Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos – A Review

Down the Rabbit Hole
Juan Pablo Villalobos
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011, 70 pg

The voice of a child has the power to undercut all the foolish tropes of adult life. Handled well it can reframe one’s perception of an idea, done badly and it can descend into cloying sentimentality that is no better than didactic moralizing. Juan Pablo Villalobos in Down the Rabbit Hole has taken on the tricky task of balancing a child’s voice against the violent world of the narco, attempting to find the absurd in a culture whose surreal violence and savagery has become come to dominate Mexican life.  Using the voice of a younger child (it is unclear how old he is and Villalobos has noted that was intentional), Villalobos narrates the story of a precocious son of a drug boss that is a once funny, ridiculous, and horrifying.

The power of the voice in Down the Rabbit Hole is that it takes what has become so common place and shocks one again with the freshness of its observations. Tochtli, the boy, is one part savant one part drug king pin. His wisdom, though, comes from his narco side, so he is given to constructing his world with narco ideas. The most absurd are his digressions on how people die because they have orifices. If you have a large orifice you will die, if you have a small one you might live. The orifices, naturally, come from guns, and the boy has theorized and a whole science of death without relying of ballistic terms. His strange way of describing the world comes from his isolation within his father’s mansion. He only talks about six people with any sense of closeness, although he states early on that he knows 13 or so people. Disturbingly he has seen close to 20 corpses and at least the last moments of a man who peed himself out of fear. His father never lets him see the actual killing, but the boy has been close enough that he thinks making orifices and feeding corpses to their pet tigers and lions is perfectly logical.

He is still a boy, though, and is full of boyish ideas. His favorite movie is the Way of the Samurai and he walks around the mansion in a dressing gown in lieu of  Japanese clothing and refuses to talk because a samurai is a figure of mystery and control. Throughout the book he talks about his desire for a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus. His father even takes him to Liberia to find one. It is the most absurd on the many absurd things the boy asks for. It makes perfect sense: in a world where there are no limits, how ridiculous can one’s desires get. Still, he also collects hats (pith helmets, sombreros and any other kind of useless hat), something simple that kids fixate on and wear at the most inappropriate times. Villalobos never misses a chance to contrast the child against the narco, and in one horrifying statement, Tochtli mentions that you shouldn’t wear your hat while creating orifices because you can get blood on them and they are hard to clean.

What runs throughout the book is parody of all the pop culture tropes that surround the drug lords. Villalobos turns every cliché into a a joke when Tochtli reinterprets what is supposed to be a macho culture of bling and power. Reinterpreted through Tochtli the drug lords don’t seem as powerful, but just ridiculous clichés. Everything that he and his father know seem to come from movies, whether they are samurai or gangster. They don’t live the life of gangsters so much, as imitate the life of gangsters. Where does the culture of the drug lords come from: within, without, or a reinforcing mix of popular culture and gang life? The elevation of these tropes to the level guide to life for small boys makes the whole culture absurd and horrifying. If all you have are these shallow images with which to build yours life, then you turn become a movie cowboy or samurai.

The book isn’t without it’s hard edges. Tochtli continually calls anyone who is week faggot and like Huck Finn it is a narrow line between art and stereotype, which Villalobos handles well. Similarly, the trip to Liberia could have been an occasion for easy charactures  of Africa. Since Tochtli’s world is so small, he has no chance to see beyond his father and friend. It keeps Liberia at a distance and the hipo hunt paints the narcos as just more outsiders coming to exploit Africa and return nothing. They are so consumed in their own world, they don’t see people, they see the bullet holes in buildings and spend their time counting them. It is Liberia that is father from violence than Mexico, yet the narcos think they are the enlightened ones. The contrast is forceful and pulling the narcos out of their mansion, weakens them and shows how unimportant they are away from their compounds.

Down the Rabbit Hole is one of those books that perfectly captures the absurdity of a way of life that has caused so much death and destruction. The humor and the voice are disarming, but they also have the power to avoid humanizing the gangsters. They are just creatures who act according to script. Villalobos has mentioned that he initially wrote the book from the point of view of the father, but it didn’t work. Had he done that he would have had a much more difficult task. Moreover, his book would have probably been subsumed in the tidal wave of naro literature instead of becoming a fresh and exciting novel.