Rule of Capture
by Christopher Brown
Harper Voyager, 2019
In “Rule of Capture,” Christopher Brown’s second novel, we meet Donny Kimoe, a Houston lawyer reliant on court appointments for defense work and a regular habit of uppers for productivity. He is assigned to Xelina Rocafuerte, a young Latina on trial for terrorism charges; she’s actually a journalist silenced for political purposes. Kimoe, in pursuit of justice, tears through the murky underworld of a chaotic, near-future Houston: a world in which America recently lost a war to China, a Harvey-like superstorm is an excuse for martial law, and the incumbent president prefers to stay in power following a contested election. The story unfolds during this tense interregnum.
Kimoe is sharp and fiercely independent. He quickly detects a cover-up in Rocafuerte’s case and begins pulling at the threads. Shady business dealings are unearthed in the Evacuation Zone southeast of Houston near the port, an area quarantined after the last hurricane and sold off to private interests. Kimoe learns that Rocafuerte witnessed the murder of Gregorio Zarate-Taylor, a promising Houston city council member who hoped to establish an “edenic post-racial eco-Texatopia.” Her camera caught the event on tape. But who were his murderers? During his investigation, Kimoe enters an eclectic assembly of Houstonians — colleagues from his former law firm, judges, drug dealers, hired guns, and radio show hosts, among others — and Joyce, his ex-girlfriend, a liberal gun-toting professor at Rice. It becomes clear that Rocafuerte’s case exposes much larger criminal movements, and her and Kimoe’s fate are swept up in those tides.
Brown’s colorful, noir-style language allows the reader to devour the book, in a good way. The short chapters fly by — everything moves fast. There’s some masterful anti-dramatic irony, with the characters launching into their plans long before one can discern their arcs. The tone is variably punky, with lengthy anarchist soapboxes offset by whip-smart exchanges that spur action.
A lightly fictionalized Houston plays a major role. Those who know the city will take pleasure in imagining the story unfolding in familiar-ish places. Kimoe’s office is an abandoned bank on Bissonnet Street, “eleven hundred square feet of corner lot brutalism that used concrete forms to hide the bankers from the sunlight”; one afternoon he works furiously in “an ancient office services place in a run-down 1980s building on Milam Street.” Brown’s antihero clambers through culverts, creeks, golf courses, private freeways, a nightclub called Detention, an abandoned apartment complex, a gated community turned refugee housing, and the innards of a downtown federal courthouse. Brown stages Houston in all its motley glory. He summarizes:
Houston was a city built on a swamp…. Most of the homesites along the bayou were empty now, the idea of their occupancy ceded to the inevitability of the next flood…. The best of those were beautiful lattices of fractal steel rising up out of ferally landscaped tropical foliage, the kind of innovation Houston’s zoning-free development culture fostered, beautiful and also sad in the message they sent about what was coming. The banks were behind it all, keen to believe in a viable future for the business of asset-backed securitization.
Brown seems to have absorbed enough of Houston — this swamp of potential, where everything starts rotting the second it’s finished — to chart its future trajectory. Architecture is a backdrop for life, as always, and here establishes the ramshackle environment in which the story transpires.
“Rule of Capture” is indebted to classic science fiction tropes, but there are also specific Houston literary overtones. One character meets his demise after careening off an unfinished overpass on Mayor Donald Barthelme Memorial Turnpike; Barthelme was an author named for his father, a famed Texas architect. Kimoe, in his manic moments, is reminiscent of Danny Deck in Larry McMurtry’s pleasantly depressing “All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers,” who at times takes to sleeping on the fifth floor of Rice’s Fondren Library. Brown’s work also summons “Lot,” Bryan Washington’s impressive debut collection of short stories, which collects contemporary scenes of Houston’s multicultural reality.
The novel’s themes are rooted in who can do what with the land we share. Given its focus on southeast Houston, these ideas feel indebted to Texas Southern University professor Robert Bullard’s decades of work on environmental justice, with the recognition that issues of pollution, race, and class intersect in deep ways.
Brown himself practices law, and this expertise powers the plot’s tight turns. There are passages on legal history, including the eponymous precedent: Borrowed from hunting practices, the rule of capture establishes that a natural resource becomes property when an individual is first able to “control” that asset. Kimoe’s legal maneuvers and courtroom exchanges flavor the text with a satisfying bureaucratic realness; its conclusion is a riveting trial that gives John Grisham a run for his money. Only then does the full extent of the terribleness at hand finally emerge.
“Rule of Capture” is a prequel to Brown’s 2017 novel, “Tropic of Kansas,” and further builds its fictive world. While Kimoe’s procedural gymnastics are invented for this book, Brown explains in a postscript that the statutes are “all extrapolations from existing legal precedents.” Meaning: This could happen to us, a realization that hovers in one’s mind when reading “Rule of Capture.” We too live in an era where powerful storms regularly inundate cities, chemical fires threaten neighborhoods, militias of insecure men rally with automatic weapons, economic inequality surges, neoliberal privatization runs wild, dark money funds politics, an impeached president was acquitted of treasonous charges, and an election approaches — one whose legitimacy is preserved and whose outcome is respected, we hope. Dark days. William Gibson was right: “The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.”
Two years ago, in this magazine, Brown filed “A Natural History of Empty Lots,” a text about the drosscapes of Austin. In it, he roots around in the creek bottom muck, reading the tea leaves of our future in the trashy dregs of what passes for a river. “Rule of Capture” works on Houston similarly. It shows us a future mired in dystopia, but not without hope. That future could easily become ours, if we let it.
Jack Murphy is an M.Arch candidate at Rice University. He lives in Houston.
Photos by Jafet Soto INFPHY_