Review: Mexico: Stories by Josh Barkan


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Published: 24 January 2017

Publisher: Hogarth

Category: Short Stories/Fiction/Mystery

The unforgettable characters in Josh Barkan’s astonishing and beautiful story collection—chef, architect, nurse, high school teacher, painter, beauty queen, classical bass player, plastic surgeon, businessman, mime—are simply trying to lead their lives and steer clear of violence. Yet, inevitably, crime has a way of intruding on their lives all the same. A surgeon finds himself forced into performing a risky procedure on a narco killer. A teacher struggles to protect lovestruck students whose forbidden romance has put them in mortal peril. A painter’s freewheeling ways land him in the back of a kidnapper’s car. Again and again, the walls between “ordinary life” and cartel violence are shown to be paper thin, and when they collapse the consequences are life-changing.

These are stories about transformation and danger, passion and heartbreak, terror and triumph. They are funny, deeply moving, and stunningly well-crafted, and they tap into the most universal and enduring human experiences: love even in the face of danger and loss, the struggle to grow and keep faith amid hardship and conflict, and the pursuit of authenticity and courage over apathy and oppression. With unflinching honesty and exquisite tenderness, Josh Barkan masterfully introduces us to characters that are full of life, marking the arrival of a new and essential voice in American fiction.

Rating: 2.27 Stars

The Chef and El Chapo: (3 Stars) while I’m not sure I understood the point of the story, it was well written and full of emotion: passion for cooking, terror when El Chapo takes over the restaurant, and fear/regret once the chef has completed the task set before him. The ending felt a twee bit hollow, but I hope the chef was able to find comfort in his decision.

The God of Common Names: (3 Stars) this is the story of a teacher and the Romeo & Juliet situation he finds between two of his students. While that seemed like it might play a large part in the story, in the end it didn’t really. The story of Sandra and Jose was more of a catalyst for the resolution of the teacher’s own familial difficulties. I was more interested in the pain and hardship he and his wife and father-in-law were experiencing, due to the teacher being an atheist Jew and the father-in-law an Orthodox Jew. The length of the tale was adequate, though I’m not sure that the ending was quite as tied up as the author would like us to believe. It felt temporary, like there will be more trouble ahead for this teacher and his family, but that is a story we will never get to see.

I liked the thought behind the title, though: how, even though we give different names to the same thing (in this case, the teacher’s idea of a greater power and his father-in-law’s God), it is should be alright because we should know they’re the same thing, just by a different name.

I Want to Live: (2.5 Stars) The summary of this collection insinuates that the primary characters’ stories run up against cartel violence, but I would argue that this is an instance in which that was not true. We are introduced to a former nurse from the U.S. who has relocated to Mexico City. Five years later she is in a hospital waiting room, trying to decide is she should have a preventative mastectomy, when she meets Esmeralda, an orphan who grew up and met a rising star of the cartel world.

It is Esmeralda’s story that is told through the bulk of I Want to Live and it was her’s that was most interesting. The few interjections that the former nurse made made her sound like a selfish character, something that Esmeralda observes more than once herself. She got Esmeralda to tell her her story because she made uninformed observations about Esmeralda’s physical characters and, when confronted by evidence to the contrary, she badgers her into explaining how these marks occurred.

This made the nurse an unlikable character to me and I did not care one whit about her decision in the end because it didn’t matter. Esmeralda was the person that I was more interested in hearing about, though I am curious as to what she was doing in the same hospital waiting room as our American nurse. There was never anyone in to see her, to take her away to an appointment. It felt like a very contrived meeting arranged just for the nurse’s “benefit” in the story. In the end, despite what the nurse decided and her rudeness toward Esmeralda (both in asking about her story and her assumption that Esmeralda wanted to tell the story to her despite no evidence of such), I found Esmeralda’s strength profound.

Acapulco: (1 Star) The first couple of paragraphs had me disliking the narrator. In a book of stories that take place in Mexico, this person started off disparaging the country straight away, saying that police reports cannot be taken seriously, older Mexican men are all unfaithful and have lovers on the side of their marriages, but he (the narrator) is better than that because he left that all behind when his parents sent him to study in Harvard. He goes on to try to make it sound like saying this is all okay because he considers himself to be from Mexico because he was raised there, his family is from there, but he is a citizen of the world. That sounds like he is either a) distancing himself from his Mexican culture/heritage or b) someone who was born abroad, raised in Mexico City, but thinks himself better than natives. His arrogance was appalling and had me viewing him with a side eyed expression.

He continued to talk down about the people he came in contact with, especially his client who wore a gold Rolex, which apparently in his mind was bad because it reeked of new money whereas his (the narrator’s) money was old (as though that meant something in the grand scheme of things).

This was my second least favorite story because this man, this architect, was an arrogant person that, after encountering a near death experience, seems to have learned something, but that revelation feels false in light of the arrogance he demonstrated in the beginning.

The Kidnapping: (1 Star) This one started doff with a bad taste in my mouth when the author used a derogatory word beginning with a T to describe sex workers in the character’s neighborhood. There was no reason for it, no learning from it, just…ick. 😠 The character using this word, the painter who is a kidnapping victim, uses the term again in a reminiscence and once more at the end of the story and it still sucks.

Aside from the offensive language used more than once, there was a distinct lack of characterization that made the story suffer. I didn’t know enough about this painter to care when he was kidnapped or when the kidnappers tortured him. All I had to go on was his disrespect for transgender people and that made me dislike him.

The Plastic Surgeon: (2 Stars) The problem I had with this story was that it had the storyline meant for an faster paced piece and the writing did not live up to it. The telling became almost philosophical and that didn’t mesh well with story of the plastic surgeon who is forced to makeover a narco boss. With a conclusion that was anything but conclusive, I found that I was bored by The Plastic Surgeon and couldn’t really find a facet of it that would save it in my esteem.

The Sharpshooter: (No rating) This story wasn’t bad, exactly, it was simply of a type that wasn’t for me, thus I found it painfully boring. The story of a young soldier full of ideals, dealing with a friend and fellow soldier who betrays him and their company, didn’t interest me; most Army stories don’t. If this were a book on its own, I wouldn’t give it a rating because this is a case of a story that I can tell is simply not my thing, but there are people that might appreciate it, perhaps people that enjoy reading about soldiers and their personal conflicts.

The Painting Professor: (1 Star) Like the last story The Sharpshooter this one was also ridiculously boring, but unlike the previous story this one wasn’t written well, even from an objective point of view. It didn’t seem to have a point and what thread of coherence it had got lots in the rambling writing.

The American Journalist: (2 Stars) There wasn’t much development in this story, either from a character perspective or otherwise. By this point it seemed all of the short stories in the collection took place in the same area or nearly so, so the setting wasn’t as big of a let down, but I didn’t care much about the journalist or his friend that was shot.

The most interesting thing about this to was from the beginning, when the journalist talked about how his paper, the Houston Chronicle, and other papers like it, only cared about running stories that fit into a certain narrative. For example, one about bombings in other countries that then make the American people feel safe because they don’t live there. It can be incredibly difficult to get a story through mainstream media because of such “comfort” and his pointing that out from a journalistic standpoint was interesting.

Everything Else Is Going to Be Fine: (1.5 Stars) If ever there was a disjointed story in Mexico, it is this one. The character “told” the reader his story and that felt off. The pieces of story we did get might have worked in a better narrative, but combined as they were felt like pages had been ripped out of a book and sewn back together badly. Whats-more, I felt badly that he had been molested and raped as a child, but I felt like the author was using that part of the character’s past to explain his possible asexuality. That confused me and made me uncomfortable, upset, and not at all pleased with the story.

The Prison Breakout: (4 Stars) I favored this story for the feeling of non-fiction it gave me. The main character, a man that helps find the history of men on death row in order to explain why they may have committed their crime, starts out the story talking about growing up, seeing crimes happening on a global scale, and knowing they were wrong, voicing his displeasure with them, but ultimately not doing anything about it. That’s something that should resonate with a lot of people today, with the atrocities we see being committed against people because of their gender/race/sexuality/etc. For all the talk, what do we really do?

The Escape From Mexico: (4 Stars) When I got to this story, I was feeling rather disheartened by the collection overall. The first few stories had been alright, but then I was hit by a bunch that were, in my opinion, just bad. I felt suckered in and upset about that. This story, while it doesn’t save the collection, made me feel at least a little better that I stuck it out to the end.

This is the story about Gordi, a young boy who runs up against another young man, one who is in charge of a gang at the age of fourteen and has marked Gordi for punishment: either death or gang recruitment, for a crime Gordi did not commit, but that this person holds him responsible for. The terror of the weeks where Gordi is searching for the watch, then trying to avoid the gangster, trying to find a way out of this, was palpable. His mother comes into the story too, a true testament to a mother’s love and willingness to do anything to save her son.

What I did not like about the story was that, midway through, there was a brief change in perspective, from Gordi to his mother, but it remained in first person and there didn’t feel like enough of a difference in the voice of each perspective. If it were not for pronouns or the mother out and out saying that she was Gordi’s mother, I would not have realized what happened.

Summary: First of all, this book was mostly a letdown. It felt like it told only about the bad things in Mexico without any of the good, playing upon the stereotypes that Americans have of the country. I’m not saying that these things don’t happen, but if all we see in literature about Mexico is the type of content in this book, what sort of view will the readers form?

Second, one of the oddest things about this collection was that the title, Mexico, gave me cause to think that it would be about the people. While it was, in a way, the main characters for the majority of the stories were American. What characters were Mexican were often involved in the drug word, portrayed as some other kind of criminal, or spoken of in slurs by the narrating voice. I expected there to be some violence, as the summary spoke of the narrowing of the divide between the cartel world and the “real” world, but this played too heavily to that theme.

I was disappointed in the overall quality of the stories because it seems like the author really could have written something fantastic.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

All pictures, quotes, and videos belong to their respective owners. I use them here solely for the purpose of review and commentary.

3 thoughts on “Review: Mexico: Stories by Josh Barkan

  1. Such a shame to see these stories were mostly crappy! And you’re right, from the title one would assume the book to be a celebration of Mexico (both the good and bad) and not just another stereotypical portrayal of the country and its people… So disappointing!
    I’m hoping your next read makes up for this one :/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! And you’re so right about the title. At least I would’ve thought more of the main characters would’ve been, you know, Mexican!

      I think it will! I have reviews scheduled, but right now I’m reading Tash Hearts Tolstoy and I like it a lot so far.

      Liked by 1 person

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