Free Press, 2008
For a certain sort of adventuring gringo Mexico has a hypnotic effect. He can be told a hundred times that Mexico is dangerous in its remote mountains, pressing, airless jungles, and haunting deserts, but that only quickens the heart and sends the gringo further into a suspension of time to experience the magical and horrific. British journalist Richard Grant is such a person.
Living in Tucson, Arizona, familiar with travel into Mexico, and an accomplished writer on western themes, he wanted his next book to be about traversing the inaccessible Sierra Madre mountain range. He knew its deep canyons, rutted roads, wild animals, and thick forests would be a physical challenge.
He nodded when several friends warned him that even with his penchant for danger and ingratiating journalist’s personality he would be in over his head. He slightly paused when author J.P.S. (Joe) Brown told more of the violent drug history of the mountains and said he would find “…murder. Lots of murder.”
He promised himself he would live by the rule that if he couldn’t make friends in twenty minutes in a new town he would leave knowing he was in danger. It was the early 2000s, but as soon as he crossed the border into Mexico there was a palpable difference in felt security that leaped off the page through his smooth, swift-footed writing. There’s no pretense in the writing, just a clear ability to get the story out and move forward.
The reader is given quick background in the convoluted relationship of police, military, and drug trade traffic along with a brief introduction to Mexican thought. He refers to Charles Bowden’s idea that in Mexico an event happens, then there are rumors and theories about why, and finally, it is swept under the rug and never happened. There is an evolving through the book that begins with this idea and leads Grant to understand Octavio Paz’s description of Mexico and its magical realism.
So we travel with him through nights of endless dangerous revelry, listening to tales of the drug trade habits and murders, picking up hitchhikers for protection, employing a charming homosexual as a guide, assuming the posture of machismo, and traveling through the village of Mátalo that translates to Kill Him.
This is not comfortable armchair traveling when it relates your real protectors on the Copper Canyon Railway tour through Mexico are the drug lords. Nor is it a positive report on the Mexican character. It is a first-hand account into the back country that thrives on the drug trade and fuels itself on AK-47s, beer and machismo. Is this an uplifting book? No. Is Grant changed? Yes.
After a horrific night he compares to the movie Deliverance, with him as the night’s easy target “to make the trigger finger happy,” Grant can no longer abide the prevailing male supremacy, freedom from law, or unlimited access to firearms.