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The Confessional    by J. L. Powers order for
by J. L. Powers
Order:  USA  Can
Knopf, 2007 (2007)
* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

It opens on a letter 'To the President and People of the United States': 'Let me tell you how it is. First, I am a Mexican, not a terrorist. Yet ... crossing the river to go to work ... Border Patrol makes me bend over, looking for explosives up my butt ... Does 'Mexican' equal 'terrorist' because of what some Arabs did? ... 9-11 and Cinco de Mayo are now connected. One was the United States' day of reckoning. One was Mexico's liberation day ... it will become your second day of reckoning'. This is followed by an Associated Press article in the El Paso Times: 'Mexican national Jesus Jose Macias blew himself up while crossing the Santa Fe Street Bridge'.

This is the prelude to a powerful novel, written in voices from junior students of an all-boys Catholic school after a campus fight raises a tempest of events over a few days. One student is hospitalized and another brutally stabbed to death. MacKenzie Malone, a religious teen diagnosed as hyperactive, traded his Ritalin for acid. His reaction to the continual sarcasm of classmate Bernie Martinez results in three weeks' suspension. That same night, Malone is murdered in front of his wealthy El Paso home. Alexander Gold - 'the Invisible Man of Jesuit' - finds Malone while returning a rental movie. Gregory Gonzalez, a neighbor and long-time best friend of MacKenzie, admits only to himself that Mac 'seemed different lately. Wired. On edge ... Was there something we could have done to prevent this?' Greg takes up an offer of 'some bud to spare' (LSD) and the trip is a bad one. In a drug-induced state, Greg hears a confession to the murder.

Jim Hill lives with his mom and little sister in a tiny apartment near Cincinnati Street. When Jim was a little kid he enjoyed 'frying ants with a magnifying glass'. Jim decides to look into MacKenzie's murder. The first plan is to cross the bridge, meet and question Dirty Bernie Martinez. The second is a kidnapping to find out what Alexander Gold knows and is not telling about the night he came across MacKenzie collapsing in the street. At school assembly, Malone's murder is announced, as well as that Alexander Gold is missing. Opinions and arguments fly through the air, such as 'I think he got killed 'cuz he's white and he didn't think we should celebrate Cinco de Mayo'. The Cafeteria separates with Mexicans on one side and Americans on the other, leaving the Mexican-Americans wondering where to sit. And a riot erupts on Cathedral grounds after a Mass for the dead teen.

J. L. Powers was inspired to write The Confessional after 'a personally transforming experience' when she was employed at an El Paso literary press and taught writing at a local college. A number of students simultaneously attended a nearby Catholic high school. Getting to know them, the author heard their 'intriguing perspectives on life on the U.S.-Mexico border, with regard to race, religion, and immigration.' The Confessional is a pulse-raising (if not hair-raising and temper-raising), hard-hitting, provocative read. The mind races as issues become heated with fear, anger, hostility, and rage, while Powers throws powerful punches on social issues, community, and consequences.

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