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the young gringo
on 11 October 2008
"The old gringo came to Mexico to die" is how the second chapter of Fuentes' fine novel The Old Gringo begins. That novel (made into a movie) is about Ambrose Bierce, who disappeared in Mexico during the revolution. In that novel Bierce says that being shot in front of a Mexican stone wall is much preferable to falling down the cellar stairs or dying in a hospital. You get the feeling with God's Middle Finger that Grant must have a similar deathwish: Grant pushes fate to the limit and, still alive by some strange quirk of chance, comes back and gives fate an even stronger jab. It this were live TV rather than a book Grant wrote you might be yelling "Go back!" at the TV or covering your eyes. This is a harrowing book, with an appallingly close sense of imminent death.
The book begins with Grant being hunted by half-drunken drug gang members: one of them told him that killing Grant would "please his trigger finger", and Grant is on their home turf--they know the area and he does not. They are having fun--sport--and Grant at this point is terrified. The episode resumes in the last chapter, and in between you see how Grant got into that predicament. This area of Mexico is bad, very bad indeed, but you find that there's really bad and really really bad, and then worse yet. There is no effective difference between the drug gangs and what passes for law enforcement. In one town the police chief and some of his men make Grant join them in snorting lines of cocaine, and as touchy as the situation becomes, it's a walk in the park compared to much of what Grant encounters. But Grant keeps returning, pushing deeper into the worst parts of the area, pushing the envelope.
Most of us, with exceptions such as Sebastian Junger who is quoted on the cover of the book "you can't decide whether to keep reading or go to Mexico to see for yourself", would happily stay a long way away. If we did feel brave and foolhardy enough to go near the fringes, the first time we had stone killers point their AK-47s at us, we'd leave in a great fornication of a hurry (as the book might phrase it) never to return. This is a wonderfully-written book, hair-raising to a degree that would put any Stephen King novels to shame, one that you won't forget.