Down Mexico way
DEREK TURNER reads a fictional evocation of US-Mexican borderline personality disorder
Chilton Williamson, Jr., Rockford, Illinois: Chronicles Press, 2012, pb. 208
“Roads fade out before you reach the line,
And the signposts disappear”
Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Borderland
Native New Yorker Chilton Williamson, Jr. has an impressive pedigree as conservative intellectual, as former history editor for St. Martin’s Press, literary editor for National Review and, for the last twenty-five years, senior editor for books at Chronicles. He also pens the latter journal’s What’s Wrong With the World column – not to mention a plethora of reviews and essays, often celebrating the Old West, and highly-regarded books of both fiction and non-fiction. The Education of Héctor Villa is his fourth published novel.
The protagonist is a Mexican-American who came illegally to New Mexico two decades prior to the book’s opening, but who has almost forgotten this awkward technical detail in his earnest desire to embrace El Norte. He is, as one might expect, thankful for the economic opportunities which have allowed him to make a very comfortable living repairing computers, and support his wife and two children in a way that would have been out of the question in old Mexico. He appears to have embraced almost completely the mainstream modus vivendi of hard work, adherence to the law, participating in elections, SUVs, Walmart, overindulgence, personal debt, and occasional forays to Vegas – a city which for him epitomizes the dizzying vitality he border-crashed to find. The family quit the Catholic church after the priest refused to baptize their daughter Contracepción, and they now attend a typically suburban evangelical church instead. They are, in many superficial ways, almost indistinguishable from millions of other Americans. Hector would like to think of himself as ‘fat, dumb and happy’.
Yet in some recess of his mind, he is not fully assimilated, and suspects he can never be. The front yard of their Belen home sports certain Mexican-inspired ‘ornaments’ which early fall foul of zoning laws, to Héctor’s hurt bafflement, and giving his wife palpitations about being sent back to Namiquipa. They watch Spanish-language TV. His chief friend is a prickly race-proud Rio Abajo New Mexican. His personal hero is Pancho Villa, from whom he claims descent, although his loyalty to the “Centaur of the North” does not entail much more than occasional boozy soirées. And in his pleasant heart he does not much like the eroticised, glitz-to-garbage culture to which – lo que una victoria! – thirteen year old Contracepción is as beholden as any of her Anglo friends.
Existential unease may be why he has started to over-identify with his chosen country, wilfully ignoring its obvious faults, absorbing a neoconservative narrative through Fox and the pulpit of their Assembly of God church – the parable of a plastic proposition nation defined only by bloodless ‘freedoms’. He has even developed a bizarre and rather unhealthy admiration for George W. Bush, to the extent of burdening his infant son with the Christian name Dubya. Even his mailbox is painted red, white and blue. This impels him at last into running on the GOP ticket for the House of Representatives, and so commences a series of events that will cause him great embarrassment and expense, and undermine all his ideas of America’s avuncularity.
Many of the incidents that ensue are grotesquely comic – a muddle about jihadis-who-weren’t, a car-crash of an election campaign, sponging illegal relatives who turn up unannounced, brushes with anti-immigration patrols, Contracepción’s infatuation with a Muslim who is supposed to convert to the Assemblies of God but never does, an extra-marital affair that is never consummated, an arduous treasure-hunt that of course turns up nothing (an allegory of poor, puzzled Héctor’s hunt for the American chimera). All these incidents are recounted to excellent sardonic effect.
But the overall result is a deeply serious critique of today’s America – the perverse immigration and foreign policies, the facelessness, heartlessness and incompetence of government, the distrustfulness of diverse societies, the ugliness of popular culture. It is not for nothing that the title evokes The Education of Henry Adams, because it is likewise an indictment of an entire era. It is also, importantly, an indictment without biliousness, levelled by a man as kindly as he is cultivated. Furthermore, the outdoorsman author knows the landscape well, and can conjure it onto the page with ease.
The author was concerned about diversity and its discontents long before the subject registered on the extremest edge of the Overton Window, and sympathetic knowledge radiates from the plot as Héctor wars within himself, as do all others caught up in this fluid and fractious America. Anything and everything can become racially-charged at any time, and every group has been at different times occupier and occupied, oppressor and oppressed. The disputed desert is strewn with rubbish, used condoms and occasional corpses left behind by wannabe American citizens – the detritus of “an intergalactic rainbow of aggressively importunate human cultures”. Old grudges run deep and sore, power tilts one way and then the other, and ghostly galloping ‘Centaurs’ seem to be always refighting spectral Pershings just behind all headlines. Héctor’s sole point of disagreement (but it is an important one) with George Bush is that the Head Honcho of State does not comprehend the reckless reality of his administration’s invitation to the world. The author navigates these shoals with subtle skill.
At the nadir of his disillusionment, Héctor decides it would be in the family’s best interests to relocate to Chihuahau, and so they sell up and repatriate themselves. For a time, this works well – he enjoys the sense of historical continuity so lacking in America, and finds Mexico’s lack of diversity deeply refreshing. But a terrifying assault on his son puts him once again on edge, and as the book closes, we find him (now in possession of U.S. residency papers) pondering Vegas, and rebooting the old American Delusion –
The Dream had stepped forward in his mind once more, a Lady clothed in green and bearing aloft a flaming torch, and he understood that, where they were going, it really was morning again, every day of the year.
His optimism against all experience is in its way a truly American trait, and we cannot but wish poor Héctor well. We also know that if and when he returns he is bound to be disappointed all over again.
DEREK TURNER is editor of the Quarterly Review, and the author of the novel Sea Changes