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Down the Rabbit Hole

Juan Pablo Villalobos

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux; US: Oct 2012)

There’s a genre of drug chic that is making headway in popular culture. Whether it’s Weeds or Breaking Bad, people seem to be gobbling up stories that deal with the culture of drug use or addiction. Into this fray comes first time Mexican novelist Juan Pablo Villalobos, whose book Down the Rabbit Hole deals with drugs on the periphery: it’s largely set in a drug lord’s den. And Villalobos has been earning his share of accolades for the work: it was shortlisted for The Guardian’s First Book Award, and has picked up raving reviews from Publishers Weekly (a starred review) and The New Statesman (which named it one of its books of the year last year when it was published in the UK), among others.


I don’t get it.


The thing with Down the Rabbit Hole is that it’s short. Very short. Seventy pages worth of text, not counting a totally unnecessary short glossary of terms at the back of the book. It’s being called a novel, but it’s probably more of a novella if you ask me. And it’s one that fails to make any impact whatsoever. It’s just simply too truncated. Characters blend into each other and, aside from the main protagonist (a precocious seven-year-old boy), it’s often hard to tell everyone apart.


But the main problem is that this short book is way too precocious (there’s that word again) for its own good. What it’s about is this child, Tochtli, who lives in a drug lord’s “palace” and loves samurai films, collecting hats to an obsessive fault, the French Revolution, his trusty dictionary (which he regales readers with his impressive command of vocabulary – now there’s an artistic tic) and has pretty much everything a young boy could want, including a games room with a PlayStation. Oh, and one more thing: what he really covets is owning a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus. Why does he want one so bad? I read this book and don’t have an answer.


But here’s what I can tell you: his handlers actually go out and try to get Tochtli a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus. Why? Is it for love of the boy? Or is it something else altogether? I honestly don’t know. Which is probably one of the nov – erm, book’s major failings. There’s a lack of character depth and development to the point that there really isn’t much of a point to this. If there is, it clearly sailed way, far over my head and into some imaginary netherworld where things have a tendency to make better clarity for others than it did for me.


This being a book set in the sketchiest of places, Down the Rabbit Hole is actually a bit of an uncomfortable read. For one, Tochtli routinely and regularly uses the word “faggot” to describe lesser men who cry. Now, I’ll grant that if you’re hanging around drug dealers all day, your vocabulary is probably going to have some rough and coarse language in there. However, it’s the frequency that the word was used that seemed to be a bit of a bother for me, and seemed to invoke some latent homophobia on the part of the author. The use of the word is never challenged, Villalobos never gives his characters a reason to, and so on it goes to the point where the reader feels as though he or she is being not-so-subtly bludgeoned with a singular word that causes a great deal of pain and frustration to some members of our populace. That’s cause for concern.


In the end, it’s hard for me to really get a bead on Down the Rabbit Hole, precisely because it’s too brief to have any sort of lasting impact as a standalone piece of work. Maybe it might have been better if it had been bundled up into a short story collection dealing with similar themes, each story becoming a piece that’s a cog in the greater machinery. But no, for some strange reason, this book is on its own, and all readers have to go by is some 70 pages of flashy, showy writing with a plot that doesn’t have a reason to be propelled forward.


Granted, I didn’t hate this book outright. Villalobos does create an interesting character in Tochtli, someone who is so young and yet quite gifted – and you get the sense that the whole point of Down the Rabbit Hole is that this is simply one boy’s attempt at understanding his surroundings and trying to come up with some kind of logic for them. By the end of the book, you come to the sad realization that what Tochtli is really getting an education in is becoming as corrupt and criminally minded as his father, which is reason for a note of pause.


However, this feeling or realization is sketchy at best, and is masked by a wacko midsection in which the boy’s handlers pursue Tochtli’s dream of owning a hippo. Down the Rabbit Hole is an unsatisfying journey into a drug wonderland, leading readers such as myself to really wonder what could have been if only the author had decided to stretch out the story by another couple hundred pages instead of a mere 70.

Rating:

Zachary Houle is a writer living in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. He has been a Pushcart Prize nominee for his short fiction, and the recipient of a writing arts grant from the City of Ottawa. He has had journalism published in SPIN magazine, The National Post (Canada), Canadian Business, and more. He also reviews books for bookwookie.ca.


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