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BookBrowse Reviews Mexico by Josh Barkan

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Mexico

Stories

by Josh Barkan

Mexico by Josh Barkan X
Mexico by Josh Barkan
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  • Published:
    Jan 2017, 256 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Sarah Tomp
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Mexico shines light on universal moral challenges even as it focuses on one sprawling and complex urban backdrop.

Despite the gritty view revealed through the eyes of its complex and flawed characters, and the pervasive violence woven throughout, Josh Barkan's short story collection is a love song to Mexico City. As we spend brief moments with ordinary people living in this large and dynamic metropolis, we are introduced to its food, art, architecture, and even the highway system—creating a vivid sensorial experience.

Like the author, most of the central characters are outsiders, having moved to Mexico from the United States (see 'Beyond the Book'). This influences their perspective, yet they feel a sense of belonging and appreciation for their adopted home. A few of these expatriates include a teacher working in an elite private school; a retired nurse seeking an affordable place to live on her pension; an army veteran working with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the CIA; a journalist tracking stories for an American paper; and a plastic surgeon serving people from all socioeconomic classes. Other stories feature Mexican nationals with an equally varied set of vocations such as artist, architect, and sales representative.

Although the character situations and conflicts vary greatly, there is a similarity to the narrative tone throughout. The voice of the central character in each story does not change much but this is not a problem as the writing is clear and easy to understand. I've found that some modern short story collections sacrifice clarity in order to experiment with form, so I appreciated the straightforward storytelling.

A common thread woven throughout is the presence and impact of violence doled out via members of drug cartels. In one way or another, the "narcos" or gangsters are a part of every narrative. The opening story, "The Chef and El Chapo," features an American chef who has relocated to Mexico to earn higher acclaim for his culinary prowess than he received in the United States. When El Chapo—"Shorty"—Guzman demands a special meal created solely for him, using only two ingredients, the chef is filled with angst, knowing death is a possible consequence of failure. He meets the challenge, but only after sacrificing his own ethics, as well as the innocence of a young girl. Readers have been warned. By the middle of the collection I found myself weary of the constant presence of the cartels and the random acts of violence they impart on the lives of ordinary citizens, but perhaps that is the author's point: The ever-present threat of violence is exhausting and may numb citizens to its effects. It's difficult to stay in a constant state of shock and outrage.

One particularly poignant story, "The Painting Professor," is alternately narrated by an elderly art professor suffering from dementia and a young man working his way up the ranks of the cartel. Their lives intersect and overlap in unexpected ways, but each has his own viewpoint and does not begin to understand the thoughts and feelings of the other. Art and its place within this society, comes to represent the great divide between the educated elite and the poor. Each man seeks attention and validation—the professor from the critics and public, and the gangster from the professor.

The majority of the characters are straight men, which provides a somewhat narrow perspective, but the few stories that focused on someone outside this parameter were not as effective. "I Want to Live" features an American nurse with breast cancer. While in the hospital waiting room she questions another woman about the scars on her face. Their subsequent conversation turns into a story within a story as the scarred woman shares the origin of her scars. This turns the focus to the rising of a drug lord, rather than following through on the issues of either woman. Their lives and problems feel minimized and forgotten. A gay young man is the narrator of "Everything Else is Going to Be All Right" but his desire for love without sex doesn't ring authentic, despite the inclusion of a somewhat confusing history of sexual abuse by a Catholic priest. Even so, the conclusion of this story feels the most hopeful of the set.

This short story collection provides a peek into a wide range of life experiences within a busy, dangerous, yet beautiful city. While no easy solutions are offered for dealing with the pervasive crime and violence, readers will better understand the challenges faced.

Reviewed by Sarah Tomp

This review first ran in the March 22, 2017 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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Beyond the Book:
  American Expats in Mexico

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