Of the images in Tony D’Souza’s Mule: A Novel of Moving Weight, none haunts me like JoJo Bear. When failed writer Jeff Lasseter moves several pounds of prime NorCal kush through Austin to Tallahassee, he brings his infant daughter’s teddy, with a digital talking chip in its belly. Every time the road gets dangerous, he squeezes JoJo Bear, whose plaintive “I love you” gives him strength to face down miles, cops, and an increasingly dangerous network of buyers and sellers.
Yet I think that bear represents something greater. The fact that a married man with one kid, and another on the way, needs a teddy bear to nursemaid him through the risks he takes to stave off poverty, says he isn’t facing life as an adult. He comes from a generation that expected infinitely growing wealth, bet everything on houses and tech stocks, and had no skills to face desperation. Now, resisting the limitations of incipient adulthood, he gambles everything he loves for the money.
Half Douglas Coupland and half Hunter S. Thompson, D’Souza’s third novel tries to externalize the angst his generation has felt over the last five years as the promises we grew up with proved built on sand. Unfortunately, for all his intricate symbolism—the patchy beard, the miles of road burn, and JoJo Bear’s quiet desperation—this remains a remarkably internal novel. His alter ego, progagonist Jeff Lasseter, is a man in love with his own internal monologue.
Lasseter’s carefully constructed writing résumé proves useless when publishing dries up in advance of the 2008 crash. Newly married and expecting, with skills of limited market viability, he moves to a cabin in his wife’s home area, California’s rural northern Siskiyou county. There he finds a commodity outsiders would pay money for: some of America’s best organic cannabis. You can’t eat principles, so a domestic drug runner is born.
Six very long chapters describe Lasseter’s descent into a world where arcane honor codes excuse moral compromise and a novice can earn truly magnificent paydays, as long as they accept cash only. The run from California to Texas to Florida comes to dominate his life. He finds himself rich beyond his wildest dreams, yet beholden to a brutal operator who holds his family as collateral. The money that once bought his freedom soon owns him completely.
As a character, Jeff Lasseter symbolizes his generation because he will only accept change on his own terms. He tries to manipulate his circumstances, and when he can’t, he feels helpless. Muling, for him, is a way to assert the continuity of the economic dream he grew up with. Unfortunately, in an economy grown volatile, change has its way, with or without Lasseter’s permission. The tighter he squeezes the sand in the hourglass, the more slips between his fingers.
Lasseter’s CV bears a striking resemblance to D’Souza himself, and it’s tempting, at least early, to read this as a roman á clef. But as Lasseter’s muling escalates into bloodlust, then extortion, then kingpinning, we realize this isn’t D’Souza’s life. This is D’Souza’s nightmare about what life could become in times like these. Sure, he’s an educated and respected man who has served in the Peace Corps. But does such a man necessarily have a bottom limit when desperation sets in?
And can we really even call it desperation? In less than a year, Lasseter earns more than some blue-collar workers make in a decade, yet he and his wife become enamored of what that money can buy them. Lasseter talks lovingly of his house, his European vacations, his social connections, until we realize: his dirty job gives him the veneer of high standing and security against a volatile world. But that security and standing prove fragile.
D’Souza’s thriller chops lack a little. External events that could shake Lasseter’s core get glossed over. Lasseter gets jacked at gunpoint, but once it’s over, the event never merits a second mention. And despite three good opportunities for a resolution in the best Sophoclean tradition, the ending arrives almost accidentally, reducing the previously active Lasseter to a mere victim of circumstance.
Yet I can’t forget JoJo Bear. D’Souza’s Lasseter is essentially a big kid living out the dreams his generation, which is also mine, was promised. He remains a picture of frustrated desires. He only wants what economic forces took from him, the same things they took from you and me. And he makes us ask: where would I draw the line? How low is too low?