- By Josh Barkan
- 256 pp.
- Reviewed by Ellen Prentiss Campbell
- January 25, 2017
Dark tales of people in crisis by a talented and versatile writer.
The dozen stories in Josh Barkan’s collection Mexico pull the reader into a vivid, violent world. The author’s prose is plain and strong. Barkan focuses on the danger and damage experienced by individuals caught in corrupt politics, in the drug world, in family betrayals, in poverty. The stories are frequently bloody and violent, and death is often the threat in the extreme predicaments his characters face and the choices they make.
These stories are gripping, but I had to blink and look away occasionally because these are also intentionally, and successfully, terrifying. The author reminds us of the fine, uncertain line between safety and danger everywhere — not just in his vision and version of Mexico — and highlights the inescapable truth that finally every life will end with death. Memento mori, after all. Though not a light book, Mexico is sometimes a darkly comic one. Once begun, you won’t fail to finish.
The stories are told almost always by first-person narrators who are American expatriates living and working in Mexico, or Mexicans returned from education abroad. Barkan is personally familiar with the expat perspective — from childhood on, he has sometimes lived abroad, in places including Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Nairobi, Paris, and Kyoto. Mexico City is now his home part of each year.
With a fine instinct for selecting the telling, sensory detail, he captures Mexico City’s sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. Here, for example, he nails the melancholy whistle which heralds the sweet-potato vendor, as distinctive a signal in Mexico City as the tinkle of Good Humor chimes is in the States: “a forlorn whistle, the haunting wail like a steam train of a camote wagon, which roasts bananas and sweet potatoes.”
Although almost all expatriates, his narrators are not generic Americans abroad. Each has a distinctive voice and backstory, and Barkan gets inside each skin. He’s a shape-shifter — reading the collection is like being entertained by a versatile actor performing a one-man show, playing many parts: a top chef, a deaf circus dwarf, a retired nurse, a journalist, a plastic surgeon. All of the characters share the dilemma of living under threat — often of imminent death.
Sometimes, in a collection, one story stands out, or calls out and speaks to an individual reader’s preferences. This is a uniformly strong gathering. That being said, my favorites are the stories in the most precarious balance: where tenderness and violence are almost inextricable, where the line blurs between victim and perpetrator, exploited and exploiter.
For example, in the “The Chef and El Chapo,” the chef must please his unexpected diner: the notorious narco kingpin El Chapo Guzman. If the chef fails, everyone in the restaurant will be killed. He intuits that the dish he prepares for El Chapo requires a blood sacrifice: Human blood is the necessary secret ingredient to satisfy his uninvited guest.
By contrast, “The God of Common Names” is a love story, as the narrator explains: “This is a Romeo and Juliet story. But it’s set in Mexico, where I live and work as a teacher.” It is, in fact, a double Romeo and Juliet story.
The narrator, a secular Jew from the States, has fallen in love with an Orthodox Mexican Jew — to her father’s fury. Meanwhile, at his school, he becomes a participant-observer in the dangerous forbidden romance of two of his students, children of rival narco gang leaders. Barkan adroitly manages the dual structure of the parallel stories, intertwining the different strands of violence — gunshots in one, the subtler violence of family estrangement in the other.
Throughout the entire collection, Barkan places his characters in extreme trouble and crisis, facing life-ending or life-changing choices. These are dark tales of desperate people in fraught situations, but the players are often capable of survival and occasional transcendence and redemption.
Mexico, though not an easy read, is a satisfying one. The author’s prior books, Before Hiroshima (2011) and Blind Speed (2009), have garnered awards and praise from critics and enthusiastic readers. Mexico demonstrates his significant talent and promises there is more to anticipate from this fine writer.
Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s debut novel, The Bowl with Gold Seams (Apprentice House Press), was inspired by the detainment of Japanese diplomats at a Pennsylvania hotel in 1945. Her story collection, Contents Under Pressure (Broadkill River Press), was nominated for the National Book Award.