Americas Archive

‘Momentous’ memoir from a border guard

William Atkins, who has recently spent time himself on the US/Mexico border while researching a forthcoming book on deserts, reviewed for The Guardian yesterday Francisco Cantú’s memoir of his years as a US Border Patrol agent (see my earlier post). He says it’s a remarkable book, written “with a raw-nerved tenderness”, and “frequently feels momentous”.

Another dispatch from the border

Borders are the theme of the moment. They provided the subject for the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year and one of the titles short-listed for that prize, as well as for Graham Robb’s much-praised The Debatable Land, in which the historian explores what used to be an independent territory between Scotland and England.

  In March, Bodley Head is due to publish in Britain The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantú, which is based on journals Cantú, a third-generation Mexican-American, kept while working as a US Border Patrol agent in the Sonoran desert. In an interview with Ursula Kenny in The Observer at the weekend (now online on the website of The Guardian), Cantú said he wrote the book as a way of “acknowledging the human cost of our border policy, and the ways in which individuals are caught up in it”. Cantú (who was also interviewed earlier this month by NPR in the US) has himself been caught up in protests while promoting the book, shouted down by protesters who accused him of profiting from the suffering of migrants.

Road trip through racism

Between 1936 and 1964 — when racial segregation was outlawed by the Civil Rights Act — African American motorists relied on a guide known as “the Green Book” to tell them where they could safely fill their tanks, get a bite to eat and stop for the night. Surely, in the 21st century, advice of that kind is no longer necessary? Ed Pilkington, having made a 900-mile road trip for The Observer through Missouri, suggests otherwise.

Edward Abbey — a voice crying for the wilderness

“Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary.” For Edward Abbey, writer of those words, that place was the canyonland of south-east Utah, where he served as park ranger at the Arches National Monument. In Desert Solitaire, published 50 years ago this month, he was, as one reviewer memorably put it at the time, “a voice crying in the wilderness, for the wilderness”. It was a passionate, combative book, in which he argued that there should be

No more cars in national parks. Let the people walk. Or ride horses, bicycles, mules, wild pigs — anything — but keep the automobiles and the motorcycles and all their motorized relatives out. We have agreed not to drive our automobiles into cathedrals, concert halls, art museums, legislative assemblies, private bedrooms and the other sanctums of our culture; we should treat our national parks with the same deference, for they, too, are holy places. . .  What about children? What about the aged and infirm? Frankly, we need waste little sympathy on these two pressure groups. Children too small to ride bicycles and too heavy to be borne on their parents’ backs need only wait a few years — if they are not run over by automobiles they will grow up into a lifetime of joyous adventure. . .  The aged merit even less sympathy: after all they had the opportunity to see the country when it was still relatively unspoiled.

Half a century on, when Donald Trump and his interior secretary are intent on opening up parts of “Abbey Country” to oil and gas companies, the message of Desert Solitaire is more urgent than ever, the novelist John Buckley writes in High Country News.

In the country of the bear

In midsummer, McNeil River State Game Sanctuary in Alaska is the venue for the largest gathering of the biggest brown bears on earth. Up to 75 bears can be fishing on the McNeil River falls at one time. Christopher Solomon, who was lucky in the lottery for viewing tickets, reports in the latest edition of High Country News on what it’s like to to “brush against nature, where it still exists in all its humming electric-dynamo bigness”.

Yellowstone after the wolf

Yellowstone Park is a much-changed place since the reintroduction of the wolf in 1995. Vegetation that had been over-grazed by elk is flourishing, as are populations of animals from beavers to badgers. But there are hunters fearful that the wolves will wipe out all the elk, and ranchers on the park’s fringes who argue that their stock is being terrorised. Nate Blakeslee tells the story in his new book American Wolf (Crown),  an extract from which you can read on Literary Hub. It’s a story in which he aims to follow, in novelistic detail, the life of one wolf — O-Six, nicknamed for the year in which she was born. In an interview with National Geographic, Blakeslee tells how O-Six herself fell prey to a hunter.

On the move with Finn Murphy

“I want people to understand what a trucker’s life is really like out there on the big slab, and why manual work can be a worthy occupation.” So says Finn Murphy, whose book I mentioned a while ago. I’ve just found a promotional video for it on YouTube.

A western with a difference

On the Twitter feed of The Paris Review, I found mention of a new novel of the American West in which it seems that setting plays a large part. It sounds like the kind of novel that might make a contender for the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize, for “a work which evokes the spirit of a place” — except that the writer, not being British or Irish or a UK resident, probably wouldn’t be eligible. It was partly his own rootlessness, indeed, that prompted him to write the book. The novel, In the Distance, is by Hernán Diaz, and published in the United States by Coffee House. Publishers Weekly, which includes it in a roundup of new fiction, says:

The novel is the set in the 19th century and concerns a young Swedish immigrant to California, Håkan Söderström, who travels eastward across the United States in the hope of finding his brother. His journey, a kind of Manifest Destiny in reverse, leads him to encounter a range of characters—to quote the publisher, “naturalists, criminals, religious fanatics, swindlers, Indians, and lawmen”—who call to mind myriad American myths and stereotypes.

Diaz is 43 and lives in New York, where he is the associate director of the Hispanic Institute at Columbia University and the managing editor of the scholarly journal Revista Hispánica Moderna. He says he began to think about writing In the Distance while reading “desert” books (works set in “desolate expanses”—not only deserts but also steppes, plains, the Pampas) and asking himself questions about the relationship between foreignness and physical isolation. “Does nationality matter if one is stranded in a void?” he wondered. “I’ve been a foreigner all my life,” he says. “I was born in Argentina, left for Sweden when I was two, went back to Argentina briefly, then moved to London, and now I’ve been in New York for the last 20 years. So it’s something I care a lot about.”

Diaz may have staked out his desert landscape in the American West, but he isn’t particularly interested in the western per se. “There are no gunslingers or saloon brawls or stagecoaches being chased in the book,” he says. For him, the desertlike atmosphere of the West carries its own truth about life in America. “The vaster the desert, the more claustrophobic the confinement,” he says.

Murphy, McPhee, and the art of loading a truck

Finn Murphy is a “bedbugger”, as the long-distance removal man is known to his fellow truck drivers. He is also an admirer of the work of John McPhee (recently the subject of an excellent profile by Sam Anderson in The New York Times Magazine). In Murphy’s  new book about his own trade, The Long Haul, much of the fascination lies in the McPhee-like attention he pays to what the rest of us overlook. On the website Longreads, there’s an extract in which he manages to make even loading the truck sound interesting.

Chatwin, in Patagonia and down under

Susannah Clapp is currently theatre critic of The Observer. Forty years ago, she was Bruce Chatwin’s editor, so, with an anniversary edition of In Patagonia on the way, she can offer a singular perspective on the man and the work:

I had written the reader’s report on the book. It had dazzled and worried me. It was exceptional – but it was enormous and it didn’t flow. I became his editor, with the task of making the book speed along. Over the next few weeks, we went through every line of the manuscript, reading it aloud in the Regent’s Park flat of the art dealer John Kasmin. Every night, the author went home merrily to hack away his stuff: he loved chucking out adjectives and anything that looked like a moody reaction shot. Every morning, he arrived having cut – but often having also added another episode; stories kept spilling out of him. 

In Australia, the 30th anniversary of Chatwin’s The Songlines — inspired by the way in which Indigenous Australians map geography and preserve history and culture — is of greater interest. In a fascinating piece in the Monthly, Richard Cooke writes: 

It is an imperfect book, and the fete surrounding its publication has moved on, but The Songlines did force the white world to gauge the depth of Indigenous culture. And it is partly imperfect because Chatwin too was overwhelmed by his subject. As he tried to make sense of what he had seen in Alice Springs and its surrounds over a total of nine weeks in the early 1980s, he wrote that songlines were on “such a colossal scale, intellectually, that they make the Pyramids seem like sand castles. But how to write about them – without spending 20 years here?”

Scaling these intellectual monuments, even tracing their outlines, is almost impossible. Songlines are not just sung poems. They are also legal documents, genealogical records, maps and the legends of maps, documentations of flora and fauna, systems of navigation, religious rites, spells, history books, memory palaces, and endless other combinations of ceremony, knowledge and philosophy that cannot be readily analogised into another culture. Anthropologists have dedicated their lives to obtaining only the most peripheral glimpses of them. Some have resisted further insights, knowing they are bought through a system of law, obligation and initiation that is not entered into lightly. Compared to the accumulation and expanse of millennia of living traditions, writing itself can seem like an almost futile explanatory tool. And Chatwin had only a few weeks.