Rabbit Boss, 1973
Zoot Suit Murders, 1978
Mile Zero, 1989
Day of the Bees, 2000
King Bongo: A Novel of Havana, 2003
Four Visions of America: Henry Miller, Thomas Sanchez, Erica Jong, Kay Boyle, 1977 (with others)
Native Notes from the Land of Earthquake and Fire, 1979 (also known as Angels Burning: Native Notes from the Land of Earthquake and Fire, 1987)
Thomas Sanchez (SAHN-chays) interweaves historical and current events with fictional narratives of people who live on the margins of society to create powerful social and political commentaries on contemporary American culture. Like many of the characters in his books, Sanchez knows what it means to be an outsider. He was born to a Portuguese mother and a Spanish father who was killed in the Pacific during World War II. His mother and grandmother worked in canning factories to support the family. Sanchez credits his grandmother, an illiterate woman who was a skilled storyteller, with helping him to develop an appreciation of language and literature.
When Sanchez was five, his mother married a man who had originally hailed from the Midwest. Although he kept his Spanish surname, Sanchez grew up in “an Anglo-Saxon world” but had little in common with the Anglo-American society. It was then that he began to perceive himself as the “other.”
Sanchez’s mother became seriously ill when he was a teenager, and he was sent to the St. Francis School for Boys in northern California. Most of the students were orphans or poor and were from Hispanic, Native American, and African American backgrounds. He then attended a community college in Sacramento Valley; at the same time he worked as a ranch hand in the High Sierra with Washo Indians and members of other tribes. His experiences at St. Francis and on the ranch enhanced his knowledge of American Indian culture and provided the material for Rabbit Boss.
Sanchez first began to work on Rabbit Boss when he was twenty-one, while attending San Francisco State University in the 1960’s. He was deeply involved in the antiwar movement, Congress for Racial Equality, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. After earning a B.A. in 1966 and an M.A. in 1967, he taught at the university and continued to work on the novel. After witnessing a violent protest where students were beaten, he left the country for Spain and there finished Rabbit Boss.
Rabbit Boss was published in 1973 after Sanchez returned from Spain. The novel chronicles the lives of four generations of Washo Indians, whose society is slowly decimated by the encroachment of whites on their ancestral lands. Although it begins in 1846, with a chilling description of a young Washo’s close encounter with the ill-fated Donner party, and ends with the death of his great-great grandson in the 1950’s, Rabbit Boss is Sanchez’s attempt to come to terms with the war in Vietnam. He saw the American presence in that nation as an “extension of our westward thrust as a country” and used the white culture’s subjugation of the Washo tribe as a metaphor for American imperialism. Rabbit Boss was a stunning achievement for a young author.
Zoot Suit Murders, Sanchez’s second novel, was published in 1978 and is less complex than Rabbit Boss. Set in Los Angeles during World War II, it is a murder mystery that takes place at the time of the “zoot-suit riots” in 1943. Mexican American gangs clothed in zoot suits clash with sailors and are beaten, stripped, and shaved by the navy men. Oscar Fuss, an undercover agent posing as a social worker, investigates the murder of two Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents that has occurred during the riots as well as the fascist and communist groups who are trying to gain control of the barrio. Again Sanchez takes up the cause of the downtrodden in his portrayal of the people who live in the barrio and are caught in a power struggle between the American government, the communists, and the fascists. Although the book is well written, Sanchez’s treatment of the social and political issues lacks the depth displayed in Rabbit Boss.
Sanchez did not publish another novel until 1989, when Mile Zero appeared to critical acclaim. Mile Zero is a richly textured novel dealing with the complex contemporary issues of drug smuggling, money laundering, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), and the influx of Haitian refugees to the United States. Set in Key West, Florida, the novel opens with a powerful juxtaposition of images: The space shuttle has just been launched and flies over waters where Haitian refugees huddle on their overcrowded boats, waiting to enter the United States. St. Cloud, an alcoholic and former Vietnam War activist, is recruited by Cuban-born policeman Justo Tamarindo to act as a translator for a Haitian refugee who has AIDS. Meanwhile, St. Cloud also becomes involved in an investigation to discover the whereabouts of MK, a veteran of the Vietnam War and a highly successful drug smuggler. Interwoven with the stories of MK and the Haitian refugees are strange, disjointed letters from Zobop, a mysterious killer and self-styled prophet, who foretells humankind’s destruction through environmental disaster. Mile Zero is a compelling portrait of the social and political issues that drive modern society as well as an ironic, suspense-filled thriller.
More than a decade after Mile Zero, Sanchez produced Day of the Bees, in which Francisco Zermano, a famous Spanish painter, and his beautiful French lover Louise Collard endure the German invasion of France during World War II, fleeing Vichy-controlled Provence. Zermano later returns to occupied Paris, but Collard disappears. Fifty years later, their correspondence is discovered by an American historian who then travels to France to seek out Zermano. The novel received mixed reviews, negative for the melodramatic and predictable rhetoric of the lovers’ correspondence but positive for its inventive manipulation of point of view. It was followed in 2003 (quickly for Sanchez) by a reprise of noir fiction in King Bongo, whose protagonist negotiates political intrigues while hunting down a terrorist who exploded a bomb in a Havana nightclub in pre-war Cuba.