I read Lionel Shriver’s piece in the US Spectator this morning and while I thought it was smart and well informed – Shriver had her own run in with the purity police, it did not get right to the point of the novel’s piling on, mostly by writers of colour, particularly the Latin community who call themselves, Latinx.
Jeanine Cummins did put herself through an extraordinarily strenuous period of research, and indeed, one does leave the book better informed regarding the migrant crisis and the cartel crisis in Mexico and beyond. Latin writers say that only they should be allowed to write about their culture, and Cummins publisher Tinder Press crawled in a release, begging forgiveness, promising to publish more Latin lit, and then cancelled her publicity tour. Some booksellers are refusing to carry it, making it unlikely that she will earn out her $1,000,000 advance.
Advances like that count on hot button issues to push the book to the forefront, but in today’s purity culture, the wrong kind of hot button brings out the shrews and hysterics. Shriver did a good job challenging the “evil” of appropriation, but she let it go before the real reason of the fury was revealed.
It starts with the $1,000,000 advance. These are relatively few and mostly given to proven commercial bestsellers like Patricia Cornwall, Harlan Coben, and other current darlings of the market. Latin writers do not get million dollar advances. Their stories are increasingly published and respected, but aside from Marquez, there have been few breakouts.
Still that’s not it, or all of it. Cummins is unflinching in her description of Mexico’s pervasive narco culture. She shows how it pollutes every possible transaction, every relationship, and is a punishing draw on the economy, keeping the lower 50% mired in poverty, crime, broken families, illness, and early death. Her main protagonist is an educated, middle class Mexican wife and mother with a bookstore. Readers – who are mostly educated and middle class – can relate to her, feel her plight as she attempts to flee a death sentence by a narco boss, who has murdered her entire family. As she travels to the north, to America, she gathers around herself misfit migrants, many of them children, and through their eyes we see modern Mexico, modern Honduras, modern life in south and Central America, and it is not pretty. American Dirt is not showing tragic poetry redeemed by a rich and deep culture. It’s a disaster, a catastrophe, and every single character longs for ‘El Norte’. Every encounter she has with bankers and housewives who help her, have their own tragic stories of the death of one or more of their families by the cartels. All of them long for America.
Cummins indicts the South in this book. She demonstrates, given the desperatIon of the characters she creates, what the failures of Communism, Socialism, Catholicism, and the tyranny of old Spanish families have wrought on the people of the South. That’s her real crime. She is telling the truth.
And the literary community, socialist and America hating, cannot stand it.