Book review: Areceneaux takes on human trafficking in “Hidden Sea”
Charlie Sweetwater has always followed his gut instincts, no matter where they lead him, but never more so than in the adventures that take him deep into the dark heart of the Hidden Sea.
As the patriarch of the Fulton, Texas, Sweetwater family, for many readers Charlie has become something of a legend beyond his own time, thanks to the combined talents of the trio of writers who have assumed the nom de plume of Miles Arceneaux.
Through four prior thrillers all set along the salty shores of the Texas Gulf Coast, co-authors John T. Davis, James R. Dennis and Brent Douglass have created a powerful and at times poignant family saga chronicling conflicts unique to that region and its colorful history.
In “Hidden Sea,” they take the next installment of the saga south to Mexico and out into uncharted waters of the Gulf. In doing so, they deliver some of their best writing yet.
The youngest member of the Sweetwater clan finds himself literally cast adrift, far from family and friends — as a slave on a clandestine fishing boat.
We meet Charlie in this story as a successfully retired supplier to the Gulf Coast fishing industry, now run by his nephew, Raul. His son Augie, having shown considerable talent as a salesman, has been deputized by Raul to take their samples and sales pitch to clients along the Gulf coast of Mexico.
Blinded by his own testosterone, Augie finds himself drawn by a local siren in a low-cut red dress into a Mexican bar where he becomes easy prey for a gang of thugs who specialize in drugging their victims and delivering them, while still unconscious, to Mafioso mariners.
Arcenaux has taken on some meaty material in the past, but in crafting a novel around the contemporary crisis in human trafficking — all too widespread in both Mexico and much of Texas in its land-based forms — they are setting off into territory as yet little charted by other Texas novelists.
This time, Arceneaux’s talent for crafting clever plots peopled by colorful characters is informed by a willingness to put a human face on both those who knowingly engage in the slave trade, which they depict as drawing its lifeblood from the flood of refugees from Central America, and those who enable them.
Charlie and Raul immediately fear the worst after only a few days of no phone calls from Augie, and head south to retrace his path.
Their separate journeys bring them into contact and conflict with old and dear friends whose lives have been tainted by a combination of bribes and threats that have drawn them far into the sticky webs woven by one of the most ruthless of Mexican crime corporations, the Zetas.
Charlie seeks aid from his old friend Alberto Alexander, now living in opulent luxury on a remote coastal ranch in Mexico with his wife Petra, a former telenovela star. Their source of wealth just so happens to be a fishing fleet in the Gulf that provides plenty of “by catch,” or junk fish, for Purina pet foods.
Raul finds his friend Guillermo Ramirez, harbormaster of Tampico, and asks for his help as well.
Ramirez risks everything by admitting to Raul he knows that fishing fleets ply the Gulf perpetually that rely entirely on slave labor, mostly refugees — but possibly at times some Americans.
Thanks to Roy Lee Rowlett, whose successful career as a Country Western musician has given him the means for a life of non-stop pleasure at his own Mexican coastal hideaway, Charlie encounters once again his former lover, Sasha Vasiliki.
She admits to being a lover as well to a man reputed to be a pirate known as Mal de Ojo, (the Evil Eye), and to reselling on the open market the ships he captures.
One can’t help but wish that she and Charlie could have had more time together in this tale.
While Charlie and Raul are trying to figure out who and what information they can trust, in some of the best writing of the book, Augie finds himself surviving beatings by a brutal captain, forced dives to repair nets in shark-infested waters, and a gun battle in which Mal de Ojo’s men board his boat and “rescue” him.
The transformation of the initially naïve Augie into an intrepid, courageous young man is at the heart of this tale, as are the even greater changes Charlie undergoes when he tracks down Mal de Ojo and confronts him, face to face, at his humble home in Cienfuegos, Cuba.
And the same can be said for Mal de Ojo, who prefers to be known as Ivan.
In a gut-wrenching final plot twist, Arcenaux takes this tale to a powerful resolution with tremendous emotional impact.
Indeed, no one is the same at the end of this tale, some much better, others much worse, once Charlie ties together all the loose threads he and Raul encountered along their journey to save Augie.
Is “Hidden Sea” the satisfying end of the Sweetwater family saga, or only a new beginning, with much more yet to savor?
Who knows? Only a fool says he knows what the future holds.
Ed Conroy is a San Antonio writer and critic.