Friday, May 3, 2013

Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea

I'm going to avoid a long speech about judging books by covers. I don't actually think the cover to Luis Alberto Urrea's hilarious and fascinating novel, Into the Beautiful North, is bad or off-putting. But I can see how, if you're a guy that doesn't just pick books up and read the first few pages to decide what books to read, you might not see all the qualities this book has to offer.

Put simply, I wish this book's sense of humor and rapid plot were more readily broadcast by the cover. Consider the setup: 19-year-old named Nayeli is inspired by the classic western film The Magnificent Seven to take back control of her home village in Mexico when she realizes there are no men in town to help fight off the recently arrived bandidos. 
Nayeli, the hero of this bright, funny quest, notes that all the able-bodied men from Tres Camerones, including her father, ran off years ago looking for money in the United States. They never returned so, inspired by her Aunt Irma, the first female mayor of Tres Camerones, Nayeli plans to head to el norte. Of course, she's not just going to round up seven men to come back and take on the roles of village defenders. She's going to track down her father.

Afraid this cover suggests this book
is not for you? You're wrong. 

Nayeli doesn't travel north on her own, of course, and it's her posse that provides this book with a unique energy (aided by Urrea's excellent dialogue). Joining Nayeli are Yolo—who looks for romance in a town where the only men of viable age tend to be missionaries—and Veronica—who dresses in black and watches goth music videos on the internet cafe. Finally, there's Tacho, who's always wanted to see el norte but, unlike other men, never left. Tacho operates a shoestore/Internet cafe named "The Fallen Hand" and has a unique place in the town. Urrea writes: "What was there for a man like him in Tres Camarones? Less than nothing." See, Tacho's a gay man in Mexico, one of the last men to remain; he's totally out of place and lonely. He and Nayeli share "a lust for big cities" but for Tacho the lust is a chance at being himself, not the overly postured macho-man that Mexico forces him to be. In fact, on the day he leaves with Nayeli, Tacho dyes his hair and puts on a shirt that reads QUEEN. Tacho ends up being one of the most emotionally profound, fascinating characters in the text as he suffers physical and emotional abuse just to find someplace to be himself.

When I've taught this novel to college students, I suggest that it's a quest story—one wherein the main character must be tested, must adapt, and must learn. Further, the characters—like Odysseus or other famous quest heroes—are protected from severe harm. They will face obstacles and suffer, yes, but ultimately we know that the individuals in this group will achieve something.

But the impressive thing about this novel is that despite the potential for the subject matter to get too serious (and it certainly is serious), Urrea has a great sense of humor. He knows that his characters need to laugh, and he makes us laugh without demeaning the characters or  situation. When Nayeli & co. meet the over-the-top, honorable warrior Atómiko in the garbage dumps near the Mexico-US border, the reader can't help but accept that this novel is, in many ways, a comedy with serious elements.

It's hard to do true justice to a novel such as this without gushing about the thousand things it does right, but believe me when I say that it rewards the reader with a variety of elements—great dialogue, crystalline character descriptions, and consistent plot movement. The novel moves fast and fascinates, and yet Urrea is so skilled at description that he can weave in a section towards the end of the novel wherein the characters cover hundreds of miles over the course of a few beautiful written pages. It satisfies those of us who cherish sentences and love to be swept up in a story that's epic and personal.

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