Pasatiempo - - In Other Words -

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.

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