From the cover of Gringos.
Fifty-three years ago, James Baldwin published The Fire Next Time, on the experience of being black in America. The title comes from a slave song: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign / No more water but fire next time.” This month, Jesmyn Ward published a compilation of essays called The Fire This Time. She wanted a book, as she writes in a brilliant introduction, “that would reckon with the fire of rage and despair and fierce, protective love currently sweeping through the streets and campuses of America … A book that a girl in rural Missouri could pick up at her local library and, while reading, encounter a voice that hushed her fears.” Ward has packed a multitude into a modest volume and fulfills, I think, her desire to provide a full and rich accounting of black life, one that is infrequently given voice. The lead piece is a sharply evocative prose poem by Kima Jones about a trip home to North Carolina for a funeral and time in the woods with her cousins, “with red cups, Black and Milds, Jim Beam, a blue lighter plucked from the card table.” Another favorite is Garnette Cadogan’s essay on walking, as a boy in Kingston and as a young man in the United States. The dissonance between the two is startling but not surprising: in the former, “I’d get lost in Mittyesque moments, my young mind imagining alternate futures,” and in the other, walking is “a pantomine undertaken to avoid the choreography of criminality.” —Nicole Rudick
I often go back to Gringos, the 1991 novel by Charles Portis, when I find myself between books. Portis is a fount of comedy; his books brim with deliciously absurd characters. Gringos features a clique of eccentric expats idling in the Yucatán: there’s Rudy and Louise Kurle, a blond duo, in Mexico recording evidence of aliens; Doc Flandin, an aged historian and anthropologist whose life work comprises a comprehensive account of Mayan culture; Refugio Osorio, a native of Mérida who deals scraps from his land in the jungle (I’m fond of his pup, “Ramos, son of the late Chino, bravest dog in all Mexico”). Their comedy comes from the wry observations of Gringos’s hero and narrator Jimmy Burns, a fortysomething deliveryman and former hustler of pre-Columbian artifacts. Jimmy lives at the marvelously shabby Posada Fausto hotel in Mérida, taking hauling jobs to pay his rent. His life there “rocks along from day to day”—he drinks in bars and heads to the zoo “to look over the fine new jaguar”—until he finds himself caught up in violent hippie rituals at ancient ruins and adventure in the Yucatán. —Caitlin Love Read More