Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Book Review: "Mexico: Stories" by Josh Barkan

Mexico has taken a bit of a bad rap in the last 18 months or so, with Donald Trump using his criticism of Mexican immigrants as a launching pad for his (now-successful) run for the American presidency. Although Mexico has so much more to offer the world—culture, history, beauty, cuisine—all too often people choose instead to dwell on the incidence of crime, drugs, violence, and poverty they see portrayed in the media.

Unfortunately, Josh Barkan's new story collection, aptly titled Mexico, won't really help the country much with its reputation. But like the country itself, these stories are more than you initially think, much more than violence, crime, drugs, and poverty. While not every story works, taken as a whole, this is a powerful collection that makes you think.

The characters in Barkan's stories are, for the most part, ordinary people caught in the midst of extraordinary, and in many cases, unexpected, situations. The choices they choose to make, the decisions they face aren't always the ones we would choose, but they are often shaped by circumstances driven by the country itself.

Some of my favorite stories in this collection were: "The God of Common Names," in which a schoolteacher is caught in the middle of a Romeo-and-Juliet relationship between two of his students, children of rival drug lords, and he finds himself contemplating his own marriage, which caused its own friction; "I Want to Live," which tells of a woman awaiting a doctor's appointment who becomes immersed in the life story of a fellow patient, once a beauty queen and minor celebrity; "The Prison Breakout," about a man working with prison inmates who gets obsessed with the innocence of one prisoner in particular; "The Sharpshooter," which tells of an American soldier and his best friend, involved in a drug sting operation; and "Everything Else is Going to Be Fine," about a driven young man whose involvement in a bizarre incident forces him to confront what he has been hiding.

The stories I liked most tended to be more character-driven than violence-driven, although violence played a role in each. Some stories I felt were more about violence and crime, and didn't seem to ever rise above that. Barkan is a tremendously talented writer who created characters and plots which packed a punch (no pun intended), and made you feel for the situations in which the characters found themselves.

After a while, though, the stories started to feel very similar and very bleak, and the collection became harder to slog through. There were only so many kidnaps and murders and assaults I could read about, and I felt the stories toward the end of the collection became a little more one-note. But then one of the earlier stories would flash through my mind, and I would realize that while this may be an uneven collection, it's a pretty well-written and powerful one, rooted in the reality of today's world.

NetGalley and Crown Publishing provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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