The Virgin's Guide to Mexico by Eric B. Martin
The Virgin’s Guide to Mexico is a portrait of the artist as a young mexicana, and it’s a thrilling one. Thrilling because Alma, the novel’s biracial teenage heroine, is both brash and fiercely intelligent; because the narration propels us along in a slangy mash-up of heady talk and cynicism and artistic idealism; because the Mexico Alma roars across is unromanticized, untrammeled, and full of both opportunity and menace.
Alma hops on a bus from Austin to a Texas border town, and from there she ventures into Mexico. Drawn south to search for her mother’s family, about whom her mother has never spoken, Alma decides early on that she should disguise herself as a boy. Traveling alone as a boy will render her invisible, she thinks, or at the very least inconspicuous, and thus free and safe. She straps down her breasts with a tight sports bra, puts on baggy, heavy clothing, chooses a spiky, gelled-up mess of a haircut, lowers her voice -- and almost immediately runs into an acquaintance from Austin on the bus. A test. Alma performs her drag convincingly enough, and this acquaintance and his friends convince her to join them for an extended bachelor party weekend, complete with whorehouse and tequila and coke. She’s adopted amongst them as their little brother, their mascot, “The Kid.”
This moment on the bus is transfixing because Alma is still wobbly in her identity as a boy. A boy among men, she is suddenly onstage, performing, and hyperaware of her performance, checking the eyes of her audience to see if she’s getting it right. Called Earwig and Cousin Itt in high school, Alma is unused to admiration and respect, but she receives it from these men, though they serve it with a side of mockery. Yet at the same time, Alma understands that, by being in drag, she has placed herself into greater danger: it is riskier to deceive these men than it is to merely be a woman among them. She is hiding, but she can be found out.
The Virgin’s Guide possesses magic, moments that pop out of the page. Author Eric B. Martin is gifted at describing the scalp tingle of discovery, the tipping point just before the surge into the unknown. In Mexico City, still dressed as a boy, Alma visits a man who might be her grandfather -- a bug-eyed artist in a grimy apartment -- and decides to stay with him for a few days. It is a moment at which we are entirely taken in:
She should go find Edvin now except when has she felt like this before, the exact sensation of her body disappearing? High-backed chair of the living room. Knees curled up into chest. She’s holding Charlie’s hand outside the Chocolate Factory and hiding Jacob Two-Two under the bed. The back of the wardrobe’s opening. The coin contains half magic. She’s in the story now, and something incredible is about to happen.
Something incredible is about to happen -- and keeps happening. Martin knows how to create a world and then unhinge it, open it up further, and lure the reader in.
Approximately midway through the novel, another voice pipes up. It belongs to Alma’s mother, the beautiful Hermelinda. We learn how she and Alma’s father, Truitt, a good ol’ boy, are also in Mexico, on Alma’s trail. Alma’s and Hermelinda’s narratives create a neat structure, a map with two different routes: the first drawing the second, the second chasing the first. Alma becomes the pursuer of family being pursued by family. Hermelinda provides her own history and perspective -- there is a reason, of course, she has left Mexico for the United States, and remained silent about her past -- and lends the novel new urgency. Her daughter must be found, kept safe. But Hermelinda and Truitt’s arrival and pursuit seem to hasten the novel’s imminent violence.
Alma herself senses that “there are no miracles without pain,” and when she finally lands among her people, a community of expats and intellectuals in Mexico City, she realizes, “[s]omething terrible’s bound to happen.” And it does. And yet Alma still can claim the moment and place itself, the authenticity she’s been looking for. At her café table one evening, strangers become peers: “[r]eal writers with nothing but their words, no shame, no Oprah, nothing cute, nothing left to lose. This is where it happens.”
The Virgin’s Guide to Mexico by Eric B. Martin