Saturday, April 25, 2015

A bad night in Mexico


By William Hjorstberg


Publisher: Open Roads Media

Pub. Date: May 12th, 2014

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

It was the 80s and I was chilling with some Mexican friends in Valle De Santiago, not too far from where most of the action in William Hjortsberg’s Mañana takes place. A bunch of local farmers came over in the evening toting a few bottles of El Presidente brandy and some low grade weed. It was a fun night but at some point I lost track of what happened. I woke up the next morning with one hell of a headache. One of the farmers was shaking me. “Quick, we have to sell some hay!” After a few turns at my very poor Spanish and help from my bi-lingual friend, I discovered I promised the farmer to go with him to take his hay to market.

I asked my friend, “When did I tell him I would do that?”

“While you were milking his cows, around 2 in the morning."

“But I don’t know how to milk cows!”

“You’re telling me,” my friend said.

I am not one to renege on even a drunken and stoned promise. So I went with my new farmer friend and we sold his hay. We had a great time. Afterwards we went to a hole in the wall restaurant where we had the locally prescribed hangover cure of chicken soup and a Coke with a raw egg in it. Yes, the hangover cure worked almost immediately, in case you were wondering.

I guess I was lucky compared to Tod the protagonist in Mañana who, after his first time using heroin, wakes up next to a dead prostitute with her throat slit. All the others, a seedy group of dealers and gangster types, are gone along with Tod’s girlfriend Linda. It is up to Tod to find out who killed the girl. For all he knows, it could have been him. But his main goal is to find his girlfriend to see if she left willingly or was kidnapped. What follows is a journey to the dark side of the 70s counterculture and the underbelly of gang life in Mexico.

It’s too bad it isn’t interesting. Hjorstberg at his best is a talented writer whose gritty style glows with atmosphere and emotion. He was at his best in his novel, Falling Angel, whose plot most people are familiar with due to its retelling in the movie Angel Heart. Mañana is not the writer’s best. The gritty style is still there but there is no investment in the characters. Tod is meant to be sincere and inexperienced but just comes out stupid and self-centered. We do not meet Linda until the end but what we find is a jarring reversal with no real explanation. The rest of the characters are essentially colorful but stereotypical gangsters and drug leaders. Then there is the pace. Aside from the straight-to-the-plot first chapter, it moves really slowly to the point that we wonder about Tod’s motivation. The back story with Tod and Linda is visited but it offers no revelations and drags the story even more. While the atmosphere is dark, it just doesn’t ring true that these two naive tourists would find themselves in a situation like this. Without that bit of information, the rest of the tale becomes too big to swallow.

I will give the author credit for setting the stage though, he writes about a dark side to the Mexico in the 70, a region and area that most authors describe nostalgically. There is no nostalgia in Hjorstberg’s Mexico, just criminal deals and betrayals. Yet that theme doesn’t take hold enough for me to immerse myself in the dark. While there is no denying Hjorstberg is a skilled writer, Mañana is ultimately a major disappointment.

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