A recent graduate ditches Buffalo, New York, for a monthslong stay in a Mexican college town in this novel.
William James dreads the thought of a workaday life as a teacher, so at age 23 he accepts an invitation from his friend Salvatore Juarez and heads down to Mexico. The plan is to party, fall in love, enjoy the warm weather, and escape Buffalo. But, as Will wryly notes, “No one truly leaves Buffalo.” In the tropical town of Lila, he moves into a scorpion-infested house and immerses himself in the local expatriate scene, which largely comprises students, volcanologists, and an inordinate number of Germans. His life becomes one of nightly parties, awful bars, sketchy street festivals, and massive amounts of alcohol. Will fights through the horrors of his Roman Catholic upbringing to overcome shame and self-doubt, helped by Luz Oscura, a head-turning college student who becomes his girlfriend. With funds running low, Will gets inconsistent work teaching English but still manages to travel, visiting quaint Guanajuato and pricey Puerto Vallarta. Luz, unfazed by his volatile lifestyle and moments of irrationality, plays just enough games to keep the boorish yet insecure Will hot on her trail. Will wants to see Mexico from the inside, and he largely succeeds in experiencing its wonders, though he remains hampered by significant gringo bashing. As he plots a final trip around the country with Luz, he feels his future is more up in the air than ever. LaPoma (Developing Minds, 2015, etc.) obviously knows Mexico well, framing the nation not by its problems but by the hearts of its people. Will is hardly perfect, but his job teaching English to children shows him at his best and most dedicated while also giving insights into the economic issues that plague the country. The numerous party scenes tend to bog down in detail, but the descriptions of Mexican locales are as vibrant, colorful, and illuminating as the novel’s unique characters (“There were great open fields of tall grass with fires burning in the distance, whose flames leapt off the world like brilliant localized solar flares”). The author can write about serious things with humor, and Will’s tale shows an understanding of Mexico that goes beyond the ordinary.
A bit off-kilter as a coming-of-age story, but it succeeds as an account of an American abroad trying to escape—and see beyond—the tourist traps.