Book Review: American Dirt

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The iconic and immensely gifted Stephen King recently received the full internet onslaught of oh-so-politically-correct-woke-virtue-signaling outrage by saying, “I would never consider diversity in matters of art. Only quality.” He said it, I believe, in relationship to the Academy Awards, but it came right in the wake of his being blasted for praising the novel, American Dirt, with a jacket blurb that opened with, “A perfect balancing act with terror on one side and love on the other.”

With the exception of a single word, I agree wholeheartedly with both of Mr. King’s statements. Diversity has no place in matters of art. It should only be a factor in matters of opportunity, not in judgement of the final product. I also agree with his praise of American Dirt, with the exception of the word “perfect.” The novel is a great page-turner, vivid, felicitous in its writing, and as compelling as potato chips. It will have you sitting up way past your bedtime, but I do not think it perfect. I’ll come back to that.

I was mystified by the vitriol heaped on American Dirt, on its author, Jeanine Cummins, on Flatiron Books for publishing it, on Stephen King (and many others) for praising it, and on various bookstores for presuming to sell it. Uh, isn’t that precisely what bookstores are intended to do? Ms. Cummins’ book tour had to be canceled out of concern for her and for the proposed stores and venues where that tour was to have been held. If you see a parallel between the woke virtue-signalers’ threats of 2020 and the Nazi book burnings of 1933, congratulations; you know your history.

In an attempt to understand what was going on, I read a lot of the negative reviews. Most of these consisted of references back to a review by Myriam Gurba that was posted on the website, The Tropics of Meta, under the title, Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck, a reference apparently to a laudatory jacket blurb by Don Winslow, who compared American Dirt to The Grapes of Wrath, so let’s start with Ms. Gurba.

If a work of art should be judged solely on its merits, it should be condemned solely for its lack of merits. All artistic judgment is subjective, but criticism, especially negative criticism, should be, must be, completely objective. If you’re going to condemn books because their authors were Jewish (Stefan Zweig, Franz Kafka, Max Brod) or because you dislike their political beliefs (Berthold Brecht, Thomas Mann, Erich Maria Remarque), you’ve pretty much staked out your territory and earned your brown shirt. And in 2020, if you’re going condemn a book because its author is not a member of a minority, or not a member of the right minority, you’ve also staked out your territory.

Consider Ms. Gurba’s title, Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck. “Pendeja” is the feminine of a Spanish pejorative meaning, according to Cassell’s and multiple online sources, either: the shorthairs over the groin area; asshole; idiot; coward; or, as Ms. Gurba explains it, bitch. What place does such a gratuitous ad hominem insult have in any kind of review of anything? I happen to agree American Dirt is not in the same league as The Grapes of Wrath, but with that as a title, who in their right mind would take such a review seriously? Why would anyone bother to read it? All I could think of was the golden-tongued oratory used by some of the less intelligent oh-so-politically-correct-woke-virtue-signaling-far-left-progressives, those whose default reaction to anyone who disagrees with them is to scream, “You’re a Nazi!” You’re a Fascist!” “You’re a racist!” If that’s the best they can do in the way of debate, why waste your time?

Early on in her review, Ms. Gurba states that she had to “choke down” [the book] by “zealously hate-reading” [it]. I’m not precisely clear as to what “hate-reading” is, but that kind of adolescent lack of objectivity should earn an “F” in any decent junior-high American Lit class. Coming from someone who is putatively a high school teacher, it serves as a dramatic example of just why America’s schools are failing our children.

Ms. Gurba objects to American Dirt because she claims Ms. Cummins has indulged in cultural appropriation. “Cultural appropriation” is one of those woke-progressive phrases that negates the very essence of what an artist—in particular a writer or an actor—is supposed, by definition, to do, which is to project himself into another person’s life and thought and experience, and to recreate those on stage or screen or paper through the glorious, God-given mediums of human empathy, imagination, understanding, and compassion. Should Shakespeare not have created Othello and Shylock? Should Alan Paton not have breathed life into Stephen Kumalo? Should James Baldwin not have brought David and Giovanni to life? I am very grateful to Ms. Cummins for having given us Lydia and her son Luca.

In between gratuitous swipes at America and Donald Trump as well as personal attacks on author Jeanine Cummins for a variety of things that have nothing to do with the quality of the book (including Ms. Cummins’ advance) Ms. Gurba claims Ms. Cummins has stolen from other writers: “In the great American tradition of […] appropriating genius works by people of color…and slapping mayonesa on them to make them palatable…” Ms. Gurba even references the “P” word without quite working up the courage to actually spell out plagiarism. None of this is worthy of being addressed, but there are two criticisms I do want to take on.

Ms. Gurba writes: “Lydia experiences shock after shock when confronted with the realities of México, realities that would not shock a Mexican…It shocks Lydia to learn that the mysterious and wealthy patron who frequents her bookstore flanked by “[thuggish]” bodyguards is the capo of the local drug cartel! It shocks Lydia to learn that some central Americans migrate to the United States by foot! It shocks Lydia to learn that men rape female migrants en route to the United States!”

This is puerile and fundamentally dishonest. Lydia comes from a modestly well-to-do, well-educated middleclass family and she owns a bookstore. She knows full well the ugly and violent realities of modern Mexican life, but it is one thing to know those realities, and it is something altogether different, something shocking, to have those realities intrude into the safety of one’s life.

I too come from a modestly well-to-do, well-educated middleclass family, and I was well aware sometimes angry, disaffected and alienated young men from poor and violent neighborhoods would murder people, perhaps for money, perhaps to avenge a perceived slight, perhaps just for fun. But even knowing this intellectually, I was shocked to find two young men trying to stab me on a bus in Manhattan back in the turbulent and dangerous seventies. Such things didn’t happen to people like me.

I was well aware that any high school or college-age girl moronic enough to walk alone in a poorly lit and untraveled area of a major city famous for its crime would be sure to encounter trouble of the most unpleasant sort. But even knowing this from a litany of news accounts, I was shocked to find myself in the position of having to drive off four teenaged boys who were attempting to sexually molest an exceptionally stupid college girl on a dark and empty street in Boston back in the eighties. Such things didn’t happen to people like me. Doubtless the girl thought such things didn’t happen to people like her.

I was well aware that Mexican law enforcement is famous for its corruption and violence, from top to bottom, but even knowing this cerebrally I was shocked to find myself staring down the barrels of two M-16s and a Walther PP pointed at me in deadly earnest by Chihuahua state police in an isolated field outside of Cuauhtémoc, back in the early 2000s. Such things didn’t happen to people like me.

I could go on and give you many more examples—I’ve had more than my fair share of the unexpected violence we must all expect in the course of a life—but I think you get the picture. If you’ve never been in a street fight, or had someone try to stab you, or been shot at, or been shot, it’s hard to believe it when it happens; it’s shocking, because things like that don’t happen to people from nice, modestly well-to-do, well-educated, middleclass families. Lydia certainly never expected such things to happen to her and to say she should have misses one of the points of the book.

Ms. Gurba also accuses Ms. Cummins of using “overly-ripe Mexican stereotypes,” and specifically references the “Latin lover,” the morally bankrupt and murderous head of a violent, brutal cartel, which brings me to my primary objection to American Dirt. I’m sorry, but the “Latin lover” referred to ain’t no stereotype of anything; in fact, he is the weakest and unbelievable link in an otherwise excellent book.

In spite of having spent a good deal of time in some of Mexico’s smaller cities (Tijuana, Rosarito, Ensenada, Hermosillo, Ciudad Obregon, Los Mochis) and considerably more time in remote mountainous regions of Sonora and Chihuahua, all places where drug cartels operate with impunity, I have never (knowingly) met the head of any drug cartel, but I had a very hard time buying Ms. Cummins’ cartel boss, La Lechuza, “the owl.” Ms. Cummins expects us to believe that a man who can casually order the murder of an entire family, who can have rivals tortured to death and their dismembered body parts strewn around for dramatic effect, who makes his living selling the drugs that cause countless deaths and even more suffering, that that man also loves to read books, has the sensitivity to appreciate the magic-realism of Gabriel García Márquez’s tale of unrequited love (Love in the Time of Cholera), and even writes his own poetry. And then Ms. Gurba expects us to believe that’s a stereotype?

Please. Buying into La Lechuza is like imagining Hannibal Lector sitting in his kitchen and reciting, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate…” while listening to the shrieks of agony of his next meal boiling on the stove. Hardly believable. Hardly a stereotype. But La Lechuza was, for me, the only weakness in an otherwise excellent and beautifully written book. And when I say beautifully written, I mean precisely the felicitous and evocative use of language that should be part and parcel of any work of literature, and part and parcel of any critique of a work of literature, yet conspicuously one of the parts Ms. Gurba doesn’t even address:

Ms. Cummins, writing of Lydia: “When she thinks of this, she feels as tatty as a scrap of lace, defined not so much by what she’s made of, but more by the shapes of what’s missing.” 

That’s good writing, and American Dirt is good reading, balanced between terror and love.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: American Dirt”

  1. I just finished reading this book and I agree it is a well written, engaging and thought provoking book. No doubt a similar tale could be written about desperate migrants all over the world trying to find safety, whether on a train, crossing a desert or in a leaky overloaded boat in the Mediterranean. This is a story of human survival so I do not see why an author of any nationality, race, religion, etc. should be excluded from writing such a story. As well, this is presented as a work of fiction – it does not claim to be a documentary. If the critics of this book read the Author’s Note at the end of the book they should see that she did research as much as possible and did have some concerns about whether or not she had any business in writing about migrants in Mexico. When she asked about this she received encouragement to go ahead. Maybe without her notes those negative critics would not have even thought about “cultural appropriation”.

    I do find the the character, Javier, plausible as I do feel even the most despicable individuals are complex and may have a “softer” side. This in no way excuses their actions. Also an individual may end up on a path not originally intended and then be trapped in it. But again this is no excuse.

    A little light flashed on for me when you describe the girls on a dangerous city street at night as “moronic” and “stupid” because, although I do not know the details of these incidents, sometimes they (or we) may end up there due to unforeseen circumstances (the bus or ride never came, car broke down, etc.) and it is a sad commentary on society that a woman out at night should immediately be considered “fair game” for harassment or worse. I have experienced such discomfort or fear and I am sure most women have.

    A good way to stay sane in this crazy world is through humour so if you trust my sense of humour after sending you to the Bulwar-Lytton site perhaps you will enjoy my book recommendation of “Red Green’s Beginners Guide to Women”. (You can find it on the Red Green website or Amazon.) I am sure you and Darleen and many of your readers would enjoy it.

    Thanks again for providing this site for discussion and insight and alerting us to interesting books and topics.

    1. You are absolutely correct: anyone, male or female, should be able to walk safely anywhere at any time. Unfortunately, that has never been the case in any society since the world began. Even in late-Victorian/Edwardian England, which was considered to be the safest nation on earth, ever, certain areas of London were just off-limits. Violent crime of all categories has been declining steadily in America since about 1990 and you are far safer on the streets today than you would have been in, say, the early seventies when I moved to New York. (I had some close calls, but I learned quickly.) But even with that in mind, only a fool would venture into certain areas of most major cities.
      If Javier worked for you, I’m delighted. I suspect I am a trifle more cynical.
      I will investigate “Red Green’s Beginners Guide to Women.” As a male, I have always qualified, still qualify now, and will always qualify as a rank beginner, third class. I can use all the help I can get.


  2. Since I have not yet read the book, I can’t really comment to that. So I simply have a question.

    You see, my 50th birthday was yesterday and I spent the afternoon indulging in 1980’s tv. Namely, I binge watched Magnum PI (sorry!). While watching I realized what I really wanted for my birthday was a 357 Magnum and I’d name it Tommy, because I’m clever like that. But since I’m not a large person at all, I was afraid it would be like the 9mm Glock I have currently and too heavy for me.

    So I thought I’d ask you what you would recommend for a person like. I know a revolver would be the best but I have no idea what kind. Could you help me out?

    1. This is a question that requires more than a facile reply. I will give you an answer in the form of a blog.

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