would go down [to Mexico] for the summers, Jim Morrison was everywhere, Steve McQueen was everywhere.” Urrea hopes the American pop culture that infuses the imaginations of his Mexican characters “might be kind of startling to American readers. We always come to stories with cultural assumptions that are in many ways caricatures.”
A prolific author of novels, narrative nonfiction, and poetry, Urrea is perhaps most widely known for The Devil’s Highway, an account of the May 2001 border crossing in the Arizona desert by 26 Mexican men, only 12 of whom survived. The book was considered by many critics to be one of the most vivid accounts of a surreal sun-baked borderland in which Mexican federales, U.S. Border Patrol agents, American vigilantes, human smugglers, and natural forces all collide to produce an unusual species of human misery. The son of a Mexican father and an American mother, Urrea grew up speaking perfect English and perfect Spanish, with no crossover “Spanglish” allowed. As an adult, his choice of material has naturally gravitated to the border, where he can fuse the two cultures in which he was raised.
Into the Beautiful North, with its rapid-fire, pulpnovel pacing, is quite a departure for Urrea. “It’s a comedic book,” he said. “I had fun writing it. As a writer, sometimes, you don’t want to torture yourself, and just give pleasure.” For instance, take this bit of phone dialogue between Nayeli and La Osa (The Bear), her bowling-champion, feminist mayor aunt, who raised her.
“You are there to collect Mexicans,” Irma reminded her. “Don’t fall in love with that missionary!” “I won’t.” “And don’t screw him, either. If you give him the milk for free, why would he buy the cow?” “¡Tía!” “Don’t bring me any damned American surfers. And don’t bring me any American babies. Bring me Mexicans.”
It would be wrong to suggest that the book is merely lighthearted, though. If there are laughs, they are part of the comedy of survival. Urrea said that he has already fielded several requests to turn the book into a trilogy, with some readers suggesting the second book should describe what happens when the men return to Tres Camarones and battle the narcos. As for the third, another reader suggested, “Tacho has a wedding.” It’s not clear whether Urrea will follow these suggestions. For inspiration, he tends to draw on people he knows from real life. For instance, El Brujo, a teetotaling metalhead Mexican immigrant who appears in the book, is drawn from a busboy at a restaurant that Urrea and his wife frequent.