Blake, James Carlos 1948–
Blake, James Carlos 1948–
PERSONAL: Born May, 1948, in Tampico, Tamaulipas, Mexico; immigrated to United States.
ADDRESSES: Home—AZ. Agent—Sobel Weber Associates, Inc., 146 E. 19th St., New York, NY 10003-2404.
CAREER: Writer. Instructor in creative writing and literature at colleges and universities, including Edison Community College, Fort Myers, FL; Miami Dade Community College; University of South Florida, Tampa; and Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, OH. Military service: U.S. Army, paratrooper.
MEMBER: Texas Institute of Letters.
AWARDS, HONORS: Quarterly West Novella Prize, 1991, for I, Fierro; Authors in the Park Short Story Prize, 1993, for "Under the Sierras"; Los Angeles Times Book Prize, 1997, for In the Rogue Blood; Chautauqua South Fiction Award, Library Foundation of Martin County, FL, 1999, for Red Grass River: A Legend; Border Regional Library Association Southwest Book Award, 1999, for Borderlands: Short Fictions.
The Pistoleer (novel), Berkley (New York, NY), 1995.
The Friends of Pancho Villa (novel), Berkley (New York, NY), 1996.
In the Rogue Blood (novel), Avon (New York, NY), 1997.
Red Grass River: A Legend (novel), Avon (New York, NY), 1998.
Borderlands: Short Fictions, Avon (New York, NY), 1999.
Wildwood Boys, (novel), Avon (New York, NY), 2000.
A World of Thieves (novel), William Morrow (New York, NY), 2002.
Under the Skin (novel), William Morrow (New York, NY), 2003.
Handsome Harry; or, The Gangster's True Confessions (novel), William Morrow (New York, NY), 2004.
The Killings of Stanley Ketchel (novel), William Morrow (New York, NY), 2005.
Also author of short stories and the novella I, Fierro; contributor to Glimmer Train Stories, 2000, and Oxford American, 2000 and 2001.
SIDELIGHTS: In just a few years, James Carlos Blake established himself as a prominent voice in historical fiction. Many of Blake's novels feature celebrated outlaws and mass murderers of the past, in narratives awash in grisly violence. Born in Mexico and raised in Texas and Florida, Blake writes about borderlands both physical and metaphorical, the regions "where bad men make good stories," to quote Christian Science Monitor contributor Ron Franscell. In Texas Monthly, Jan Reid wrote that Blake's fiction "is polished and well researched, and the execution of his talent has grown with each book. Literary westerns have enjoyed a vogue in recent years, and Blake already stands among the best explorers of our lost frontier." A Publishers Weekly correspondent called Blake's work "gritty, raw, bare-knuckled fiction, blazing with an extraordinary kind of violence, and certainly not for the faint of heart." However, as Jennifer Reese noted in Entertainment Weekly, "his fiction is so readable—so folksy, action-packed, and earthy—it's easy to miss the fact that it is also, frequently, brilliant."
Blake's own family history offers abundant evidence of North America's violent past. He is descended from a family patriarch who plied the Caribbean as a pirate—and was subsequently shot by a firing squad. Another ancestor was a Mexican patron who was stabbed to death by a disgruntled employee. Blake himself describes a personal mindset as an "outsider," a feeling of detachment that stems partly—but not entirely—from his dual Mexican-American heritage. Although he was born in Tampico, Mexico, he was raised in the United States, principally in the Florida Everglades, where he caught poisonous snakes and sold them for pocket change. He began writing in earnest only in his late thirties, when he set himself the challenge of a novel of literary worth by his fortieth birthday.
That first novel, The Pistoleer, appeared in 1995 as a trade paperback from Berkley Publishing. The book recounts the exploits and end of John Wesley Hardin, a historical figure who was, as Blake stated in Publishers Weekly, "probably the most dangerous man in Texas during Reconstruction, a period and place that was one of the most violent in our history." Hardin allegedly first killed a man when he was thirteen, and after killing at least seventy more, commenced upon a twelve-year prison sentence at the age of twenty-five. Pardoned in 1894, Hardin was shot to death on an El Paso street one year later. At the time of his death he was practicing law, a subject he had studied in prison.
Blake chose to structure The Pistoleer as a pseudo-oral biography, unusual in the western genre, in which various people who knew Hardin give their impressions of the man who called himself "the Pistoleer." Blake based the testimony included in his book upon newspaper reports and extant recollections by Hardin and his contemporaries. The author makes a concerted effort to transcend the usual narrative technique of western genre writing, instead creating a work of literature with appeal to a general audience. The narrative is punctuated with actual newspaper accounts and excerpts from Hardin's autobiography The Life and Times of John Wesley Hardin as Written by Himself, a method that, as Blake commented in Publishers Weekly, enabled him "to tell the story of Texas during that period of history."
Violent renegades—both fictitious and historical—figure in other Blake novels as well. His Los Angeles Times Book Prize-winning work, In the Rogue Blood, tells the story of brothers John and Edward Little, who begin to travel separate but equally bloody paths after they team together to defend themselves against their homicidal father. As the brothers flee into Indian territory, and from there into Mexico as soldiers on opposite sides in the Mexican War, Blake offers "a virtual encyclopedia of graphic violence," according to a Kirkus Reviews contributor.
In Red Grass River: A Legend, Blake portrays the decades-long feud between the Ashley and Baker families in South Florida, concentrating the action on the jail-breaking bootlegger John Ashley. In Booklist, Kathleen Hughes wrote that Red Grass River proves Blake's ability as "a master at detailing the life of the desperado." Wildwood Boys re-imagines the story of "Bloody Bill" Anderson, a Confederate guerrilla who spread terror through pro-Union towns in Missouri and elsewhere. In his review of the novel, Franscell styled Blake "one of the rising stars in historical fiction … [who can] navigate the human bloodstream with substance and style."
In A World of Thieves, a teenaged orphan named Sonny and his two criminal uncles stumble into the path of a man even more violent than themselves when the boy accidentally kills a policeman. Together with their girlfriends, Sonny and his uncles flee across Texas just ahead of the dead policeman's ruthless father. The characters' "journey downward will appeal to noir fans," commented Carrie Bissey in a Booklist review.
Blake's 2003 novel Under the Skin follows a Galveston thug named Jimmy Youngblood during the Prohibition era, showing how he grew from being a typical child on a West Texas ranch to a mob hitman. "Blake's previous legends of anti-heroes … fascinated readers," Thomas L. Kilpatrick wrote in the Library Journal, and Under the Skin "will be no exception."
Handsome Harry; or, The Gangster's True Confessions, published in 2004, takes its title from "Handsome" Harry Pierpont, an actual gangster from the 1930s. He and famous outlaw John Dillinger met in prison and shared the leadership of the infamous Dillinger gang, whose members broke out of prison and for a few months lived the high life in the Midwest, robbing banks along the way to finance their drinking and womanizing. Of course, the gang was eventually caught, and the book purports to be Pierpont's reflections on life from the perspective of Death Row. Even when facing death, the criminal shows little regret; as he narrates, "I once said to John that being an outlaw was about the only way left for a man to hold onto his self-respect, and he said Ain't that the sad truth. The girls laughed along with us because they knew it wasn't a joke." David Wright commented in the Library Journal that the escapades of Pierpont and Dillinger "make for irresistibly compulsive reading." Booklist contributor Frank Sennett also commended Blake's work, saying that he "brings this gin-soaked era roaring back to life."
The Killings of Stanley Ketchel is also based on a real-life figure, this time an early twentieth-century middleweight boxing champion. Although Ketchel was a winning boxer, as Blake writes, he was known for cheating. He was also equally famous for his out-of-the-ring exploits, which included gambling and patronizing prostitutes. Like Blake's previous works, The Killings of Stanley Ketchel is an extremely violent and often bleak book, taking readers through Ketchel's abusive childhood, his murder of a vagrant as a teenager, and many bloody fistfights. Despite the "liberal embellishments of sex and violence … Blake has spun a fascinating tale," concluded a Publishers Weekly contributor. "Hard-bitten, yet surprisingly moving," was the assessment of a Kirkus Reviews critic.
Blake told the Austin Chronicle: "What my books have in common so far is that they're all set in the past, between the mid-19th century and the era of Prohibition. It's an exciting historical span, full of its own wild energy." In Texas Monthly, he stated his literary goals even more simply. "Almost every book I write," he said, "is about a guy finding out who he is. I think that's the crux of everybody's life."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Blake, James Carlos, Handsome Harry; or, The Gangster's True Confessions, William Morrow (New York, NY), 2004.
Austin Chronicle, November 5, 1999, Jesse Sublett, "James Carlos Blake."
Booklist, September 1, 1995, Wes Lukowsky, review of The Pistoleer, p. 40; October 15, 1998, Kathleen Hughes, review of Red Grass River: A Legend, p. 399; April 15, 1999, Ted Leventhal, review of Borderlands: Short Fictions, p. 1512; November 15, 2001, Carrie Bissey, review of A World of Thieves, p. 556; December 1, 2003, Frank Sennett, review of Handsome Harry; or, The Gangster's True Confessions, p. 644.
Chicago Sun-Times, January 26, 2003, Ron Franscell "Brutal, Beautiful: Violence as Art."
Entertainment Weekly, February 6, 2004, Jennifer Reese, "Criminal Defense: James Carlos Blake's Thrilling Novel Handsome Harry Pays Homage to the American Outlaw," p. 152; July 29, 2005, Jennifer Reese, review of The Killings of Stanley Ketchel, p. 74.
Houston Chronicle, March 23, 2003, Fritz Lanham, "History Feeds Imagination."
Kansas City Star, September 17, 2000, Robert W. Butler, "Wild at Heartland."
Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 1997, review of In the Rogue Blood; November 1, 1998, review of Red Grass River; May 15, 2005, review of The Killings of Stanley Ketchel, p. 555.
Library Journal, October 15, 1998, Thomas L. Kilpatrick, review of Red Grass River, p. 95; August, 2001, Barbara Hoffert, review of Borderlands, p. S74; January, 2003, Thomas L. Kilpatrick, review of Under the Skin, p. 151; January, 2004, David Wright, review of Handsome Harry, p. 151.
New York Sun, August 10, 2005, Otto Penzler, review of The Killings of Stanley Ketchel.
Publishers Weekly, January 23, 1995, pp. 42-43; July 3, 1995, review of The Pistoleer, p. 57; June 17, 1996, review of The Friends of Pancho Villa; September 14, 1998, review of Red Grass River, p. 48; March 22, 1999, review of Borderlands, p. 71; October 22, 2001, review of A World of Thieves, p. 42; June 20, 2005, review of The Killings of Stanley Ketchel, p. 57.
Rocky Mountain News, September 15, 1996, Dale L. Walker, "Author's Flair for Violence Gives Us Bloody Ride with Villa;" September 7, 1997, Alan Dumas, "Savage Western Satisfies."
Salt Lake Tribune, December 3, 2005, Martin Naparsteck, "Killings Moves with Grace, Hits with Power."
School Library Journal, September, 2001, Barbara Hoffert, review of Borderlands, p. S74.
Texas Monthly, May, 1999, Jan Reid, "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Next Cormac McCarthy," p. 130.
Texas Observer, June 20, 2003, Diana Anhalt, "Hard Boiled, Soft Boiled in Galveston."
Tucson Weekly Online, http://www.tucsonweekly.com/ (June 17-23, 1999), Jim Carvalho, "Nothing Borderline Here."
Weekly Wire, http://www.weeklywire.com/ (January 4, 1999), Scott Rogerson, "All in the Family."