Review: Why I’m Not Reading “American Dirt”

Given the national uproar swirling around the new novel about Mexican immigrants, American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, you’d think Congress might have launched an investigation. Or that the president might be moving some Pentagon funds to build a wall around the book.

Its part-Hispanic author is being pilloried far and wide for many things:  ignorance, stereotyping, shallowness, whitewashing, appropriation, trauma porn, inaccuracy and saviorism.  Oh, and what seems to infuriate some of her detractors most is Oprah Book Clubism, making-a-lot-of-moneyism, and movie dealism.

How dare this literary imposter tread on sacred Mexican/Mexican-American ground when apparently only someone of that ethnicity could handle that subject matter? Doesn’t she realize that her book must represent the entire rich reality of Mexican culture, not just some sordid aspects of it?

There’s apparently a Geneva Literary Convention that stipulates restrictions like these that I must have missed while I was publishing and teaching over the last few decades.

Some of the strongest protests attack her for daring to make money, lots of money, when there are apparently so many more deserving authors who are being ignored and should be doing better.  Maybe they deserve a telethon.

I’ve been a published author for a long time and guess what? The world of publishing is wildly unfair and complaints about who does well and who doesn’t reek of jealousy and childishness. Books have their own karma and whining about how a certain book hits a cultural sweet spot while others languish is a total waste of time. Likewise besieging an author because she happened to write a popular or noteworthy book at the right time.

All the furor made me sample the book on Amazon and I gave up at the end of the first chapter.  The writing bugged me in various ways, partly because it seemed too sophisticated in describing what a kid was feeling. But what truly turned me off were the closing lines after a scene of major gunfire:

Outside the window he hears Mami’s tentative footsteps, the soft scuff of her shoe through the remnants of something broken. A solitary gasp, too windy to be called a sob. Then a quickening of sound as she crosses the patio with purpose, depresses the keys on her phone.

This is a hot mess. How does this kid know that the steps are tentative? What are the remnants of something broken? Is that poetic or a reference to objects of some kind? Bodies? Something else? And why would she be scuffing through them, why wouldn’t she avoid them? How can he possibly know that his mother is crossing “with purpose”? And finally, if he’s inside, how can he see her depressing the keys of her phone?  Is he some kind of superhero?

Sloppy point of view kills a book for me because I lose faith in the author’s ability to tell a story deftly and clearly. In the many years I reviewed for the Detroit Free Press, The Washington Post and half a dozen other newspapers, magazines, and radio stations, I learned to trust those warning signs. Maybe the novel gets better, but I’d rather not continue when a book raises serious doubts in the very first chapter.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery and teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.

My Life With Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton is often on my mind, and not just this week, which saw her 156th birthday.

I fell in love with Edith Wharton’s novels and short stories in college, given that I grew up in Gilded Age New York. The building on upper Broadway I was raised in was one of two massive apartment blocks built circa 1900 by Harry Mulliken with gorgeous tapestry brickwork and stone detailing, like Mulliken’s more elaborate Lucerne Hotel on 79th and Amsterdam.

The public library I visited every week was a Venetian palazzo designed by McKim, Mead, and White. It was a temple of books, a sanctuary, and a doorway to another more elegant world. Perhaps most enthralling for me as a young boy was our family’s regular bus route downtown: along Riverside Drive past one Gilded Age mansion, brownstone and apartment building after another.

The past was all around me as it might not be in other parts of New York City, and so discovering Wharton in college was like claiming part of my own history. I bought every single book of hers then available in Scribner paperbacks and read them many times, awed by her wit, her powers of description, and her sharp eye for hypocrisy and foolishness. In the summer of 1975 I read R.W. B. Lewis’s riveting Pulitzer-winning Wharton biography that launched the revival of her work, and through reading about Wharton’s life I felt even more inspired to pursue my own career as a writer.

That career of publishing in many genres has led me back to Wharton three times. In the early 90s I published a study of the emotion of shame in her writing and her life, something that had never been discussed before. A few years after Edith Wharton’s Prisoners of Shame, I invented two fictional Wharton societies and pitted them against each other in an academic mystery, The Edith Wharton Murders.

More recently, I re-entered her world in a whole new way.  Undoing Wharton’s anti-Semitic stereotyping, I’ve re-imagined The House of Mirth from the point of view of Lily Bart’s suitor Simon Rosedale, giving him a home, a family, a history, and a tormented heart. In writing Rosedale in Love, I haven’t tried to imitate Wharton’s style, but I have written the book in a period voice, after immersing myself in writings of all kinds from the early 1900s.

I don’t know how she would have felt about my novel, but for me, it’s been one of the most exhilarating adventures of my writing career.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  After close to twenty years of teaching at the university level, he now offers creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.