Don't say anything negative when I ask this question: Into the Beautiful North is one of those novels a reader will not put aside until its conclusion, ¿No?
But then the reader will ask if Urrea's current novel is worthy of the praise heaped upon the author's notably wonderful novel, The Hummingbird's Daughter?
No. It's not.
On the other hand, Hummingbird's Daughter is an impossible work to follow; that is one superb novel. Whatever you are reading next, stop that. Go to your library or bookseller and take delivery of The Hummingbird's Daughter. Read it. You're welcome de adelantado.
Into the Beautiful North, is not Hummingbird's Daughter. How could it be? A buddy novel, Urrea wisely sets out not to build on Hummingbird but to do something completely different. And quite well, ese, if you get what I mean, y si no, pues, no. But Into the Beautiful North is one of those funny pieces that comes along only every once in a while, so, finishing the dramatic Hummingbird, read this next one; you owe it to yourself.
Would any film fanatic compare "The Wizard of Oz", let's say, to "El Norte," or, maybe "Spanglish"? As an intellectual romp, one might. Howzabout comparing Into the Beautiful North to "The Magnificent Seven?" Now there's the delightful parallel; not mine, but Urrea's. His crew of colorful characters venture out from backwater Sinaloa to the mercilless frontera of San Diego / Tijuana, perhaps the two worst cities in the world, on a "mission from God" like los hermanos azul.
How refreshing to discover a border crossing story that is a comedy. Not that Into the Beautiful North, is not a deadly serious border crossing story; it is. But the crossing ain't the tale, it's the cultural gaps that define the limits of these characters' experience, and infuse the plot with a sense of dread that, thankfully, Urrea holds in abeyance.
On their first crossing, they get caught. Not in a calamitous tragedy for the three teenage girls, but for their friend, Tacho, a gay vato who's assumed the role of protector and adult. Tacho gets an asskicking by assholes from the ICE. La migra, the regular tipos, are just regular good people doing a job, but these newly appointed jerks have no sense of honor. But then, Urrea sets up the beating long in advance of the mid-novel crossing.
Tacho has a lot of smarts that, owing to Mexico's extreme poverty, never had the benefit of a classroom. He's not ashamed of his sexuality, nor do his fellow villagers shun him for being himself. Outsiders, like the corrupt cops who come through selling mota to tourist surfers, could make life a misery. Tacho laughs at their hatred by taking the stereotypically gay limp-wristed posture as the name of his bar, La Mano Caida. As Tacho and the three luscious teenage girls are being processed back to TJ at the San Ysidro lock-up, he calls out the name of his business. The mensos from ICE hear Tacho wrong; they hear a terrorist organization, "Al Kaeda." It's a funny phonetic trick but also a satiric gut punch. As a literary device, it strikes me as a contrivance. The one weak element in an otherwise brilliant novel. I wonder if Urrea came up with the joke first, then forced the plot to arrive at that moment?
Ni modo. Pretend you've never read Urrea's earlier work and take Into the Beautiful North for itself. You'll laugh, breathe sighs of relief, nod your head knowingly at the deadly serious facts that rest just beneath the surface of this wonderfully comedic satire of manners, love, lust, and immigration.
Memorial Day, 2009.
Every year I struggle to defeat my sentimental nature that tends to the maudlin. This year, I lost, and sank into a green funk, staring into the faces of some soldiers I trained with back in 1969. A friend asked if I know where these vatos are today, if they lived through that year? I do not know, and I do not want to know.
The storms start out there, on Monterey Bay. Grey blue haze obscures the horizon between sea and sky. Eyes front, but the vista compels our eyes to dart left, to take in the wondrous mottled light beyond the red roofs and yellow barracks, past the sparkling white sand of the firing range. On the water, bright patches where sunlight penetrates the morning dank define the luminous swell and ebb of the tide. Darker greys wash down from the ether shouting rain! Wetness swooshes across the water, heading directly toward us. “The Daily Dozen.” Windmill stretches. Jumping jacks. Jump thrust. “United States Army Drill Number One, Exercise Number Five, everyone’s favorite, the Push Up.” We drop to the front leaning rest position and begin the four count exertion. “One, two, three, ONE, Drill Sergeant, one two three TWO, Drill Sergeant…” Peripheral vision of breathtaking beauty counterweights a boot shouting in your ear, “keep your butt down, Trainee!”
We smell the rain coming, pushing the air before it, enveloping us in cool humidity that smells wet, that raises gooseflesh. Now we hear its relentless arrival. Below us, Ft. Ord has surrendered to its drenching. Visibility zero down there in forbidden territory. We are maggots, confined to The Hill.
The first heavy drops of water strike us, a few more, more. At the order we pull our waterproof poncho from our gear, hunker down under the protective sheet. We are forty green tipi spaced dress right dress across the platoon’s PT field. The rain noise drowns out any other sound but the swirling wind pushing up from the bay. An unrelenting volume of water strikes our heads and backs. We savor these moments of privacy, alone with our own thoughts and memories, for now the Army only this dull green light and the sound of the passing squall. We feel rivulets form, tingle, and stream the length of our spine as the water courses down to the ground. We are blind; we can see only our boot toes and the corona of daylight that glows at the periphery of our waterproof poncho. Mud splashes against our now scuffed, once spit-shined combat boots. Run-off forms around our toes, puddling fashions the outlines of our leather as erosion sculpts a memory of our presence on the land.
The noise abates. The rain passes. We obey. Ponchos off. Stand tall. Monterey Bay sparkles with magical light, whales, porpoises, salmon, sardines, Steinbeck…"U.S. Army Drill Number One, Exercise Number Five. The Push Up…”
We bitched and moaned. We laughed. I hope we all lived.
So here we are, the last Tuesday of May, a Tuesday like any other Tuesday, except you are here. See you in June.
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