If reading Ernest Hemingway makes you wish he hadn’t shot the great American novel, if your only complaint about Graham Greene is that he didn’t leave an heir to the epic international thriller, if you’re still backing Malcolm Lowry in his race to grace because contemporary literature challenges you less than a walk in the park, then read David Corbett. Do They Know I’m Running?, whether you like it or love it, will bring you up to speed on just how much a single novel can still change your life.
This is the story of what happens when we go to war, see part of our humanity die, and then wish with all the heart we have left that there was some other way home. Told from multiple points of view and at a pace that gives us no time to applaud ourselves as we watch and weep, something unique sets this novel apart from the demagogy that so often taints the debate on immigration politics, human trafficking, gang warfare, and our Pyrrhic ‘war on terror’. Corbett writes with such unflinching honesty that we have to forgive him the loss of our innocence as Roque Montalvo, Latino Holden Caulfield of the 21st century, fights the law; both that of the land and that of unintended consequences.
Entrapped by a conflicted family history, Roque sits on the fence between El Salvador and the US where his people are torn apart by organised criminals and recruitment officers alike. In a desperate attempt to smuggle his deported uncle back into the country, he travels through Guatemala and Mexico while his half-brother, an ex-marine as scarred as Iraq, organises the funds necessary to safeguard their passage home. Soon Roque is entrusted with the fate of a girl as beautiful as tragedy herself, and betrayal becomes the price of survival. Worse still, no one seems too certain about the Palestinian refugee in their midst, and once his guarantor turns FBI informant, borders are crossed with every loss of faith in those who promised protection and a way home.
Why is David Corbett the next big American novelist? Because he knows what he’s doing. At a time when most men of letters think they owe it to themselves to be easily bruised, Corbett knows he owes it to his readers to be unique, understanding, and unafraid. Setting his sights on a world beyond his own is not colonial complacency but simple strength. He lets us see unfamiliar places and perspectives with the same humble sensitivity with which he lets us see our shared violence and suffering. He is at home in life, and even in his darkest moments he shows us the difference between imitation feeling and the real thing, the stuff that will singe your soul or make you wish you had one.
Yes, David Corbett knows what he’s doing when he shows us sentimentality and cynicism as two sides of one nature, when he makes us wonder just how honest we want him to be, not only about his protagonists, but about ourselves. That, after all, is the measure of how much a novel can change your life. So when you find your own answer to Do They Know I’m Running?, the world might not be a better place, but you will certainly be a better reader; one who has found a way out of hell and the wisdom to know it is paved with perseverance.