TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our critic-at-large John Powers has been a devoted fan of Latin American novels for decades. Lately, he's been struck by the boom in good fiction writers emerging from Mexico. There were two new novels in particular he's eager to recommend.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: To judge from our media coverage, you'd think that Mexico isn't so much a country as a problem. But if you look beyond the endless talk of drug wars and the wall, you discover that Mexico has a booming culture. In recent years, there's been an explosion of literary talent, from the sly provocateur Mario Bellatin to the brainy and funny Valeria Luiselli.
This writing makes most American literary fiction feel pale and cannily packaged. Much of this work is now appearing in English, thanks to today's heroic small presses. In fact, I've just read new novels by two rising Mexican writers whose work you really ought to know. While their books have some qualities in common - both are brief, brilliantly written and kissed by a sense of the absurd - their different approaches hint at the range of today's Mexican fiction. "Among Strange Victims" from Coffee House Press is the first book to appear in English by 32-year-old Daniel Saldana Paris. Translated with great verve by Christina MacSweeney, it's a classic slacker novel, a shaggy-dog story about breaking free from the tedium of daily life and finding some sort of aim, if not meaning.
The hero is Rodrigo, a 20-something underachiever who's like a much lazier Mexico City version of Dostoevsky's underground man. Rodrigo does piddling work for a museum and drifts into a tepid marriage with a co-worker, Cecilia. Rather than try to change the world or even his life, he kills time being obsessed with the chicken in the vacant lot next to his apartment. He claims that all he wants from life is to, quote, "go on complaining about what I see."
But things start to change when he takes his wife to visit his mother in a dusty sun-battered Mexican university town. There Rodrigo encounters a man even more cynical than himself, Marcelo, an academic hustler from Spain, whose wangled a gig doing research in Mexico but cares more about bedding women than doing his book. He's the satirical avatar of what D.H. Lawrence termed old, dead Europe.
I won't spoil things by saying what happens after Rodrigo meets Marcelo, except up to add that it involves a dodgy American, a gorgeous young woman and weird hypnotic spells. But you should know that the collision of this alienated pair sparks unexpected results. For all of Saldana Paris's sharp wit, "Among Strange Victims" is about waking up to the world's brighter possibilities.
Things are breezier and bleaker in "The Transmigration Of Bodies" by Yuri Herrera, my favorite of the new Mexican writers, who currently teaches at Tulane University and is published by And Other Stories press. His previous book, "Signs Preceding The End Of The World," which just won its regular translator Lisa Dillman a huge international prize, is a flat-out masterpiece, whose heroine's eerily surreal journey on the border will blow you away. The "Transmigration Of Bodies" is simpler but no less gripping or hallucinatory.
It's hard-boiled story takes place in an unnamed Mexican city suffering from a mysterious plague that has left the streets almost empty. The hero, known as the Redeemer, spends his time as a fixer. In a very violent city, he's the man folks call in to delay, if not prevent, all the killing. Here, he gets called by both of the city's main crime families, each of which has had one of its kids grabbed by the other. There's going to be a bloodbath unless The Redeemer can find a way to calm things down.
Helped by his friend The Neanderthal, The Redeemer gets to work flitting between the gangs, dropping into the racy nightclubs where the victims were taken and shuttling corpses from one place to the next, occasionally pausing to sleep with his sexy neighbor, known as Three Times Blonde. For all the book's noir trappings, Herrera is no pulp fictioneer. He writes short, poetic, elliptical books that conjure Mexico in all its brutality, heroism and unexpected tenderness. He pulls you into mythic spaces that recall everyone from Dante and Dashiell Hammett to Juan Rulfo, who wrote the landmark Mexican novel Pedro Paramo. If "Among Strange Victims" gives us a country whose characters are trapped in their own heads, "The Transmigration Of Bodies" goes straight for the soul. Unsettling and deep, Hererra transmigrates us to a Mexico that feels like a metaphysical condition, a timeless kingdom in which the living are forever dancing with the dead.
GROSS: John Powers is film and TV critic for Vogue and vogue.com. He reviewed the novels "Among Strange Victims" and "The Transmigration Of Bodies."
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GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be comic Jessi Klein. She's the head writer for "Inside Amy Schumer." She has a new collection of funny personal essays called "You'll Grow Out Of It," in which she writes about her experiences dating, getting married, having a child and breaking into comedy - and doing it all while being what she describes as a tom-man (ph) - a woman who never outgrew dressing like a tomboy. I hope you'll join us.
Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
We'll close with a recording featuring singer and actor John McMartin. He died last week at the age of 86. He was best-known for his work on Broadway, including his performance in the original production of Stephen Sondheim's "Follies." Here he is on the 1971 cast recording doing a beautiful version of the song "Too Many Mornings."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOO MANY MORNINGS")
JOHN MCMARTIN: (As Benjamin Stone, singing) Too many mornings waking and pretending I reached for you. Thousands of mornings dreaming of my girl. All that time wasted me merely passing through, time I could have spent, so content, wasting time with you. Too many mornings, wishing that the room might be filled with you. Morning to morning, turning into days. All the days that I thought would never end, all the nights with another day to spend. All those times I'd look up to see Sally standing at the door, Sally moving to the bed, Sally resting in my arms with her head against my head.
DOROTHY COLLINS: (As Sally Durant Plummer, singing) If you don't kiss me, Ben, I - I think I'm going to die.
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