In this post from last week, I mentioned some fiction occupying the Western and Southwestern United States. Below are some nonfiction books that I found helpful or though-provoking, and if anything comes to mind, mention it in the comments section, on Twitter, or Facebook:
To Die in Mexico: Dispatches from Inside the Drug War by Jon Gibler (2011)
In recent years, a plethora of books have been written and published about the drug crisis south of the border. While I have only begun to scratch the surface in reading about and trying to understand what’s transpired between the United States and Mexico over the last couple decades, Gibler’s book is as good a place as any to start. In it, he traces the history of the drug trade and the War on Drugs and, moving from one body left for dead after another, he exposes, if not solutions, then at least the problem’s shape in full.
The United States’ population, through its appetite for escape and denial, has revealed itself to have a blind disregard for both its own well-being and the well-being of those living outside its borders. Without us, there is no drug trade. Second, military industrial complex has profited from our willingness to fight an impossible war. Third, unlike what we see on Breaking Bad, which I loved, the suffering of drug violence is disproportionately south of the border and perhaps the true crime of FX’s popular series is how we all sympathized with Walter White’s family and Jesse Pinkman and not the unaccounted victims of their industry’s trade.
Rarely does the United States engage with the human side of its shared border and the consequences of our hunger and our thirst. Gibler’s book, however, does. Moreover, he reveals how the institutional problems of two nations have transformed their shared border into something as deadly as any rattlesnake.
Line in the Sand: A History of the Western U.S.-Mexico Border by Rachel St. John (2011)
If you need a quick-moving yet informed account of the border’s entire history, St. John’s book does that. My favorite passages were contained in the chapters detailing how the border was drawn, which was rather randomly, following rivers that do not hold their course and erecting monuments to an imaginary line. The rest of her historical account reveals how the border from one decade to another is always changing its shape, opening and closing and then opening again. More importantly, she also examines it as a gathering place not just of death and pain but of life and community.
The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea (2005)
One of the blurbed reviews of Urrea’s book describes it a detailed account of absurd border, and that’s mostly true. The more anyone reads about the border between the U.S. and Mexico and the countless attempts to render it impenetrable, the more one realizes that borders are meant to be crossed, not because borders lack a purpose, but because their purposes are so arbitrary and fraught with blood. Every living organism is free to cross a border, except the human individual. That’s something to think about. And it’s deeper than nationalism or history.
The real strength of Urrea’s account of how 26 men became lost in the desert trying to cross the border is how he weaves their lives into the history of the desert that swallows them. The opening passages give a respectful account of the men who patrol that line in the sand. With flashlights and canteens, they are often the only reason that more individuals do not die crossing a landscape unfit for human survival. Urrea paints the desert like a graveyard at sunset; the bodies have been piling up for centuries. From this history, he integrates an understanding of Mexico, constructing it with regional complexities. It may be one country, but it is many places. He wants his readers to understand that Mexico cannot simply be understood as a mysterious land across the border and that’s alone is a reason to read.
Lastly, the more I read of Urrea, the more I am struck by his chameleon-like ability to write in a multitude of styles and voices. His recent short story collection, The Water Museum (2015), is not written through and through in the same Noir-like grittiness and reporter of history as The Devil’s Highway but in the measure and wave of canonical literature and magical realism. That back and forth is something admirable and noteworthy.
Thanks for reading. Bryan Harvey tweets frequently @LawnChairBoys.