I was not planning on reading Mexico: Stories by Josh Barkan this soon. Yet, Mexico being a hot topic in the US, I could not resist the temptation! 😉 Before I started reading this short story collection, I read some other reviews on the book which were mostly negative because those readers felt this book depicts Mexico as a land of violence than anything else. Knowing that stories of violence are not entirely baseless, I went ahead keeping an open mind. However, after having read the first ten short stories of the book, I realized why Josh Barkan is being criticized. In the first ten short stories, there are drug kingpins and thugs who would wrong innocent people – who have nothing to do with narcos most of the time. Bad things will happen to these innocent people – sometimes they will get killed – and everyone including the police will go on about their business as if nothing happened. So after reading the first few stories, one might feel as if Mexico is a country where danger lurks around in every alley and people have to do unimaginable things to survive if the reader even for a moment forgets that these stories are fictional!
Having said that I must admit that I found Barkan’s writing to have elements of humor, however gruesome his stories are. Also, one of the last short stories in the collection – The Prison Breakout – was a home run for me! Sure, there is violence in this short story as well, but it also highlights acts of humanity poignantly.
The Prison Breakout reminded me of Andrea Levy’s short story – Loose Change. Both short stories show us how doing the right thing may always not be so easy, even if you are a good person. In The Prison Breakout, the narrator is an American writer living in Mexico City. He works for the US government as a background checker of Mexican death row inmates in the US. If he finds mitigating factors that led those inmates to commit heinous acts, they just might just escape their death sentence. His expertise is why one of his friends asks the narrator to investigate the case of Jesus Martinez. Martinez is a deaf man who is in his early thirties. He has been locked up for life because a judge found him guilty of a crime he did not commit. During a bank robbery, an elderly woman had got killed, and apparently, the two perpetrators had communicated using sign language. Although Martinez had been at his own birthday party thrown for him by his relatives and friends, and despite the fact that perpetrators were short unlike Martinez who is tall according to the witnesses at the bank, the police had arrested Martinez because he is deaf, and the judge who has “a particularly bad reputation for sending innocent people to prison” had sentenced him. After five interviews with Martinez and having talked to the bank robbery witnesses and Martinez’s relatives and friends, it is clear to the narrator there is no way that Martinez could have been part of this crime he is accused of. When Martinez asks the narrator to lip read and pleads him to help him escape from the prison, what will the narrator do? Although Martinez is innocent if authorities find out he helped Martinez escape, that will be his ticket to jail for life.
I believe people are inherently good. Most of us would stand up for what we believe is right, volunteer, donate to our chosen charities etc. But not most of us would help an innocent man escape from jail, or open our doors to complete strangers who come to us in their hour of need without a moment of hesitation, even though we know it is the right thing do. Just because one decides to not to get involved in these situations, I do not believe it will make him/ her evil, for those are tough scenarios. But maybe this also means most of us are not as good as we want to believe?
If Josh Barkan’s collection had included more thought provoking stories like The Prison Breakout, I think I would have preferred it more. However, Josh Barkan is young, and Mexico: Stories is only his third collection. He has a long way to go, and I am looking forward to reading his future work because I feel like he is a writer with potential.
[Note: I received an Early Reviewers copy of Mexico: Stories via LibraryThing]