Soft cover and eBook, 978-1663228697, 422 pages
September 30, 2021
El Paso novelist James O’Keeffe’s second book, Radio Frontera!, is an entertaining, darkly comic, twist-filled tale that unfolds in several locations, including California, El Paso, and the studio of a Mexican “border blaster” radio station, XAMO.
In the mid-1980s, XAMO has fallen on hard times after being a global force in early rock’n’roll radio. Its massive and illegal 500,000-watt signal could previously be heard on AM radios across the planet. Now, amid a global recession and toughened broadcast laws, XAMO has been forced to sharply reduce its transmitter power. The weakened station barely pays its electric bills, phone bills, employees, and music licensing fees. Yet, it still has distant and local listeners who call in with special song requests and has disc jockeys with fake names who play records and dispense music trivia to keep fans entertained.
Indeed, one of XAMO’s nighttime DJs, “Mandy,” is widely known for her seductive voice and rock music knowledge. Her real name, however, is Elfa Schultz. She’s a communications undergraduate at the University of Texas at El Paso. She sneaks across the border nightly to do her Hipstress of the Night radio show, sometimes with help from Shaw Jepsen, a friendly U.S. Border Patrol agent who likes to hear her play the song “I Fought the Law.”
Elfa’s life suddenly changes when a young man who uses several aliases is hired to work at XAMO. Asher “Ash” Rede does not tell Elsa his real name, nor reveal that he thinks he knows her from a brief encounter in childhood that caused him to develop a lingering crush on her. He also does not let her know—yet—that he has been one of the frequent callers to her radio show. Indeed, over time, Ash has convinced her via telephone from California that he is someone completely different than she now thinks. Elfa, as “Mandy,” has helped Ash create and perfect his own fake radio personality, “Strummer,” and he has been taking part in her show, supposedly dialing in from Surrey, England, and gaining fans. She doesn’t yet know that he’s now at XAMO with her, learning how to be a disc jockey.
The novel soon takes darker directions. Murder, revenge, gang connections, family secrets, and other plot twists emerge while the author skillfully maintains a steady story pace and modulates his taut sentences with engaging word rhythms. For example:
“Ash looked out the window, shocked but unsure how to feel. He’d never known anyone who’d been murdered before. He pictured Shaw’s cocksure grin, the hat and sunglasses, the pampered mustache. There was no picturing him dead; for that matter, there was no picturing him ever being born. Guys like Shaw Jepsen didn’t proceed through the normal stages of birth, childhood, adolescence, and the rest. No beginning, no end. They just existed.”
O’Keeffe also demonstrates a knack for blending scene-enhancing details and humor. For instance, describing a key moment at a minor character’s funeral, he writes:
“The paper streamers fluttered softly from the saucer-shaped air ducts in the cloistered heat. There was the abrupt sense that the funeral service had exceeded its rightful hour, that the late, great Reverend Doctor’s memory had been duly honored, thank you very much; and now enough was enough.”
Radio Frontera! cleverly broadcasts James O’Keeffe’s new fiction from a fresh setting that should appeal to many readers: a Mexican radio station where even the receptionist is armed, and almost everyone is trying to hide some secrets.
James O'Keeffe holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The University of Texas at El Paso and has taught college and secondary English for more than twenty years. He is also the author of Red Sands: A Novel, published in 2006. He lives in El Paso, Texas.