On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30)
Paul Theroux’s 51st book grew out of a one-on-one encounter at the U.S.-Mexican border, said Andrew Graybill in The Wall Street Journal. The veteran novelist and travel writer was interviewing deportees at an Arizona shelter a couple of years ago when he encountered a woman who wept as she shared her story. Hoping to land menial hotel employment in the U.S., Maria had left behind three young children in Oaxaca, but on the way had been arrested, abused, and scheduled for deportation. Theroux’s memory of Maria praying stalked him, he says, “like an apparition”—until he resolved to take a deep dive into her home country, traveling by car, to find out why so many like her risked all to cross the border. This “fierce and poignant” book is the result.
“Readers who have followed Theroux through the decades will find here an old friend,” said Sara Wheeler in LiteraryReview.co.uk. As he travels from violence-plagued border towns to Mexico’s southern tip, Theroux “deploys his usual potent blend of specificity and accumulation” while letting the people he encounters tell their stories. He attends a first communion in San Diego de la Unión, surveys pyramids in Monte Albán, teaches a 10-day writing course in Mexico City, and settles in for a few weeks in Oaxaca. There are real risks for a 77-year-old making this journey alone. In Mexico, police shakedowns are routine (Theroux is targeted more than once), and in many places, murder, corruption, and poverty are endemic.
Mexico has been “so long misunderstood, mischaracterized, disregarded,” said Yvette Benavides in the Houston Chronicle. But a book like this can help erase Americans’ fears. “Theroux shows again and again through the stories of the people he meets that what they really want is to do honest work, make a little money, and go back home.” By approaching each stranger with curiosity, compassion, and open ears, he “proves again and again the old adage ‘Hablando nos entendemos’—by talking we understand each other.” ■