The Infinite: A Novel

  • By Nicholas Mainieri
  • Harper Perennial
  • 384 pp.

This exceptional debut, set in post-Katrina New Orleans and northern Mexico, weaves a complex tale of love and loss.

I admit my bias: I like reading fiction architected from the dirt up, where setting not only matters but is as central to the telling of the story as are the characters. And here, in Nicholas Mainieri’s thrilling debut, The Infinite, post-Katrina New Orleans and northeastern Mexico share top billing with young high-school couple Luz Hidalgo, a track star, and Jonah McBee, an orphan, in a narrative that braids together their love story with the political realities of the border and the drug war that ties it all together.

The concerns of the novel are the concerns of its main characters, how they navigate their place in the world, tethered to class and the cultural roots that shape who they are and act as the anchoring force that keeps them on either side of the border. With each chapter, the story alternates points of view, switching deftly from Jonah to Luz and back again, inhabiting each character as their twin journeys unfold.

It is the opportunity to work as a day laborer that brings Luz's undocumented father to flood-ravaged New Orleans. After he establishes a home and an income-stream, Luz braves the border and joins her father in Louisiana; she enrolls in school, where she finds her calling as a sprinter. But it is in the hallways that she meets and falls in love with Jonah, a sensitive young man with no compass for the future.

Despite many differences, they find solace in each other, Luz “no stranger to despair, that incurable sickness cultivated in the lonely years before Jonah.”

Luz’s romance with Jonah is cut short, though, when her father finds out she is pregnant. Luz is quickly sent back to Mexico to live with her grandmother in Las Monarcas, where monarch butterflies migrate each year. Call it the inciting incident; we are soon off to the races, the pages turning themselves.

Shortly after returning home, Luz must contend with Mexican cartels and narco violence of the highest order. When Jonah doesn’t hear from her, he embarks on an ill-fated road trip with his best friend, Colby, to find her. Colby peels off before they cross the border, and Jonah is left to fend for himself.

Though sincere, Jonah is out of his depth, lacking the money and language to navigate Mexico; he finds himself adrift in a land he knows little about. Jonah is earnest in his quest to find Luz, if not sentimental, already feeling the responsibility of a father, electric with desire to shelter and protect. He has hatched a plan to join the Army after graduation in order to provide for his wife and child and is desperate to share this map of their futures together, if only he can find Luz.

Meanwhile, Luz is run through a maze of horrors, colliding with the cartel, enduring shootouts, and finding herself witness to executions, “the vantage into her future constricted to a keyhole.”

Mainieri has imbued Luz’s story with real tension, the stakes of her survival giving the pages their pulse. Luz is smart and resourceful and survives these encounters only to find herself helplessly intrigued, not so much with the cartel as by those it employs. It is a path she walks down, each step further from Jonah and closer to the comfort of the despair she had always known:

“She saw her future, her new future, charted like a course on a map. She would be home in Las Monarcas, and she would have her own child. It would be the same migration, one year and then the next, and she would repeat the same ritual, one year and then the next. That is your life. It is determined. Can you do it, Luz? Can you do it? She looked at the monarchs where they rested, and fear filled her.”

These encounters, of course, are more than collisions; they are the things that shape Luz and Jonah as individuals and allow their relationship to sift through the sands of the Mexican desert. Mainieri is a brilliant literary mason, troweling in the mortar of an emotional wall brick by brick — one more insurmountable than the border Luz and Jonah must cross to find each other.

I hesitate to offer much more of a summary at the expense of revealing wonderfully conceived plot points. Suffice to say the novel does not offer a fairytale reality of the border or the attendant drug war. Part of the book’s power is the fact that Mainieri doesn’t shy away from these realities and their effect on his characters. The human cost is not elided, providing the engine that combusts over and over again to propel Jonah and Luz’s story forward.

I haven’t read a debut as accomplished as Mainieri’s in quite a while. When was the last time, I thought to myself, that I came across a first novel with truly beautiful sentences that gather into a stirring narrative? Where the sentence-level writing surprises and delights as much as the depth of character illuminates and propulsive plot entertains? The Infinite achieves these things and more and has earned its comparisons to Denis Johnson and Cormac McCarthy, masters of story and language.

Blake Kimzey’s fiction has been broadcast on NPR and published by Tin House, McSweeney’s, Redivider, Green Mountains Review, the Los Angeles Review, and Short Fiction, among others. He holds an MFA from UC-Irvine and received an Emerging Writer Grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation. He teaches creative writing at the University of Texas at Dallas.

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