Travel Advisory: Stories of Mexico

Book Reviews

Travel Advisory: Stories of Mexico

by David Lida

Morrow, 272 pp., $24

David Lida moved to Mexico City because New York was no longer chaotic enough for his taste. For a man like him, happiness is a city where volcanic ash rains down on the streets every now and again, where frequent earthquakes and a slow-sinking landscape etch cracks in the walls of old buildings, and where police officers and politicians are often more criminal than the bumbling criminals themselves. Lida, fortunately, knows the city and the rest of the country far beyond this constant chaos. In Travel Advisory, he constructs a collection of short stories that make a worthwhile attempt at the painfully skewed perceptions between Mexicans and Americans in a land that, with its countless blue beaches and drunk-stained hotels, invites both delight and disgust at once.

While at times Lida seems to fall into the traps that his characters suffer -- focusing on the otherness of the Mexicans, for example, heightening their poverty and capacity for crime, the Americans he presents in his book do have every reason to fear the suspicious smiles of the natives who bring out their food at cafes and wash their rank clothes at hotels; they have seen the pictures of guerrillas in ski masks, they know the tales of hunger and desperation that lead once-gentle souls into crime. And Lida, with his cruel and precise imagination, doesn't let these anxious characters down. In "Bewitched," the first story of the collection, a travel writer from Philadelphia has her dignity compromised by an indigenous male witch brandishing a tree branch in hand. Another American woman, confident of her ability to handle the foreigners, is ultimately beaten and raped by supposed law enforcement officials in "A Beach Day." The willingness and ease with which Lida details the savage element of the land he loves, though, is more of a studied assessment than an easy indictment: Like the married couple in his story "Taxi," Lida himself was once robbed in a cab.

And it would be imprecise to argue that the author's work is unfair to the Mexicans. For every native who schemes against the purses and pants of their American counterparts, there is a gringo who simply doesn't know any better or, worse, is also out to destroy. The most potent story in the collection, "Acapulco Gold," follows the starving, orphaned Miguelito as he searches for food and shelter on the streets and dreams of feasting on a "cajita feliz" at McDonald's. His desperate hunger makes him the easy target of a horny American predator ("the gringo with the golden stubble") who has plenty of McDonald's change to spend on his nine-year-old conquest. That sex is used again and again as the weapon of war between Mexicans and Americans, men and women, poor and rich, is interesting and horrifying in itself. But placed in the political and social context that Lida adequately re-creates in his work, it makes for a complex set of relationships that reflect the real-life ties and knots that bind the two countries. They certainly tangle and turn, but that, in the end, is the breadth of the chaos that Lida has witnessed.

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