Though I’d never listened to audiobooks before, the perpetual boredom of my daily two-hour round trip commute recently drove me to give them a try. I listened to much of Tony D’Souza’s Mule: A Novel of Moving Weight, my very first audiobook, driving up and down I-95, cruising past the kinds of scenes D’Souza renders in razor-sharp, minimalist prose: troopers and K-9 cops lurking behind every stand of trees, cars with out-of-state tags pulled over every few miles, trunks popped open for search, the drivers more often than not black or at least much browner than me.
Unlike James, the narrator of Mule, I was not carrying pounds and pounds of the finest North Cali weed that money can buy. I was simply on my way back and forth between home and my workaday life, just another stiff on the highway in a hatchback. Still, as the story poured out of my speakers, it lent a sense of James’ desperation to my drive, as if the anxiety churning beneath our protagonist’s calm exterior was contagious. That is partially due to the precision with which D’Souza describes James’ nerve-wracking cross-country drives, but it also hit home with me because I’ve recently taken on a role that can be as harrowing as any drug run, even if it often lacks the same sense of immediate danger: fatherhood.
It’s fitting, then, that fatherhood is what initially drives James into the business that soon begins to dominate his life. When the novel opens, he is a successful freelance writer with bylines in prestigious national glossies, living the good life in the hippest city in America, Austin, Texas. When the recession happens, the economic downturn hits James hard, and soon his writing career begins to dry up. As if on cue, his girlfriend, Kate, comes up pregnant and promptly loses her retail management job. The two get married and migrate from Austin to Kate’s hometown in Siskiyou County, California, where they eke out a life and welcome their newborn daughter into the world. Almost by accident, James stumbles into a new profession as a mule, trafficking high-grade marijuana across the country with his daughter’s stuffed animal, JoJo Bear, as his ride-or-die partner.
There’s nothing particularly earth-shattering about Mule. Aside from James himself and Mason, a mercurial, samurai-sword-wielding redneck Korean who serves as his partner in crime, most of the characters would seem right at home in the pulpiest of crime novels. Kate, James’ wife, is flat as a table cloth. Even the book’s dual antagonists, the two kingpins at either end of James’ cross-country connection, rarely get a chance to shine. The story, which sees James slide further and further into the game until he’s in way over his head, is familiar territory, though it’s done well enough that I found myself taking the long way home just to spend a little more time inside of it.
Mule is remarkable, however, for the way it depicts James’ changing psyche as he faces first fatherhood and later the pressures of the drug trade. Of course, life as a drug runner is not all bad. For starters, it makes him a vault full of money and gives his family security in a time when so many are losing it to the recession. But James soon comes to understand what one of his bosses means when he muses that “there’s so much about this that’s not about the money.” At first, the sense of illicit adventure and the feeling of getting away with something buoy him along, but he descends deeper into his new life of crime, and soon the dangers of the drug trade become all too real. We watch as his moral center erodes and he loses the tight grip he has on himself, all portrayed subtly and very well by D’Souza.
This is, above all, a novel about fear. And fear is something Mule does well, taking on an increasingly claustrophobic feel as James’s nerves begin to fray. When his first child is born, James realizes that “the world as we’ve constructed it is a joke.” This is what parenthood does; it crystalizes fear, sharpens our focus on our own mortality, and reminds us just how much we have to lose. For James, the joke becomes more and more apparent the farther his journey takes him into the dark underbelly of America. But even for those of us who don’t generally spend our days in fear of going to prison or worse, becoming a parent is fraught as much with anxiety as it is with joy because it gives us the biggest opportunity we’ll ever have to screw up.
Mule manages to evoke that sense of worry in a way that even readers who’ve never been on the wrong side of a gun barrel can relate to. “Drive fast and swerve a lot,” James and his fellow mules tell each other for luck out on the highways. As Mule careens to its bloody climax, it turns out that kind of advice is no more comforting when it comes to running dope and ducking the law than it is for raising kids.