleton, convinced – like some of his colleagues – that the wretched thing won’t work.

Joe knows that, if it fails, Augustino will present the failure as proof to General Groves that Oppy is a spy and that the ‘meeting’ between Oppy and Gold in Santa Fe – which Joe was present at and knows was purely accidental – was in fact Gold passing on Soviet instructions to ensure the test fails.

For the first time in months it starts to rain, jeopardising the test. Oppy is devastated. Should they abandon the test? A pessimistic Oppy is persuaded simply to delay it. Joe is tasked with guarding the bomb itself which is located in a kind of shed on top of a hundred foot tall scaffolding tower. He’s in the shed right next to the device when Oppy trips over some ropes where Joe had temporarily hidden the wretched lightning wands which he’s been carrying round trying to find a definitive hiding place.

Oppy recognises them and leaps to the conclusion that Joe is the arsonist who seems to have been sabotaging the base. He accuses Joe, they have a brief scuffle, then Oppy climbs down the ladder to his car and drives off to the security of the bunker seven miles away.

Last fight with Augustino

Out of the darkness appears Captain Augustino, Joe’s nemesis, like the proverbial bad penny. Augustino He asks whether Joe planted the incriminating evidence – Gold’s business card – on Oppy then. But in a melodramatic flash of lightning, Augustino sees the card lying on a desk where Joe had left it. So Joe has rejected the deal. They fight. Augustino pulls a gun and shoots Joe in the chest. Despite this, big strong Joe grips Augustino by the throat and dangles him over the edge of the platform. Augustino gets a few movie-like last words, then Joe lets him drop to the ground a hundred feet below.

The end

Joe climbs painfully down the ladder, bleeding. Augustino’s car is there, he limps over to it but – there are no keys in the ignition! Not under the floormat nor behind the sunscreen, nowhere! He tries to jimmy open the nearby tool-shed to see if there are any tools he could use to jump start the car but it is chained and padlocked shut. In the distance he hears the hooter announcing the start of the countdown, and he starts to run. 25 minutes. Run, run, run with blood dripping from his wound. The prose becomes a kind of dazed prose poetry: Come on, old fighter. Come on, old jazz pianist. Come on, lover of Anna Weiss and lithe Mrs Augustino. Come on, helper of crazed, old Indian men. Come on, the man who saved Oppy from Augustino. Run run run.

Joe hears the countdown reach its climax. He sees a culvert just a few yards ahead. Throws himself towards it and –

From the eye of the new sun, a man diving.
(p.341 – last sentence)

Scenes

So – a fairly convoluted plot with numerous different strands. But it’s not the plot, it’s the characters, the taut and evocative  poetic prose and above all, the weird, eerie, memory-tickling scenes, which you read Cruz Smith for. A day after finishing it I remember:

  • Joe and Anna skinny dipping under the stars
  • the strange native American dance with clowns, put on for the tourists in Santa Fe, in which Joe has to take part to take the place of blind Roberto who the Indian Service toughs have come to arrest
  • the duel between Joe and Augustino in the mountains in the snow which is suddenly interrupted when two local Indians emerge from the trees, walk slowly across the clearing where our two guys are shooting, and just as calmly disappear into the trees on the other side
  • Joe bare knuckle fighting in the parking lot of a backstreet motel
  • the fight with Augustino at the top of the Trinity test scaffold

Conclusion

Like the Renko series, this novel is packed with information and characters. Cruz Smith has clearly set out to provide a panoramic overview of the key players at Los Alamos, as well as a cross-section of the other classes and cultures caught up in this historical moment. Above all, he goes very heavy on Joe’s Indian background and the beliefs, customs, economic plight and so on of his Indian family and friends.

Nonetheless, for some reason it doesn’t have quite the same bite as the Renko books. Maybe this is because we know too much about 1940s America from countless movies – and we also know a lot about the atom bomb project from general knowledge and histories. Therefore it doesn’t have the frisson which all the Renko books have, of introducing us to a completely alien culture (the underworld of Soviet Russia, with its complicated cross-currents of power and corruption.)

And it doesn’t quite deliver on the promise to take us into its setting: it isn’t really a novelisation of life among the physicists – they only really provide a backdrop to Joe’s story – but simultaneously, it isn’t quite enough about Indian life, because Joe left it in his teens and is more a New York jazzman than believer in any of the old magic, which he thinks is horsecrap.


Related links

Reviews of Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels

Smith is a prolific writer. Under his own name or pseudonyms, he has written some 28 novels to date. The eight novels featuring Russian investigator Arkady Renko make up the longest series based on one character:

1981 Gorky Park – Introducing Arkady Renko and the case of the three faceless corpses found in Gorky Park, in the heart of Moscow, who turn out to be victims of John Osborne, the slick American smuggler of priceless live sables.
1989 Polar Star – In the first novel, Renko had clashed with his own superiors in Moscow. Now he is forced to flee across Russia, turning up some years later, working on a Soviet fish factory ship in the Bering Sea. Here, once his former profession becomes known, he is called on by the captain to solve the mystery of a female crew member whose body is caught in one of the ship’s own fishing nets. Who murdered her? And why?
1992 Red Square – After inadvertently helping the Russian security services in the previous book, Arkady is restored to his job as investigator in Moscow. It is 1991 and the Soviet Union is on the brink of dissolution so his bosses are happy to despatch the ever-troublesome Arkady to Munich, then on to Berlin, to pursue his investigations into an art-smuggling operation – to be reunited with Irina (who he fell in love with in Gorky Park) – before returning for a bloody climax in Moscow set against the backdrop of the August 1991 military coup.
1999 Havana Bay – Some years later, depressed by the accidental death of his wife, Irina, Arkady is ssent to Havana, Cuba, to investigate the apparent death of his old adversary, ex-KGB officer Colonel Pribluda. He finds himself at the centre of a murderous conspiracy, in an alien society full of colourful music by day and prostitution and voodoo ceremonies by night, and forced to work closely with a tough local black policewoman, Ofelia Orosio, to uncover the conspiracy at the heart of the novel.
2004 Wolves Eat Dogs The apparent suicide of a New Russian millionaire leads Arkady to Chernobyl, the village and countryside devastated by the world’s worst nuclear accident – and it is in this bleak, haunting landscape that Arkady finds a new love and the poisonous secret behind a sequence of grisly murders.
2007 Stalin’s Ghost The odd claim that Stalin has been sighted at a Moscow metro station leads Arkady to cross swords with fellow investigator Nikolai Isakov, whose murky past as a special forces soldier in Chechnya and current bid for political office come to dominate a novel which broadens out to become an wide-ranging exploration of the toxic legacy of Russia’s dark history.
2010 Three Stations In the shortest novel in the series, Arkady solves the mystery of a ballet-obsessed serial killer, while the orphan boy he’s found himself adopting, Zhenya, has various adventures in the rundown district around Moscow’s notorious Three Stations district.
2013 Tatiana – is Tatiana Petrovna, an investigative journalist who appears to have jumped to her death from the 6th floor of her apartment block. When Arkady investigates her death he discovers a trail leading to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Coast and a huge corruption scandal which will involve him in love and death amid the sand dunes of the atmospheric ‘Curonian Split’.

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