In Jeanine Cummins’ novel American Dirt, main character Lydia Pérez is a middle class, college-educated bookstore owner in Acapulco. She has a nine-year-old son with her husband Sebastián who is an investigative reporter at the local newspaper. She is bored by her clientele, who mostly consist of tourists and buyers of knickknacks, until one day a man with huge soul and an exquisite taste that nearly matches her own enters her shop and buys a couple of books.
He returns to discuss them, even presents her with some of his poetry, and they begin a passionate mental affair. Then one day Lydia’s husband shows Lydia a photo of the new drug lord on the block in Acapulco. He’s known as “La Lechuza,” the name for a mythical, shape-shifting owl-like creature, a moniker he receives both for his curious round glasses and his slippery character. Wouldn’t you know it, the Owl is Lydia’s soul-lover, Javier. Lydia confronts him, but it doesn’t go well.
“I’m in love with you. I am in love with you.”
She shook her head.
“Lydia, you’re the only real friend I have. The only person in my life who wants nothing from me except the joy between us. . . . I would leave it all if I could.”
“Then do!” She slapped her hand against the counter. “Leave it!”
He smiled sadly at her. “It doesn’t work that way.”
“It works whatever way you say it works! You’re the jefe, right?”
“Yes, and if I leave, what then? What will become of Acapulco if I leave? How many people will die while they fight over who takes my place?”
His elbows were up on the counter. He tugged at his hair in distress. “You know I never wanted this. It was an accident of fate that I ended up here.”
¡Que lastima! I’m afraid the prose doesn’t get any better.
We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Stereotypes
It turns out that Sebastián is about to publish a big expose on the Owl. This includes the awful poem composed by Javier, a poem he believes he has shown only to Lydia, but that his adoring daughter had secretly sent in to a writing contest without his knowledge.
Lydia thinks the article will be all right, that Javier will be amused, and Sebastian runs the piece. But it turns out that beneath Javier’s soulful exterior is not a hurt little boy who only needs the healing power of love and forgiveness, but an evil psychopath who does not like literary criticism one bit. He orders Lydia’s entire family wiped out. And out they are wiped in the initial chapter, except for Lydia and her nine-year-old son, Luca.
Lydia and Luca go on the run from Javier’s gang, the seemingly ubiquitous Jardineros, with their blood-weeping facial tattoos of pruning shears and rakes and the like. Despite the fact that she is carrying tens of thousands of dollars with her and has access to her dead grandmother’s savings account via ATM, Lydia decides the best thing to do will be for her and Luca to hop a freight train and try to illegally cross the northern border into America. And so she and Luca make the dangerous first leap onto the Bestia, the train to the border.
Off they go, and the remaining three-quarters of the book becomes a litany of woe and horrors, relieved by the occasional act of violence and rape along the way. If you like this sort of thing, there is a lot of it. We meet an assortment of colorful characters, including a wise-cracking eleven-year-old dump-dweller from Tijuana (named Beto) and a pair of teenage sisters from Honduras (who are dutifully ravished and beaten by Mexican policemen who seem compelled by the rules of genre fiction to fulfill their ancient stereotypical purpose).
Lydia’s character is defined by the name dropping of Latin American literary figures. She likes A Hundred Years of Solitude and Pablo Neruda. A lot. Luca is a cloying prodigy, wise beyond his years at the exact moment his mother needs him to be. Every time Luca did or said something astute and touching, I thought of my own children when they were nine, and what a horrible idea it would have been to take them for a ride on top of a freight train, even if I were fleeing a drug lord enraged by bad Amazon reviews.
Speaking of stereotypes, along the way Lydia encounters a gruff border coyote with a heart of gold, and an assortment of well-meaning priests, nuns, and doctors who extract their pay not in dinero or sex like decent scoundrels, but demand to be remunerated by our characters having to sit through sermons on the dangers and moral dilemmas ahead. These lectures get longer as the story progresses, and what starts as a lightweight romance thriller undergoes a tone shift into a well-nigh endless diatribe.
All the upstanding sorts along the journey are really just one voice—that of the author. Cummins has done a lot of superficial research on her subject, and she wants the reader to appreciate this gargantuan effort. What she has to impart tends in one direction, and the book becomes an indigestible expository lump of vague, leftwing immigration issue talking points in its final third, with a few Trump slurs thrown in for spacers. We enter a twisty thriller only to find ourselves dumped into an endless Unitarian Sunday service. But will there be coffee and donuts waiting at the end of the tunnel?
Yes, as it turns out. American Dirt was named an Oprah Book Club selection for early 2020. Happy ending? Not quite. Almost inevitably, this became a Twitter nightmare for the book club and Macmillan, Cummins’s publisher. One problem with Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt is that although the author is a plodding writer, she’s actually trying, and is better than all the race-mongering literary hangers-on in the all the MFA programs in the Western World, who are the opposite of good storytellers.
As Buzzfeed put it last January, “Latinx authors, poets, and more had plenty of criticism to offer regarding Cummins’ book, raising questions about identity, representation, and the voices elevated by the publishing industry to speak for marginalized communities.” You bet they did. Oprah picked the dang thing for her book club. ¡La injusticia!
It seemed that, unlike her main character, author Jeanine Cummins is not really much of a Latinxtress at all. Cummins may have worn dangly, beaded earrings in her pub photos, but the woman was pasty! Which is not a surprise, considering Cummins’s ancestry in mostly Irish. There were mitigating circumstances, she and others claimed.
Being of Irish extraction, Cummins was on the slatternly, Pope-worshipping, tuber-eating side of white. Plus, she had a Puerto Rican grandma! And she even married a guy from Ireland who overstayed his tourist visa by a few years and almost got sent home. So she was definitely oppressed and marginalized by proxy.
That may have seemed good enough during the late 2018 bidding war for the manuscript among the latte-sipping Wellesley and Brown critical studies majors who form the ecosystem of literary publishing these days, but an Oprah Book Club selection in 2020, and real money—that was a bridge too far for the true believer who puts an “x” at the end of xer oppression descriptor.
As the indignation built, Cummins abjectly apologized for creating characters unapproved for a white girl. Her book tour was called off, but Macmillan, astoundingly, didn’t yank the thing from the shelves. Their Flatiron imprint had put a lot of money into it, for one thing. Plus, they needed it to earn out so they could make their next in-kind mordida payment to the Democratic Party.
If the Latinx progressives couldn’t get Macmillan to pull the novel, at least they could get Oprah to dump it, surely! But then—almost inconceivably—the Latinx race-baiters were defanged and derailed—spoiled by a mere speck of viral fluff from the Orient, of all places. Are Asians even allowed to be intersectional victims? Yes, and how! So long as they are communist party members, that is.
Here on the other side of the quarantine, the power of the Oprah choice has reigned supreme. Another Basic author has made a boatload of dough with a slightly-better-than average romance novel with thriller overtones and a vaguely leftist moral message. Meanwhile, Macmillan can go on channeling profits to its editors’ favorite causes. For Latinx progressives, it is a humiliating state of affairs. Their second class status in the intersectional identity Olympics has been reaffirmed. They couldn’t even get a book cancelled by a major publisher. Worse, they could only get Oprah to express mild alarm at the disturbance outside her mansion gates. Talk about marginalized.
As Jeanine Cummins might write, “¡Dios mio!”
Another complaint against American Dirt is that it is a mere romance thriller and lending it promotional weight might lead people to treat the issues it deals with as so much melodramatic trimming.
To which the only response is: “Ya think? Are you aware of what being an ‘Oprah’s Book Club Selection’ actually means?”
The characters in American Dirt are line drawings. The dialog is interchangeable. The initial set-up is kind of fun as Lydia pieces together her escape plans. Then the moralistic plod begins, along with a complete lack of reflection on the fact that Lydia’s course of action is entirely reactive and stupid—and that’s she’s exposing a nine-year-old kid to grave danger. It’s a story of black and white characters negotiating not modern Mexico, but an either/or landscape of the author’s quivering gothic imagination.
Yet, as a whole, the book provides a decent shudder for the money. All of which makes it perfect for Oprah’s Book Club.