Review: Barkan’s anthology, Mexico, ranges from shocking to poignant

by G. Robert Frazier

There are a lot of “bad hombres” in Josh Barkan’s new book, Mexico. If this were the only book The Donald read in the White House, it would explain a lot about his push for a wall between our two countries.

But that’s not to say that the book isn’t a good read, because it is.

mexicoBarkan has assembled a mostly solid collection of a dozen short stories of Americans caught in the crosshairs of drug cartels, criminals, and bullies. His protagonists – ranging from chefs to artists to teachers and a half dozen other professions — endure kidnappings, beatings, shootings, and intimidation while simply trying to go about their daily lives.

That alone sounds enticing enough to read on, but Barkan takes each storyline further by delving into the minds of his characters and exploring the inner turmoil, moral, and emotional fallout of their experiences. The crimes his characters are subjected to are often brash and brutal, raising the question why they would risk their personal safety to go on working and living in Mexico City. But in each case the characters surprise us with their courage, resilience, and perseverance to overcome their plight and find the beauty in their surroundings.

The stories are at times shocking and poignant, presenting an emotional roller coaster for readers along for the ride.

“The Chef and El Chapo,” which opens the book, is by far the best as the notorious drug lord El Chapo Guzman pays an unexpected visit to a local restaurant and orders a one of a kind meal only our chef can deliver. The tension is palpable and the dish prepared by our chef is as shocking as the criminal mastermind himself. “The American Journalist” and “The Prison Breakout” provide memorable dilemmas and choices for the protagonists.

Unfortunately, many of the stories seem too repetitive to make this a stellar collection overall. Additionally, Barkan recounts most of the stories from the first person POV of the main character where a more varied approach would be welcome. Lastly, we never get to know any of the “bad hombres” or their motivations, making the stories a bit one dimensional and biased. In that respect, everything seems very black and white—good versus bad—without the complexities of a sympathetic villain or villains to provide much-needed depth to the stories.

But overall, Barkan’s skill as a storyteller and the adventures themselves are worth the read.

I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.

Additional reading: Josh Barkan on three elements your short story is missing

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