Josh Barkan’s second short story collection, Mexico, focuses on the intersection of cartel violence and daily life in Mexico. Many, though not all, of the stories are written from the perspective of Americans living in Mexico, architects, teachers, journalists, and lawyers. Most blithely assume they will be untouched, like the journalist who writes about murder and corruption for American consumption, assuming his American identity keeps him safe from the corrupt. Even after he is threatened, he assumes his nationality protects him; he is wrong.
The book feels slight in your hands, a mere 242 pages, thinner than the average trade paperback. That is a misdirection, though, like the Tardis “its inside is bigger than its outside.” The stories may be short, but their themes are monumental and sometimes they contain a lifetime. Take “The Escape from Mexico”, a short story that is thirty years in the making, a short story of sacrifice and gratitude that will break and heal your heart.
Your heart will be touched again and again, with “The God of Common Names” the ancient and universal challenge of disapproving fathers-in-law is met with so much wisdom and compassion by the son-in-law, who redefines his understanding of fiath to find common ground.
Real life impinges on the stories. There is an encounter with the notorious el Chapo and an acquaintance with the fabulously wealthy Carlos Slim. Real politics impinge on the stories with Nieto complaining of too little good news.
There is a fire for social justice in these stories, too. Particularly in “The Sharpshooter” and “The Prison Breakout,” both action-filled and exciting stories that could be excellent films in the right hands. “The American Journalist” would make a great movie, too, but no one would make a movie with that ending, sadly enough. Frankly, I can see quite a few of these stories as movies, but I fear directors would change the endings. Barkan has the courage and craft to know we don’t need all our endings to be happy.
I liked Mexico quite a bit. I am fond of short stories. There is a discipline in the short story that is often absent in novels. Because they must limit their words, short story writers consider every single word and don’t waste them on trivialities. They must convey so much with so little. People who write good short stories are often the finest writers there are.
Reading Mexico, I can feel the cacophony of the street markets, the punishing sun, the eerie emptiness of the elevated free-ways. The shock of violence is always shocking. While there is this quotidian acceptance that the violence is always possible, people retain their shock, they are not innured. There is one story, “Everything Else Is Going to Be Fine” that may upset readers by associating homosexuality and molestation. Don’t throw it across the room. Miguel, the narrator is wrong-headed, but Barkan is not, trust him to get you and Miguel to the other side. Miguel’s misapprehension is the crux of the story and freeing himself of that shame is why everything else is going to be fine.
This is an excellent collection of short stories. It is rich in contrast, the austerity of the prose, the contrast between teeming, noisy crowds and the silent solitude of violence. If you like book that are bigger on the inside, that say much with little, you will enjoy this book. Some may criticize the decision to focus every story on the intersection of daily life and cartel violence. However, that choice is not about being exploitive or stereotyping the Mexican people as lawless and corrupt. It is about how the people of Mexico manage to find goodness, love, decency, art, and their humanity in a system that fails them.
Mexico will be released January 27, 2017. I received an advance copy from the publisher in a random drawing at LibraryThing.
Hardcover: 256 pages
Publisher: Hogarth (January 24, 2017)