In his debut novel, Out in the Open, Jesús Carrasco explores flight and shame, and the lengths to which people will go to survive. A young boy flees into a dry, dangerous plain, forced out and away from his family—he doesn’t plan for the journey. His only thought is to run. “What lay ahead, simply, was unknown territory.”
Details of the unnamed protagonist’s crime are unclear, but since he cannot return home, he’s driven into a harsh landscape that Carrasco narrates with the sparse and serious beauty of a cowboy story. This is a land turned hard from drought, and it cuts its people to the bone. “(On) windy spring days,” Carrasco writes, “the ears of wheat rippled just like the surface of the sea. Fragrant green was waiting for the summer sun. The same sun that now fermented the clay and ground it into dust.” In a fossilized land distressingly devoid of hope, the boy’s desperation drives him forward.
The boy encounters a mysterious goatherd who saves him from starvation, and the two forge a relationship of routine and quiet companionship. The goatherd quietly mentors the boy in the art of survival, passing on to the boy “the rudiments of his trade, handing him the key to a knowledge that was at once vital and eternal.” The two care for his herd; the goatherd offers protection.
Carrasco’s story leaves its reader intentionally in the dark for a long time: Just what was the incident that turned the boy’s family against him? Was his crime so terrible that he should die in a drought-plagued landscape? What are the motives of the goatherd?
The town bailiff follows the boy into the arid plain, eventually forcing him to confront the nightmares of his past. Nightly the boy “dreams he’s being pursued. The usual dream. He’s running away from someone he never sees, but whose hot breath he can feel on his neck.” Ultimately, he cannot outrun his fear.
Carrasco’s stark prose (translated from Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa) and the austere wisdom of the goatherd evoke the writing of Cormac McCarthy. Out in the Open relies on the best elements of classic westerns to pull its readers through a bitter landscape; Carrasco’s take is darker than you’d imagine, and full of surprise.