"You know what? The bastard blows me out of the water. This guy writes Maine like Ardai writes New York. If you're not reading him, you don't know what you're missing." --Chris F. Holm, author of The Big Reap, The Wrong Goodbye and Dead Harvest.

"Bagley's got the poet's eye, but that doesn't mean everything is prettier in his work. It means the ugly stuff is more vivid. More intense. Like a sudden switch from analog to HD. And that's a trait to very much admire in his work." --Anthony Neil Smith, author of Hogdoggin', Yellow Medicine, The Drummer and Psychosomatic.




Monday, February 9, 2009

God's Middle Finger


Against the advice of his friends and people who know the area, British writer Richard Grant takes it into his head to travel alone through the Sierra Madre and chronicle the experience. The result is God's Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre (The Free Press, 2008), a book that combines ethnography and history with the Tim Cahill school of gonzo travel writing. In other words, it's a fun, compelling read full of narrow escapes and real-life characters who would feel right at home in a Charles Portis novel.

Grant drives into a world that hasn't changed much since the days of B. Traven's Treasure of the Sierra Madre. If anything, it's become more dangerous for a gringo on his own: lions and bears roam the high country, Tarahumara groups struggle against logging industry thugs for land rights, narcotraficantes rule the mountains, bandits haunt the roads, corrupt cops and trigger-happy army units enforce justice for the highest bidder. Grant gets a first-hand education in the region's problems and talks with reticent locals, starry-eyed American aid workers, pot growers, expatriates, farmers, widows and crooks. He eats their food, drinks their beer, smokes their dope, snorts their coke and listens to their stories.

In a place where arguments are resolved with AK-47s, Grant does his best to ask questions without giving offence, but doesn't always pull it off. In fact, some of the book's best moments come when he is afraid for his life. That's not to say there aren't any good people in these pages. There are quite a few, without whom Grant would not have gotten more than a couple of days into his journey.

God's Middle Finger is a hell of a trip. Grant's prose hits like a shot of lechuguilla. He has delivered a book that makes readers long to travel the Sierra Madre themselves while feeling fortunate to be safe at home. It also takes a lot of our arrogant, comfortable assumptions about life in Mexico, turns them upside down and slaps the shit out of them. As Grant writes near the end: "...here I was getting my kicks and curing my ennui in a place full of poverty and suffering, environmental and cultural destruction, widows and orphans from a slow-motion massacre. I tried to persuade myself that I was going to write something that would make a difference and help these people, but my capacity for self-delusion refused to stretch in that direction."

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