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Do They Know I'm Running?    by David Corbett order for
Do They Know I'm Running?
by David Corbett
Order:  USA  Can
Ballantine, 2010 (2010)
Softcover, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

David Corbett's Do They Know I'm Running? takes a hard look at human trafficking between Central America, Mexico, and the United States. It's a gripping read that illuminates the darkest aspects of humanity with a few (very few, it seems at times) sparks of compassion.

Eighteen-year-old Roque Montalvo lives with his Salvadoran Tia Lucha, with Tio Faustino, and Roque's half-brother Godo, an ex-marine who has returned from Iraq with severe injuries and suffering violent nightmares. Roque, a talented guitarist, escapes his brother's insomnia by spending his nights with Mariko, a much older woman.

Their troubles begin when Federal agents break down the door seeking Tio Faustino's son Pablo 'Happy' Orantes. Happy had been previously deported and ended up - after harrowing experiences - working for shady contractors in Iraq. Roque wonders at 'how Happy stared life down, standing there at the edge of every moment, unrushed, unworried, as though, by expecting nothing anymore, not from life, not from people, he'd somehow been set free.'

Though the agents don't find their target, Tio Faustino (also an illegal) is deported. Happy - who had returned, unbeknownst to his family - asks Roque to go to El Salvador, pay off the drug cartels who run the smuggling routes, and shepherd his father back to the U.S.. Happy makes money through a moving company scam, followed by a home invasion. As Roque leaves, his cousin reveals that he's not only to bring Tio home, but also an Iraqi, Samir, who saved Happy's life.

As Roque heads into the abyss, Happy slides down a slippery slope of violence, ending up as an informant for FBI Special Agent James Lattimore on a local gang (from whom he extorted the money needed for his uncle). He tells Lattimore that the gang leader 'was ready to bankroll the movement of a terrorist into the country ... in exchange for sole control of a cocaine smuggling operation', and asks for immunity for his relatives. But Samir isn't really a terrorist - is he?

Meanwhile, in el Salvador, Roque discovers he has to escort not only Tio and Samir but also a young singer, Lupe, being sent north against her will as a gift to a drug lord. As they head north, through Guatemala and Mexico, to the U.S. border, it seems that everything that can go wrong does. And the author starts showing connections between current events and the corrupt role of a security contractor, Harmon Stern Associates, in Iraq.

There are captures and escapes, horrific violence and deaths. Few can be trusted, either among the travelers or the colorful characters they encounter en route. Happy and Godo eventually drive south to meet Roque - for a final conflagration with few survivors. Do They Know I'm Running? is a remarkable story, though at times very hard to read. But it's well worth your time as is David Corbett's Going Humbly essay, in which he discusses his own background and how he approached his extraordinary novel.

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