Thanks to Google Earth and its spawn, you now have a ground-level view into practically every remote corner of the planet — and, gawking from deep in your chair, you will never feel a thing. Linda Dahl’s fine new novel, Gringa in a Strange Land (Robert D. Reed Publishers, $14.95, pbk.) provides an unblinking look at a recent university graduate out to see the world in the early 1970s, and a reader is likely to be swept up in the book’s profound depth of feeling.
Dahl, well known as the biographer of several prominent female jazz musicians, creates a fictionalized account of years living alone in isolated villages in the Mexican state of Yucatán, paying for her dope, rent, and jars of Nescafé on occasional earnings, and checks wired from home.
If basic elements of the expat’s tale will seem familiar, as will several of the stock characters that expats always seem to encounter, Dahl overcomes the usual limitations of her genre with a nervy and stark examination of her protag, a middle-western hippie chick who is herself a work in progress.
This artist-as-a-young-woman prevails over every page of the novel, simultaneously craving companionship, and unable to abide the company of others. She loves Mexico because it isn’t home, and mildly resents the intrusive copy of Time magazine air-mailed each week by her parents as a link to what she’s left behind: Velveeta and Nixon and Sunday nights with Disney, the Cartwrights, and the Ed Sullivan show. At the same time, she is smack in the middle of the three-way intersection between dismissive, wistful and peevish, over being deprived of air-conditioning, a decent hi-fi, and shops catering to the middle-class.
Dahl’s creation, known as Erica Mason, paints capably and attracts the interest of a vacationing Associated Press reporter, who works her into a story about young American artists in exile. She is momentarily pleased by the acclaim, but that passes, and she resumes her regimen of self-absorbed Quaalude-popping, interspersed with creative outbursts, and ongoing schemes intended to lead toward some undetermined purpose.
Fragile and domineering, acutely self-aware and completely oblivious, Erica veers back and forth toward her obsession with an imperfect past boyfriend, and a series of attractions-repulsions involving local menfolk. She is your moody feminist existentialist stoner hero, Hemingwayesque as an estrogen version of Nick Adams.
The author is bravely unconcerned about making this fictive creation appealing to readers. Erica can be a pain, not least for what she represents. When a character upbraids her for the obvious hypocrisy of using and discarding strangers out of brief sexual need, even while she complains about the callousness of the male gender, Erica is surprised by — and then immediately accepting of — what she recognizes as her own cruelty.
With those attitudes, you expect an eventual form of comeuppance, but Dahl skillfully avoids predictive outcomes, which is part of what makes this a worthy and commendable novel. In bygone days, the Caribbean outland was filled with callow Nordamericanos spending years on end in the arduous work of getting their heads together, egged on by the lyrics of Steve Goodman’s Banana Republics, or Jimmy Buffett crooning about wasting away in Margaritaville. Dahl’s Yucatán is a lonelier place, where the music is joyless and inaccessible, the heat just wears you down, and the drug highs are actually sustained lows.
Those were the seventies, when curiosity and a paperbound copy of Carlos Castanada in your backpack could lead you anywhere. Today, Americans seem far less inclined to ever want to become hippie adventurers. They’ve been cowed and enervated by events, and, too broke to catch the view from the deck of a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, now seem content to look at the world through YouTube, finding the entire idea of Strange Lands (and the passports and customs inspectors and odd practices that go with them) to be troublesome and confusing.
Tomorrow, it will be clusters of wealthy Chinese and Indian beatniks who go slumming in the smaller towns and suburbs of the USA Rust Belt, buying houses for a pittance, getting stoned on Trader Joe’s Cabernet, balling the entranced locals after an evening at Appleby’s, and grousing that they can’t find anything interesting to do in proximity to Nine Mile Road. When that occurs, as now seems inevitable, you would hope the Americans will show forbearance and outward tolerance for the strangers in their midst, as did the impoverished and powerless residents of Mérida, Yucatán, so compellingly depicted in Dahl’s fiction.