Mexico: Stories. By Josh Barkan. New York: Hogarth/Crown, 2017. 308 Pages. $17.00 (hc)
Reviewed by Jason Peck
The dozen stories in “Mexico” revolve a common theme. What happens when ordinary people are caught up in the gang violence that permeates Mexican society, and how are their innermost values challenged as a result?
Josh Barkan has probably never confronted the notorious drug kingpin El Chapo in a cooking match with his life on the line. He also has probably never worked as a plastic surgeon, never been the son of a famous architect with a chip on his shoulder, and – unless his biography seriously shorts his life history – it’s fair to say that he’s never been the beauty queen consort of a rising drug kingpin.
But damned if he doesn’t make you believe every word. Satisfied readers often tell of getting “lost in a good book,” of experiencing this sensation of immersion where the spell is cast and disbelief is thoroughly suspended. Pulling this off requires a lot of ability and even more confidence, but in reading his new short story collection “Mexico,” Barkan proves he has plenty of both.
The collection opens with a bang, the memorable story “The Chef and El Chapo.” The premise is pretty straightforward; the real-life cartel king takes over the high-end restaurant of an American-born chef, and challenges him to make a dish of no more than two ingredients. On display are the musings that Barkan uses to breathe believability into the chef as his life is in jeopardy. Over the course of the story, Barkan weaves in his character’s background; we learn about his life in America, his approach to his job, why he doesn’t wear chef hats and how he figures out what kind of food El Chapo will like just by looking at him: “It may sound crazy, but people like to eat what they are. If they have voracious appetites they can’t change, they like sweet foods. If they are tight with their money, they prefer to eat bread and mashed potatoes…We are all cannibals, eating ourselves, eating the secrets we have within.”
Do chefs actually tailor their dishes like this? Maybe not, but Barkan never makes the reader doubt. In his follow-up story, “The Book of Common Names,” he likewise fleshes out a teacher with clear background and worldview, in “The Plastic Surgeon” he nonchalantly describes the details of the business with the authority of an expert, and in “The Kidnapping” he believably describes the grisly moment where he loses a finger to his kidnappers.
I found that unexpected encounters made for the book’s best stories. By contrast, stories without this sense of surprise fell short of the high standard established earlier. The self-explanatory “The American Journalist” falls into this category, despite some inspired characters. Another story “The Sharpshooter” reads like first-rate Scorsese, but pits DEA agents against cartel heads in a way the audience will recognize.
Far better are stories like “Everything Else Is Fine,” where a closeted gay man finds himself questioning his identity after a run-in with an extortionist. The conflict is far more internal, and we can more easily empathize. The collection ends with perhaps the best example, “Escape From Mexico” where a good-natured twelve-year old finds himself a gang target over a stolen watch . The experiences he and his family endure as a result will stay with you far longer than the story’s 20-odd pages, just like the book itself will stay with you longer than its 300.
This is a memorable collection. Go. Read it now.
Jason Peck edits fiction for the After Happy Hour Review.