David Corbett is an impassioned writer who mapped the connections between the residents of a hard-luck town at the tip of San Francisco Bay and hardscrabble lives in El Salvador in previous novels, Done for a Dime and Blood of Paradise. In this novel a young and promising musician has to take a detour from his budding career in order to smuggle his recently-deported uncle from El Salvador back to America where his meager earnings keep the family barely afloat.
But there' s a catch: They also have to bring a Palestinian translator who saved his cousin's life in Iraq, but who has been denied a visa. The translator tells them he s making the dangerous trip across Mexico and the border to give his family a future, but nobody' s sure he' s telling the truth. The story grows more tangled as one family member tries to trade information about the Palestinian to the FBI in exchange for citizenship and others get trapped in a battle over drug turf as the musician leads the group north against obstacles in a voyage that begin to feel like a descent through Dante' s circles of hell.
The author has undertaken a difficult challenge teasing out the human cost of US aggression in the Middle East and Central America, making us care about the characters, and giving us a hint of hope without letting us off the hook by downplaying the horrors of the trip immigrants take to el norte. Though the narrative suffers from too many plot lines, and the violence (while never gratuitous) is hard to handle, Do They Know I'm Running? is beautifully written, ambitious, honest, and thought-provoking.