Only five new episodes remain in AMC’s high-octane drama about a milquetoast family man who transforms himself into a cunning drug kingpin. Within the next two months, we can expect to see Walter White’s reckoning, whether through spectacular downfall or a final ascension to cartel royalty. Blood will spill and secrets will be revealed. Breaking Bad promises us the rush and pulse of the best Shakespeare dramas, cinematically captured in the saturated blues and bleached out beiges that signify the Southwestern landscape.
One of the strengths of Breaking Bad is its richly layered storylines. There are worlds and worlds behind Walter White’s character arc. The story of the land and people of Northern New Mexico alone could be its own fascinating spinoff of Breaking Bad. Not to mention the history of The Drug War, cartels, and race relations in the borderlands.
The books on this list range from the personal to the mythological to the journalistic, and some intertwine all three. They all depict a world of stark contrasts. There is danger here. There are hardscrabble heroes and self-made gods dripping with hubris. Each book is infused with the poetry of landscape, in which humans like Walter White and Jesse Pinkman try to craft their own story with what their realities have handed them.
Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West by Ruben Martinez: Martinez deftly blends memoir and reportage, giving us an essential new way of thinking about and seeing the West. He goes into the complicated multiracial history of Northern New Mexico and brings the landscape and the people into stark relief as he tells his own story of settling there; he is part native, part interloper, both an advocate and gentrifier. It is from this ambiguous identity that he feels compelled to research the painful and fascinating history of the West, both its economic reality and its role in the Great American Imagination. It’s a perfect book to read in tandem with Breaking Bad, to get an intimate sense of the place where Vince Gilligan’s drama unfolds.
Alburquerque: A Novel by Rudolfo Anaya: World Literature Today described Anaya’s famous novel as “a quest for knowledge… a novel about many cultures intersecting at an urban, power-, and politics-filled crossroads, represented by a powerful white businessman.” A description that could easily apply to Breaking Bad. Anaya is often described as the father of Chicano literature and his novels are richly woven tapestries of memorable characters and an evocative sense of place.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: Early on in the show, there were some comparisons of Skyler to Lady MacBeth. I disagree. She may have eventually accepted her role as accomplice and money launderer, but she began as the Daisy to Walt’s Gatsby. She was the pure (but greedy) representation of love and family that Walt ironically corrupted himself to protect and secure. There are plenty of places where Breaking Bad departs from Gatsby, but they share the story of an American nobody’s contraband-funded rise to infamy and inevitable tragic end.
Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell: The book that inspired the Oscar-nominated film, Daniel Woodrell’s novel is populated with the same kind of down-on-their-luck folks who make do with what they can in a harsh ecology, who rally around their own kind and protect family until the bitter end. Even if that means cooking and dealing meth.
To Die in Mexico: Dispatches from Inside the Drug War by John Gibler: The cartel murders in Breaking Bad are highly dramatized and sensationalized. John Gibler’s clear-eyed, well-researched reports remove many of the stereotypes and misconceptions about Mexico’s multi-billion dollar drug war, and will give the reader blood-curdling facts about the real Tuco Salamancas and Gus Frings and their impoverished, routinely executed employees. This highly praised book promises to sadden and enrage, and possibly to change your thinking about the War on Drugs.
A Place to Stand by Jimmy Santiago Baca: New Mexico’s own American Book Award Winner spent six years of his early life in prison for selling drugs as a homeless youth. This memoir chronicles his life before, during, and after his time served. It’s a story of hope and remaking. Think of it as the photo-negative of Walter White’s arc. Far from the relative comfort of the White household, Baca began his life abandoned and destitute. He honestly writes of transforming himself in spite of desperate adversity, and of working for the nourishment and empowerment of the underserved communities around him.
Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko: Tucson has a similar history to that of Albuquerque – a modest desert metropolis that means many things to many people: colonized sacred land, dangerous, heavily policed border town, bohemian enclave, nexus of social ills. Both towns are weird clashing intersections of demographics and material interests; from the fancy-free cultural events of the college town to the radical activism of border justice advocates to the sleepy insularity of hippie-crystal business ownership. Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel centers on a veteran of the drug trade who sees the ghosts of colonialism in present day Arizona. Her story is a terrifying shadow history of the world that allowed someone like Walter White to exist.