Río Penitente, a novel of expiation
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Río Penitente is the second book of The Libertine trilogy. It finds Robert Gattling, nearing fifty and taking drastic measures to avoid a slow descent into decrepitude. He abruptly leaves Berkeley for a second tour of Mexico. He sells his hilltop house to an old flame, real estate goddess Mardi Johnson, converts a Mercedes bus into a caravan and hits the road. Not far into Mexico, crossing the Río Penitente, he encounters two Mexican teenagers, Berto and Conchita, and, after a misunderstanding which has Berto trying to knife Gattling, the older man subdues the youth and then invites them to join him on the road. The pair debate robbing Gattling but settle for his hospitality. In a tiny village, Playa Los Cocos, Berto does attempt to rob his host, but fails in a humiliating way. Going south as far as Tepic, Gattling encounters several persons, Mexican and Anglo, who warn him that his wards will turn on him. Conchita falls in love with him, Berto grows increasingly envious of Gattling’s apparent wealth and his polish. Gattling comes to see the pair as an instrument of atonement, a way to balance a cosmic ledger which holds a handful of premature deaths he feels more and less responsible for. He will train the viciousness out of the pair, teach them transportable skills and save them from a life as losers. Returning north again, they stop in Mazatlán where Gattling meets his soul mate, Selina. They fall in love. Now he’s in a hurry. He will take his wards to Los Angeles, teach them how to flip houses, and hurry back to begin a life with Selina. Meanwhile, Conchita intensifies her attempt to seduce Gattling, Mardi Johnson, who supplies the fixer-upper, professes her love for him, and he ends up, at one point, with all three women under one roof. Mardi realizes Selina is the woman Gattling’s supposed to be with and gracefully bows out. Conchita, realizing she can't have Gattling, resolves to keep anyone else from having him. She winds up Berto and aims him at Gattling, but Berto’s final encounter with Gattling has unexpected results.