Stephen King called it "one hell of a novel." John Grisham praised its page-turning pedigree. And Oprah wasted no time adding it to her eponymous Book Club.
In other words, I had three very good reasons not to bother with American Dirt, a new novel by New York author, Jeanine Cummins.
Yet the sheer volume of unrestrained praise it received ahead of its release - much of it coming from bestselling authors - not to mention reports of a seven-figure advance and a swiftly signed movie deal, all conspired to pique my interest. Here was a book that seemed to possess all the ingredients of a bona fide 'publishing event'.
But does it possess all the ingredients of a good novel? Well... American Dirt opens in Acapulco, the beachside enclave that, in 2018, became the Murder Capital of Mexico. More specifically, it opens in a shower stall, with a mother curled around her eight-year-old son, as three thugs from the local cartel shoot up a children's birthday party on the patio outside the bathroom window.
Gone are Elvis and his cliff-diving comrades. In their place we find warring gangs, 16 perforated corpses, and a mother and her son on the run from The Owl, Javier Crespo Fuentes. Lydia and Luca barely have time to register the horror they've just witnessed before they're walking away from an apologetic cop ("I know how it must look, every murder going unsolved, but there are people who still care... Please know I will try") and into an unimaginable future. At that point, only minutes after her husband, a local reporter, and 15 of her family members were executed within earshot, Lydia is sure of only two things: that they can't take Sebastian's orange Volkswagen Beetle and that they must travel el norte, to America. Just how they'll manage to do that with The Owl's henchmen looking for them is what keeps this convenient plot moving over 400 odd pages.
How convenient, you ask? Well, it turns out that Luca, the boy who didn't utter a word until he was four years old, can recall otherwise useless geographical facts on command and boasts an "intrinsic sense of his position on the globe, like a human GPS". Handy powers in a boy about to set off on a dangerous journey across Mexico's vast interior with his shell-shocked mum.
Speaking of mum, there's that blindingly obvious Sebastian-Lydia-Javier 'love' triangle. On one side we find Sebastian, Lydia's slain husband, an idealistic reporter who, in the weeks before his death was writing an exposé on the new kingpin in town. Meanwhile, Lydia, the prototypical bookseller, pursues a friendship-a kind of non-consummated love affair, really-with a mysterious older customer. Could it be? You bet. Same guy. How Lydia did not know who Javier was defies comprehension.
But blindingly obvious plot points are routinely forgiven by readers of mysteries, thrillers and crime novels, so what's the problem here? The problem is that American Dirt doesn't feel like a run-of-the-mill thriller. It feels like an important book with good intentions, one which concerns itself with a very serious subject, in a curiously apolitical manner.
There's no finger-pointing, no moralising about the conditions that lead to the mass migrations we're seeing not just from Mexico, but in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere. Cummins just doesn't get in to it. We meet people risking their lives to ride La Bestia to a better future, but their reasons for doing so are given relatively short shrift. Instead, we're treated to all the gory details of Mexico's seemingly unstoppable slide towards failed state status. There are rapes and robberies aplenty, threats around every corner, crooked cops and sicko sicarios, decapitations and executions, and all manner of other horrors. All of that would be fine, of course, were this not such an obviously worthy book.
In her afterword, Cummins talks about having a "dog in this fight" owing to the fact that her husband was, until recently, an undocumented migrant. She also admits to having had reservations about writing the book. "I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it," she writes. "But then I thought, if you're a person who has the capacity to be a bridge, why not be a bridge? So I began." The thing is, Cummins' husband was an undocumented Irish national running a successful business, not a bellhop from Belize. And plenty of Mexicans have written this book, they just didn't get seven-figure advances and a heap of unjustified press for their troubles.
I don't doubt that Cummins genuinely wanted to change the conversation around migration currently taking place in the United States, but the net effect of her predictable, page-turning prose and her authorley confessions have only served to sensationalise an important subject, and to expose her to accusations of cultural appropriation and the peddling of 'trauma porn.' Probably not what Cummins had hoped for a book that took her seven years to write.
- T.J. Collins is a Sydney writer, essayist and critic. American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins, is published by Hachette.