12 October 2014

Travel Writing on the Edge

God’s Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre, by Richard Grant
-- review by Nowick Gray

nightlifeThis book was my introduction into the work of the travel writer Richard Grant, a Briton who ventures out of the comfort zone of ordinary humanity into such death-defying circumstances as “the lawless heart of the Sierra Madre” and (in his other book I started simultaneously) Crazy River: Exploration and Folly in East Africa. Grant joins the first rank of travel writers I have encountered, including Bruce Chatwin, Peter Matthiessen, and Pico Ayer, with Henry Miller joining from the classic side, where you would almost include Hemingway, and Jack London. Hunter S. Thompson (and William S. Burroughs) also figure prominently in Grant’s modus operandi, with their hard-living habits as "gonzo journalists" among guys determined to get as wasted as possible on every substance available.

barsThese real-life tales of harrowing adventure fall into the category of men’s (non)fiction, following the observed trend that men prefer literature that is true to life, in contrast to women’s fiction that leans toward the imagined romance. I might as well add Elizabeth Gilbert to this cabal, however, for her charming treatment of travels in Italy, India and Bali (Eat, Pray, Love), and Southeast Asia while exploring the theme of matrimony in the sequel, Commitment.

machismoAs it happens, the central theme of Grant’s foray into the heart of darkness in Mexico turns on machismo and its dominant force in the culture. Near the end, before his actual harrowing scrape with would-be murderers, Grant nails the origin of Mexican machismo in its history beginning with the conquistadors (and further, the Arab attitudes about women that transferred through the seven hundred years of Moorish rule of Spain), with a nod to the patriarchal indigenous customs the invaders overtook.

Comparing these adrenaline-fueled chronicles with my own tamer touristic exploits recounted in this blog, I am struck by some fundamental differences in approach. Most notable is the means of penetrating the culture on a personal level. Grant applies the time-tested method of drinking, along with whatever else, with the locals. If personal inclinations toward health and sanity steer me away from bars and debauchery, then I am a mere suburban voyeur, confined to my neuroses about safety, convenience, cost and planned itinerary.

wine bottlesGrant and his swashbuckling kin ride bareback, so to speak, into the wilds, throwing caution to the wind as they consort with society’s low life, criminals, misfits, prostitutes, drug addicts, drunkards, crazies, hit-men and, along the way, respectable people who live among murder and corruption, violence and abuse, and somehow, sometimes, find ways to survive. I don’t like hangovers, or throwing money away in bars; sleeping outside exposed to cold, mosquitoes, scorpions, snakes or thieves; sketchy roads leading nowhere, in vehicles that break down; food poisoning, untreated water.

Last night after finishing this book I dreamed I was back in my old mountain community, homeless and hungry, scrounging a baggie of nuts from the post office shelf and wondering where my next healthy meal of vegetables would come from.  Woke up, and today is Thanksgiving. Grateful, comfortable, at home.

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