There is a lot of book packed into Tears of the Trufflepig. There’s a story of grief that may prove unshakeable. A story of political and economic oppression. A story of environmental catastrophe, and a gang war, and a mythical beast, and of the power dreams can hold over us.
This is Fernando A. Flores’ debut novel. He’s previously published a short story collection, Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas, released by Host Publications in 2018. In Trufflepig he gives us an alt-/near-/quasi-/somewhat dystopic- future that is funny and weird, but with a dark undertow of social commentary that will keep it unspooling in your mind after you finish reading.
This is a near-future North America. There has been a worldwide food shortage that killed millions, and led to the development of “filtering”—a way of synthetic engineering. Initially used to create vegetable, soon scientists had figured out how to filter animals for meat and fur, and of course various mobsters saw a market. Now engineering students are kidnapped, held at gunpoint, and forced to create long extinct creatures like Dodos and Charlemagne Bulls. And if they don’t succeed? New mass graves are discovered every day. An even more horrifying corollary to the trade in once-extinct beasts is the sudden fad for shrunken heads. People who look like Indigenous Mexicans are kidnapped and subjected to a horrifying ritual that traps their souls in their heads, before they’re decapitated, they’re heads are, well, shrunk, and then sold on the black market for European billionaires to display on their mantelpieces in Stockholm and Geneva. At some point the U.S. put up a border wall, still didn’t feel safe enough, put up a second, and is currently talking about building a third…plus maybe sending troops over to the Mexico side preemptively, to monitor things on that side and make sure people aren’t coming through.
You know, for safety.
As it stands the international bridge that connects MacArthur Texas with Reinahermosa, Mexico see constant traffic, all under the watchful eyes of tanks, machine gun-toting Border Protectors, and the ancient Olmec statue that welcomes visitors to Mexico.
Our guide through this world is the mismatched duo of Paco Herbert, a Yugolslavian speedfreak/journalist sent to investigate the extinct animal trade, and his unlikely friend Ernesto Bellacosa, a dealer in vehicles and heavy machinery who is still in a haze of grief a decade after the deaths of his young daughter and beloved wife.
Bellacosa tries to stay philosophical, he tries to see the meaning in life, but it gets harder each day, and that’s before he finds out his estranged brother has been kidnapped. The two men team up to infiltrate one of the preposterously decadent moveable feasts that is sold off to people who want to eat dodo.
And what of the mysterious Trufflepig? I don’t want to say too much about them, because I don’t want to spoil them. But they do make an appearance, and, to me at least, lived up to the hype.
Throughout Flores seeds horrific or sci-fi elements, normalizing them, making them seem like wacky background elements until he chooses to focus on them. For instance, the shrunken head market seems like an over-the-top, almost comical thing, until without warning your with one of the victims, desperate to escape:
A kilometer and a half away, a disheveled, barefoot man limped low to the ground like a lame coyote through a shantytown, where completely destitute people lived in small huts made of cardboard, scavenged wood, car parts, and old furniture. As he crept through various dry, scaly hands reached out to touch him, one of them refusing to let go of his ankle until he stomped hard on its wrist. The barefoot man’s bloodied clothes were in tatters, and the thinning hair from his balding head was a mess. He moved like a spider with two missing legs, and his mouth was sewn shut in the traditional headhunting manner, with the huarango thorns stitched in the cicatrix pattern.
You get used to Bellacosa’s philosophical melancholy, until he’s in real danger, and he’s able to accept the beauty of a world shot through with violence and disaster:
He looked up at the gray sky as if it was a safe waiting to be cracked, and the light snow over the frozen lake was like a Sunday pastry.
What beautiful battlefields we tread on, Bellacosa said to himself.
Actually I have to say Bellacosa is one of my favorite protagonists in a while. Pensive and thoughtful, his occasional attempts at action rarely go well, but when he allows his empathy to lead him he becomes a true hero at key moments in the book.
On a much, much lighter note (as I said, the book is deeply funny) I have a particular bugbear about band names in fiction, since so often they just feel off. (Jonathan Franzen’s insistence on calling an indie folk group ‘Walnut Surprise’ being probably my favorite/least favorite example) so imagine my joy when Fernando Flores produces that minefield, a DIY flyer, only to find that the bands are named: Horse Drawn Marriage, The Nahualettes, Uncle Sam Bottoms, and Stampede Forensics. Reader, I would go to that show. I probably have been to that show.
All these tiny details build a very believable world. The teen gangsters are just nihilistic enough without tipping into self parody. When we meet some of those kidnapped scientists, they’re the perfect balance of exhausted and terrified—yet still believably eager to see if their experiments work. Bellacosa himself thinks like a man who is still locked in old, old grief: some days he gets along perfectly fine, and others his thoughts swirl around his losses, and he’ll lose entire days in an easy chair.
Paco Herbert can be a bit of a windbag (I kept seeing Sam Rockwell’s turn as Justin Hammer) but then he’ll turn a simple question about his assignment into a defense of journalism itself:
We are the people who face the world, and not simply for the challenge, or to prove a point. But to witness it, to know the facts at least for ourselves. I just happen to be in a position where I’m able to maybe communicate those facts and get them out on a wide level, to expose the corruption hindering our collective spirit in its continual ascent. We can’t let this evil slow it down.
Flores finds a caustic humor in juxtaposition, like when we finally get to the swanky extinct animal banquet. Obviously this event is only open to the richest people on Earth, so there is propriety to be observed…but it’s also highly illegal, and almost certainly being run by one mob or another. So there’s a large gate leading to a driveway leading to a walkway leading to an antebellum mansion, but the gate is being guarded by a “…parked military vehicle with a grenade launcher and machine gun bolted on the rear bed, with one soldier wearing a bulletproof vest and helmet manning both” and there are two people checking the guests in: one with one of those infamous “Are you on the list?” clipboards, and the other holding an automatic rifle.
Flores is also quite good at skewering the guest of the party without falling into clichés of how the superrich behave—or fail to behave. I certainly don’t want to spoil the meal, but I will tell you that when one appetizer proves a hit, Flores tells us that “murmurs of approval fluttered like polite bats among the dinner guests.” Has there been a better description of empty, elitist cocktail party chatter.
The book isn’t afraid to get metaphysical, as Bellacosa wonders about the fate of the Indigenous Aranañas tribe, who worshiped the Trufflepig and were said to exist in a state of life, death, and dreaming all at once. (The idea of “dreaming” becomes quite central in part of the book.) Several characters muse on the differences between “God-made” and “filtered” life, and in general it seems like filtering has forced people to reckon not only with the ethics of how they get their food, but also about what constitutes sentience and will.
I found myself thinking of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as I read this, because Flores is similarly careful with how he describes his post-collapse, synthetic world. Everywhere Bellacosa goes he notes the absence of animals. Every meal he eats is described in minute detail. If someone is wearing leather or fur, we’re going to know what animal it came from. (Bellacosa favors an “ostrich knee” wingtip, for example.) As I’ve already demonstrated in other quotes, whenever possible human movements and speech are likened to non-human animals. This adds up to a portrait of a world that has been irrevocably scarred by the loss of a lot of its life. Sure you can still have tacos al pastor, but there are no pigeons on the church steps anymore. There are no herons on the beach, or dolphins in the ocean. No birdsong, no meows in alleyways, no dogs barking to each other at night. Actually, hell:
If there were still coyotes certainly one would be howling, because their lover was once the South Texas moon, but they are doomed to be separated forever now; the fact that the coyotes were missing made their forbidden love all the more tragic.
Mixed into this of course is the constant sense that now any one with the slightest trace of Indigenous heritage will be hunted for the shrunken head industry. There are multiple points when we either see of hear about families who stand above the border, using rifles to pick off anyone they see trying to cross the Rio Grande, high-fiving, taking pictures. Flores gives us a portrait of a Border World where life itself has been sapped of any worth beyond a dollar amount for a stolen head or a reward for a refugee’s corpse. Flores gives us a near-future that is often fun and rollicking, but he’s never afraid to show us the reality that is all-too-close to the world we’re living in right now.
Tears of the Trufflepig is available now from FSG Originals.