One More Po

I want to add another rogue to Steve’s lineup. Like he did, I invite you all to chime in if you disagree—I’m curious about counterarguments. The fellow I’m talking about has actually been getting some positive press this week (in Steve’s post as well), so I expect some pushback. I refer, of course, to Harry Magaña.

Here’s what I recognize as admirable about him: He tenaciously pursues some kind of redress for Lucy Anne Sander’s murder. He works his connections to try to get to the bottom of things. He puts himself to an awful lot of inconvenience in the process, when he’s not really obligated to do so. He seems to be a nice friend to Demetrio Águila. He misses his dead wife.

And I think that’s it. On the other side of the ledger, he’s corrupt, violent, and larcenous, he’s willing (at least) to torture, and he evidently feels he’s above the law.

Look at his first appearance:

When the bartender left work Harry Magaña was waiting for him outside, sitting in his car. The next day the bartender couldn’t come in to work, supposedly because he’d been in an accident. When he came back to Domino’s four days later with his face covered in bruises and scabs, everyone was shocked. He was missing three teeth, and if he lifted his shirt he revealed countless bruises in the most outrageous colors on his back and chest. He didn’t show his testicles, but there was still a cigarette burn on the left one. (414)

The bartender’s explanation is that he was jumped by a group on the street and they beat him up. Yes, I’m sure a cigarette to the scrotum happens all the time in street beatings. I strongly suspect this is our hero’s handiwork, and it’s appalling. We know he whips Elsa Fuentes with a belt to get information from her, threatening to mark her face and even to kill her. He breaks into three houses, cavalierly helps himself to whatever’s there, puts the make on a 16-year-old who’s in love with someone else, and lets his cohort—a police officer—pull a knife on a pimp to get more information. Have I missed anything?

The way he acts in this section, he’s just another lawless cop who thinks that what he’s trying to do is more important than the principles of law and justice he’s supposed to uphold. Are we supposed to be cheering him on? I understand the impulse to root for the only person who seems to be on track to accomplish something (you know, until he disappears), but surely his dehumanizing methods indicate caution there. I read his behavior as more than just dismaying, but as of a piece with (if not, obviously, as horrendous as) the pervasive narcissistic discounting of other people’s humanity that permits the conditions in Santa Teresa to arise. To me it’s clearly problematic to acclaim Harry Magaña in contradistinction to the people he’s trying to catch when they’re in some ways so similar. I’m reminded of the chemotherapy Magaña’s wife may have undergone: It’s effective in its fight, but that doesn’t make it less destructive and dangerous.

9 thoughts on “One More Po

  1. Daryl March 19, 2010 / 8:43 pm

    I think I agree with you. Yet there’s something about outlaw justice that I think most people probably have something of an affinity for. It’s a common enough thing in print and in the moving pictures. I kind of like Dexter, for example, and though you might not approve wholly of The Punisher’s particular zeal for whipping up on people, you can kind of understand it and get a little bit behind him. All that said, I’m with you in that I don’t really like Magaña very much. The way he goes overboard suggests in a way that it’s more about taking advantage of an opening to do naughty things than it is about finding justice to anybody. In order to make gritty vengeance stalking palatable, I think it has to be in pursuit of real and clear justice. Somebody has to deserve it.

  2. Dan Summers March 20, 2010 / 12:13 pm

    Hmmmm. You’re making me rethink my opinion about the (presumably late) Mr. Magaña. I had felt generally positively about him, but I also seem to have overlooked a lot of his flaws. I think it has a lot to do with the general level of incompetence, corruption or degeneracy in almost every single character that Magaña seems comparatively upstanding.

    Just as an aside, did anyone notice that one of the names in Else Fuentes’s address book was for “Vaca”? Probably a MacGuffin, I’m guessing. Still, an intriguing little question.

  3. Jeff Anderson March 20, 2010 / 5:37 pm

    Daryl, I can see what you mean about the appeal of outlaw justice; in the case that real justice doesn’t happen in the normal course of things (like Santa Teresa, frex), the idea that someone would step outside that course to make things “right” can be awfully attractive. But I just can’t support it, even notionally. There are too many risks—to innocent people, to the vigilantes themselves, to civil society, even, I’d say, to the criminals—and personally I’m just too attached to the ideal of merciful and true justice to give up that ground. You’re right, though, that Magaña doesn’t even go the trouble of looking for people who might actually be said to deserve his treatment.

    And Dan, the contrast you note between Magaña and, well, everyone else, is certainly intentional on Bolaño’s part. I vacillate between thinking the sheriff is supposed to be just another incarnation of the attitudes we as human beings in society have to guard against, and thinking he might be affirmatively meant as a trap for us readers: If we can be cozened into approving of his tactics in spite of ourselves (like Demetrio Águila), then we end up having to examine whether we’re as virtuous as we’d like to suppose. Because it’s a tough line to hold, saying that brutality is okay as long as it’s in the service of the right idea.

    And I think, given the awfully butch description of La Vaca during her vignette, it’s probably supposed to be the same woman. The phone number of “the woman (though it might have been a man, it wasn’t clear) tagged Vaca” has been disconnected, as it well might have been after she was killed. (447) Don’t know what it would mean, if anything, that the two had known each other, but it seems likely to me.

  4. Daryl March 21, 2010 / 10:32 am

    Oh, I agree with you in real life, Jeff. There’s something appealing about the fantasy of vigilante justice, but it’s not something I can really get behind in real life. Enough innocent people are harmed by official justice; we don’t need vigilantes going off half-cocked too.

  5. David Winn March 21, 2010 / 12:09 pm

    Can’t disagree with any of this. I like Daryl’s reference to Dexter and was thinking that Magaña’s also another Jack Bauer, willing to employ highly unethical methods in order to catch the culprit, undermining the justice of his cause in the process. Actually, though, a better analogue might be Mike Hammer—“the archetypal ‘hard man:’ he is brutally violent, misogynistic, and fueled by a genuine rage that never afflicts Raymond Chandler’s or Dashiell Hammett’s heroes.” (Wikipedia). Magaña’s methods are too sadistic to be something he stomachs in the service of a greater good. He probably enjoys them at some level. Bolaño was reportedly a big fan of detective fiction and the Magaña episode had more than a bit of a hard boiled feel to it.

    • Steve March 24, 2010 / 4:01 pm

      Quite perceptive to bring up Mike Hammer for purposes of comparison, I think, David. The whole appeal of the “Dirty Harry” series of films arises out of this same phenomena.

      You are probably correct when you say that “Magaña’s methods are too sadistic to be something he stomachs in the service of a greater good. He probably enjoys them at some level.” But the same thing can be said of many law enforcement officials. Thank God such professions as football and law enforcement exist. Otherwise, we would not have a place in our society for some of these guys.

      I embrace ideals of merciful and true justice as much as anyone. Unfortunately, in human affairs somebody somewhere must have the power to invoke violence in the service of those ideals.

      My perception of vigilantes is a relative one. Context is everything. As part of the social contract we grant the state a monopoly on violence on the assumption that the state will employ that violence effectively, but with some restraint, in order to protect the citizenry. Bad cops constitute a breach of that social contract. There is no question but that vigilantes also constitute a breach of that social contract when the state is effectively exercising its monopoly on violence to protect its citizenry.

      But here we are being confronted with a situation in which the social contract has broken down at every level. The state is no longer carrying out its part of the bargain–unless of course there is a quick confession. It is the state that has breached the contract. In that context vigilantism will always rear its head to fill the void left by the ineffectiveness of state law enforcement. This seems very understandable to me, if nonetheless unfortunate. Harry’s portrayal does not so much raise issues of good or bad. It is more a simple portrayal of a phenomenon of social breakdown.

      • Jeff Anderson March 26, 2010 / 7:22 pm

        Steve, you make a good point about vigilantism wrt the social contract, and it’s one I hadn’t thought of yet. Thanks for that.

        I note, though, that the social contract in Santa Teresa didn’t take any cognizance of the sheriff of Huntsville, Arizona, in the first place. While some parts of the social contract may perhaps rightly be subcontracted by assumpsit, I don’t think I’m on board with the idea that any old body from who-cares-where can come in to do it.

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