Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt (Tinder, £14.99) begins with a massacre. Fourteen people are killed at a birthday barbecue: the family – husband, mother, cousins etc – of Lydia Pérez and her eight-year-old son, Luca, who are hiding in the bathroom. One of the three assailants uses the toilet, unaware that mother and son, the actual targets of the raid, are cowering in the shower: ‘Their eyes are closed, their bodies motionless, even their adrenaline is suspended within the calcified will of their stillness.’ This sentence is typical of Cummins’s tendency to increase the emotional pressure at the expense of meaning. Can adrenaline be suspended? Does someone’s stillness have a will of its own, one prone to sudden calcification? Of course, we know what she’s trying to say: they’re scared.
The opening scene establishes Cummins’s aesthetic: horror on the one hand, cuteness on the other. Our attention is drawn to a drop of blood on a green tile, the result of Luca biting his lip. Will this blatantly cinematic detail give them away? Lydia wipes it up just in time. The murderers eat some of the meat left on the grill: chicken shouldn’t go to waste, one of them says, ‘not when there are children starving in Africa’ – an odd crack for a hitman but a cliché of American TV. Luca likes his drumsticks ‘only a tiny bit blackened, the crispy tang of the skins’. After the attack, his dead cousin Adrian’s eyes are ‘open to the sky’, the birthday girl’s white dress is stained with ‘brilliant splatters of colour’ and their grandmother’s hair is ‘matted with stuff that should never exist outside the neat encasement of a skull’. Lydia wonders whether seeing the mutilated bodies is better or worse for her son than the scenes of slaughter he might ‘conjure up with the radiance of his imagination’. She has a tendency to think in pop-therapeutic formulas, as does Cummins.
Lydia is the college-educated, bilingual owner of a bookshop in Acapulco, who considers herself ‘a moderately attractive but not beautiful woman’. The man responsible for the carnage is her best customer, Javier, a frustrated poet (‘my life hasn’t turned out as I intended’). Lydia thinks his poetry is bad but finds his recitation of it endearing. They bond over the fact that both their fathers died of cancer, and over their experience of parenthood: Javier says his daughter, Marta, is ‘the only good thing I’ve ever done in my life’. There’s an obvious dramatic irony to the backstory because we already know Javier is a mass murderer. (What a strange way for a book lover to behave!) Lydia’s husband, Sebastián, who as he dies falls on the spatula he was using to barbecue the chicken, had exposed Javier as the head of the cocaine cartel that had recently taken over Acapulco.
After the slaughter, Lydia and Luca flee with her mother’s ATM card and thousands of pesos she kept under her mattress. They start off in style. Lydia checks into a luxury hotel by the beach under an assumed name, Fermina Daza, the heroine of Love in the Time of Cholera. Tipped off by the desk clerk (who, like the cops and anyone who works for a bank, an airline or the government, is on the take), Javier sends Lydia a copy of the novel – oddly, of the English translation. It’s ‘one of their many shared favourites’. Inside is a creepy note, and Javier has also highlighted a passage in which Fermina Daza is addressed by the man she rejected five decades earlier: ‘Fermina … I have waited for this opportunity for more than half a century, to repeat to you once again my vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love.’ What will this all-knowing middlebrow psycho stoop to next?
Javier drops out of the narrative, alas, though he continues to pose a threat since his surveillance powers seem to rival those of the NSA. His operatives, Los Jardineros (the Gardeners), are everywhere. As Lydia and Luca join the migrant trail, hoping to make their way across the border to the US, the novel’s tone turns from titillating to tedious. The characters are vessels for Cummins’s incoherent ideas about trauma and her superficial research on Mexico. Luca is said to have ‘perfect direction the way some prodigies have perfect pitch’ and Cummins uses his whizz-kid knowledge of geography to deliver basic exposition of the cities and towns they pass through. The journey north involves some inherent cliffhangers: they have to jump on and off moving trains, for example. But even Cummins gets tired of this material: ‘It’s amazing that riding on the top of a freight train can become boring, but it’s true.’ A series of calamities occupy the second half of the book: reversals of fortune to do with Lydia’s dwindling supply of money, sexual assaults suffered by two young women she and Luca befriend, a murder, a miscarriage, and fatal or near fatal injuries to members of their party while they’re crossing the Sonoran Desert into Arizona.
Cummins maintains a balance of terror and treacle by constantly describing the characters’ tumultuous emotions. Luca, on checking into the hotel:
The cloudburst of anguish he’s been struggling against does not come. Neither does it go. It remains there, pent up like a held breath, hovering just on the periphery of his mind. He has the sense that, were he to turn his head, were he to poke at the globular nightmare ever so gently with his finger, it would unleash a torrent so colossal he would be swept away for ever.
After they’ve taken shelter with friends in another town: ‘Trauma waits for stillness. Lydia feels like a cracked egg, and she doesn’t know if she’s the shell or the yolk or the white. She is scrambled.’ Cummins doesn’t so much mix metaphors as pile them on top of one another: the more there are, the less it matters if they make sense.
Each of Cummins’s four books exhibits overwriting of this sort. In her true-crime memoir A Rip in Heaven (2004), she describes her brother Tom’s state of mind while in police custody, under suspicion of raping and murdering two of their cousins: ‘Tom’s heart felt as if it were lunging around inside him, beating against his ribcage one minute, ready to come up his mouth and out his throat the next.’ Here is the narrator of The Outside Boy, Cummins’s novel about a young Irish Traveller:
We stayed there while the sky lightened lilac at the edges. Me and Martin, joined at the hair, joined at the knuckles. We didn’t move, didn’t speak. I think he felt it too – some unspoken sense that if we stayed very still, if we blurred into each other it mightn’t be real. We tried that elusive magic of stillness, hoping like we always did that we might capture it, and it might be the answer to everything. But in truth, we was children of motion, and we didn’t know how to stand still then. We didn’t even know that we could.
The kitsch style, with its ‘elusive magic’ and its lunging hearts, its blurring or calcified stillnesses and its ‘answer to everything’, is presumably what readers enjoy about Cummins’s writing; it’s the reason American Dirt – superficially construed as a damsel-on-the-run thriller in the mode of Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train but with topical relevance – sold for more than a million dollars in a bidding war between nine publishing houses, with a deal for film rights not far behind; the reason it garnered glowing blurbs from Sandra Cisneros, John Grisham, Stephen King and Don Winslow; the reason it was widely listed in the American press as one of the year’s most anticipated books; the reason Oprah Winfrey selected it for her recently revived book club; and the reason it debuted at the top of the New York Times hardback fiction bestseller list and made it into Amazon’s top five American titles (behind Mamba Mentality by Kobe Bryant and ahead of Burn after Writing, a self-help book composed of mostly blank pages with writing prompts meant to prevent oversharing on social media).
The publishers bidding for American Dirt were responding to an ambient yearning for books and movies that combine popularity, commercial success, entertainment value, aesthetic merit and enlightened politics: woke masterpieces that are also accessible hits. If the right metanarrative fails to take hold, fans look for somebody to blame. Sometimes it’s the critics: the ‘Let People Enjoy Things’ meme calls for critical approval of popular things; there are also complaints of ‘Goldfinching’ (bad reviews, mostly written by men, of popular literary novels, mostly written by women, such as Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch). The reviews of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life by Daniel Mendelsohn and myself (LRB, 24 September 2015) are sometimes cited. If the reviews are good but sales are poor, it’s the audience that has failed. The notion that blockbuster success often involves artistic compromise has been conveniently forgotten.
In the case of American Dirt, the marketing strategy, which positioned the novel as a heart-stopping, heart-breaking work about an important social crisis, as well as an artistic achievement worthy of Steinbeck, succeeded in commercial terms at the same time as it backfired critically. At first it looked as if it might come off. Maureen Corrigan, book critic on the NPR programme Fresh Air, who commands one of the biggest audiences in America, praised it: ‘It’s a literary novel, to be sure, with nuanced character development and arresting language yet its narrative hurtles forward with the intensity of a suspense tale.’ Yes, there are literary pretences – all that stuff about the bookshop, poetry, García Márquez – and ‘arresting’ is one way to describe Cummins’s language. But the ‘character development’ is crude; the suspense nothing more than the heaping on of unfortunate events.
The backlash against American Dirt has focused on the question of cultural appropriation. Myriam Gurba, a Mexican American author of three books of fiction and a very good, and very funny, memoir, Mean (2017), wasn’t wrong when she called the novel ‘a perfect read for your local self-righteous gringa book club’. The line comes from a review that was commissioned by Ms Magazine then rejected; Gurba posted it on the website Tropics of Meta. The fate of her piece seemed to confirm that the fix was in for American Dirt. The New York Times ran two reviews, an astute hatchet job by Parul Sehgal and a hand-wringing rave by the novelist Lauren Groff, who said she’d felt chilled ‘to the marrow’ but doubted her own qualifications, as a white woman, to review the book. (In a quote from an earlier draft, mistakenly tweeted from a Times account, Groff compared Cummins to Theodore Dreiser.)
Cummins and her publisher, Flatiron (they cancelled the book tour after reported physical threats to Cummins; Gurba has received death threats), seem to have anticipated some of this criticism: in the author’s note she describes wanting to write a story about ‘regular people like me’. ‘How would I manage if I lived in a place that began to collapse around me? If my children were in danger, how far would I go to save them?’ This explains Lydia’s childhood fondness for Choose Your Own Adventure books, which may or may not have been available in Mexico but were certainly popular among American children when Cummins and I were growing up. Writing a self-portrait and transposing it across a politically fraught border zone – in theory there’s no reason to think it couldn’t work. The trouble with Cummins’s writing isn’t that she gets Spanish wrong, which she does (she also misuses it – why call a soccer ball a balon de futbal in a book that converts pesos to dollars?), or that she borrows bits from other writers, such as Luis Alberto Urrea, and deploys their material clumsily; it’s that her simplistic worldview, split between the cutesy and the cruel, can’t handle subject matter of any seriousness, whatever the colour of her characters’ skin.
But it’s a worldview that sells. Oprah likes it and knows how to peddle it to her fans. On the road, Lydia’s ‘mantra’ is: ‘Don’t think. Don’t think. Don’t think.’ Many people buy books that supply the illusion of thinking or the opportunity not to think. One of the more ludicrous aspects of the American Dirt affair involved some photographs, circulated by Cummins on social media, of a pre-launch promotional dinner during last summer’s BookExpo Conference in New York. The table settings mimicked the novel’s cover, as did one fan's manicure: blue doves flying over black barbed wire. Cutesy, cruel – and oblivious. After this, Gurba and other writers met with executives from Flatiron and its parent company, Macmillan, and the publishers promised a ‘ninety-day action plan for structural change’. At a press conference in Zuccotti Park, across the street from the Macmillan offices, one writer called on corporate publishing to ‘tear down the barbed-wire fence’ between Latino writers and a global readership. There’s little reason to believe publishers won’t co-operate, and figure out ways to profit by doing so. It won’t change the fact that they make their bottom line by selling elusive magic to readers with lunging hearts.