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Smoking Mirror Blues
by Ernest Hogan
CreateSpace, $14.99, 262pp
Published: April 2018

There's such an amazing and varied pool of talent in this state that it somehow feels unfair to return to an author I've read before for my Arizona book this month, but Ernest Hogan wrote three novels and I've only read and reviewed two of them. This catches me up.

Hogan's writing is more joyously unlike anyone else out there than any other Arizona author I've had the privilege to read thus far, even his wife, Emily Devenport, who also emphatically writes very much on her own terms. That's because he writes gonzo even more than he writes science fiction and he does it with such a unique style. He may start this book by describing the costume of Phoebe Graziano as "some kind of neomythical recombocultural chimera" but I think he's really describing himself.

He isn't a prolific novelist. 'Cortez on Jupiter' and 'High Aztech' came out in the early nineties, while the genesis of this one goes even further back, but it finally saw the light of day in 2001 and could be seen as wrapping up a thematic trilogy. These books are gonzo glimpses of futuristic Chicano culture through a science fictional lens, all wrapped up in Aztec mythology and the creative process, with the definition of deity central to all three of them.

To aid their unique flavour, that are told in a new language that's part English, part Spanish and part Nahuatl, along with a few words that I'm sure Hogan invented entirely out of new cloth. Turn this to any random page and you'll probably find someone describing something as either "sumato" or "xau-xau". Neither word is Googleable but their meanings are relatively clear, if sometimes muddled by an ever-evolving mindset. It's like Hogan is a window on a future world but each glimpse we get is just a little off in time from the last and slang has moved on without us.

This consistency but fluidity is fascinating to me. Reading Hogan is kind of like getting drawn against our will into the channel the Burger King in Gila Bend is always playing—I think it's TMZ—and trying without any grounding in teen culture to figure out what reality it's selling. I have no idea who these celebrities are and I don't understand their cultural references or language. It's like individual words are familiar but not in the order they're given. I don't know what it is, but it's probably sumato and it may well be xau-xau.

The central idea of 'Smoking Mirror Blues' is that Beto Orozco, a game designer in Los Angeles, finds himself possessed by Tezcatlipoca, the trickster god of the Aztecs, after conjuring him up as an AI and unwisely going into a trance at the wrong moment. This coincides with a festival called Dead Daze, an American bastardisation of the Mexican Days of the Dead, and that gives Tezcatlipoca the opportunity to wreak all sorts of havoc on the city of Angels.

In many ways, this is a supernatural battle of a novel. Tezcatlipoca, newly reborn and neatly connected to Beto's knowledge and the internet mediasphere, starts to seize power. He's aided by the corporate sponsored gang known as Los Olvidadoids—I recognise that from Luis Buñuel's movie Los Olvidados, or The Young and the Damned—and a street band called Los Tricksters. Beto continues to struggle to resurface inside his own body and a number of wildly varied players in this game come together to do battle with the resurrected deity.

They're so varied and so fun that I'd almost love to see who would be cast in their roles in some indie film version with budget. I say "almost" because nobody could do these books justice and I'm not sure I really want to see anyone try. We'd really need a Hispanic version of Lance Mungia, who directed Six-String Samurai, or maybe Jim Jarmusch, if he spent his entire time on the project high on speed. This couldn't play slowly; it's a colourful riot that would need to explode onto the screen to challenge an ADHD audience and win.

Some parts have natural choices to fill them. I could totally see Bai Ling as Madam Tan Tien, but I've no idea who would play her seven-foot-tall partner in both tantric sex practices and Ti-Yong/Hoodoo Investigations, Zobop Delvaux. Who would fill the ample boots of Caldonia, an African American force of nature with whom Phoebe sleeps when she's not with Beto or Smokey Espejo, the sumato persona that Tezcatlipoca adopts? It may be easier to cast the creator of the god simulation program, Xochitl Echaurren, and her robot guard dog, Santo.

Just to keep us on our toes, Hogan doesn't alternate chapters between different characters the way a majority of authors would with this story; he alternates pages, even paragraphs sometimes, as if we're absorbing this story from the Bloomberg channel. There is a television crew documenting Dead Daze, who become our Greek chorus. There's also a wildcard organisation of religious fanatics called Earth Angels, who promise to get in everyone's way and complicate everything.

While "traditional" is the last word I really want to use to describe anything with Hogan's name on it, I think this plays a little more traditionally than his other two novels, at least when it comes down to the core story. It's still out there structurally otherwise. And I don't think I learned as much as I did in 'High Aztech', which has the side effect of making this easier to read aloud when yo no hablo Español, let alone Nahuatl. Tezcatlipoca is just cake compared to Huitzilopochtli and Tenyotecuhtli, let alone a catchphrase like "ticmotraspasarhuililis", an important word in 'High Aztech'.

What I did learn is what the title means. 'Smoking Mirror' is a direct English translation of a Nahuatl name, that of the central character, Tezcatlipoca. It speaks to Mesoamerican mirrors that were made of obsidian and used in shamanic rituals. Suddenly, the psychedelic Texan trio, Smokey Mirror, who blew me away on stage before COVID locked us down, are even more sumato than I thought they were. That reference had whizzed right past me at the time. Chingow!

Now, where can I download me some Los Tricksters and which episodes of Lucha Underground did they introduce musically? ~~ Hal C F Astell

For titles by Ernest Hogan click here

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