Book Review: ‘American Dirt’ by Jeanine Cummins

April 19, 2020 6:00 AM

In popular criticism of the novel, Cummins, and the publishing industry, this failure has led to the levelling of the ever-reliable allegation of cultural appropriation.

A file photo of migrants trying to reach the US looking through the border fence between Mexico and the US in Tijuana, Mexico (REUTERS Image)A file photo of migrants trying to reach the US looking through the border fence between Mexico and the US in Tijuana, Mexico (REUTERS Image)

By Suvanshkriti Singh

With the buzz around American Dirt having preceded its release by almost a year, the novel was poised to be a breakout commercial success. In the United States of Donald Trump and the Wall, the book’s premise—the grim adventures of a mother-and-son pair fleeing cartel violence-infested Mexico for the safety of el norte—screamed political currency. That, perhaps, explains American Dirt, in the run-up to its release, setting off a bidding war between publishers that resulted in Jeanine Cummins, its author, striking a seven-figure deal. Hollywood, too, unsurprisingly, was quick to give its stamp of approval, with screenwriter Charles Leavitt (of Blood Diamond fame) helming the book’s film adaptation. Accompanying its launch was the announcement that it would be included in Oprah Winfrey’s book club, and extravagant praise from the likes of John Grisham and Stephen King.

Granted, not all publicity was good publicity. Criticism preceding the book’s release ranged from such trivialities as Cummins’s apparent insensitivity to migrants’ struggles—evidenced in her choice of a barbed wire centrepiece at a pre-launch dinner—and exaggeration of her personal association with the subject, to such laden structural concerns as allegations of cultural appropriation and fostering, through complicity, the publishing industry’s racial bias. Yet, hype had been built up—here was a book that would open up conversation on some of the most pressing issues of modern times. That American Dirt would be widely read, whether to be hated or to be loved, was a foregone conclusion.

Imagine, then, the disappointment of discovering not only that the novel fails entirely and spectacularly in living up to its political potential, but also that it is a classic example of the mediocrity that is the formulaic American thriller.

American Dirt opens with what Hannah Giorgis, reviewing the book for The Atlantic, calls “a perfunctory slaughter”. In a relatively posh Acapulco neighbourhood, Lydia hides in the bathroom of her mother’s house, shielding Luca, her eight-year-old son, with her body as members of a drug cartel gun down her family. Lydia’s husband, a journalist, had crossed the cartel’s leader, and on her niece’s quinceañera barbeque, all 16 of Lydia’s immediate living family pays the price.

Lydia’s orphaning and widowing, in the course of a single afternoon, is only the beginning of what is to be a harrowing journey of over 2,500 miles, and 450 pages. Protecting Luca is the only conscious thought that Lydia finds herself capable of, and insofar as it is this thought, far more than the impulse for survival, that fuels her to trudge on through grief, hunger, guilt, sleeplessness, and paranoia, much of the novel is an ode to the hardiness of the maternal instinct.

If the opening massacre is simultaneously flamboyant and blasé, sending a chill down one’s spine and a sharp pain through one’s chest, it also sets the tone for how the novel’s plot is going to be—predictable, if well-paced. From the history that we learn Lydia has with the man who ordered the murder of her family to the moment of a final betrayal and that of some meagre catharsis, the plot points fail to innovate, and the twists inspire neither surprise nor shock. In part, this is due to the atmosphere of desolation that Cummins creates. The weight of the gloom that tinges the entirety of American Dirt is substantial, and sometimes costs the novel its ability to portray anxiety, urgency, and threat with sufficient nuance. At one point, Lydia notes that she has, perhaps, lost the ability to be astonished. The reader’s experience is not much different. And, the hackneyed, harried plot resolution does nothing to close a middling thriller on a high note.

The dangers that mother and son—and the motley migrants who become, by virtue of the singularity of their shared experience, something akin to family—face, as well as the ones they avoid, too, are trite in their rhythm. For instance, the migrants’ encounter with the Mexican immigration police and their final desert crossing are, respectively, banal and disappointing. Yet, there are moments of brilliance, in which Cummins renders the migrants’ horrors vividly, viscerally alive. It would be a hard heart, indeed, that didn’t empathise with Lydia’s many moral dilemmas, or shudder at the circumstances of Soledad’s pregnancy, and consequent miscarriage.

Cummins is at her literary best in her treatment of interiority, in particular, that of her female characters. However, her sensitivity to the sensibility of bereavement is a double-edged sword. While it brings Lydia to life—unfortunately, many characters, including, one often feels, Luca’s, are consigned to a tired, two-dimensional existence—it also results in American Dirt becoming, at a bare-bones level, simply another survivalist suspense novel. Any bite that the political dimension of the book’s premise might have held is lost in its black-and-white moral universe.

In fact, Cummins seems to have gone out of her way to ensure that American Dirt remains an apolitical exercise. It is powerful in its ability to create empathy among its readers. Lydia’s moment of reckoning with her new identity as a migrant, for instance, is bound to give readers pause. Lydia has always pitied the migrants, and “wondered with the sort of detached fascination of the comfortably elite how dire the conditions of their lives must be wherever they come from, that this is the better option.” The simple realisation of her newfound status as one of “those poor people”, “knocks the breath clean out of her lungs”. But, even if empathy can generate solidarity—flatten the dissimilarity of colour to look at essential commonalities between a mother, a woman, a child on either side of the border—it cannot be a call to action. Reading American Dirt offers quite a few emotional experiences, but a jolting awakening of one’s conscience is not one of them; readers, whatever their political inclination, can only come away from this novel, at best, feeling for migrants “with the sort of detached fascination of the comfortably elite”.

What’s worse is that its advertisement as a political novel on “America’s immigration problem”—false as it is—limits the book’s ability to awaken even this empathy. While it wasn’t, to begin with, the kind of novel that launches a thousand petitions, its political pretensions risk trapping it in echo-chambers of those who, refusing to confront the structural roots of global political crises, satisfy themselves with the existence of a conversation on them, never mind its substance, relevance, or quality.

Cummins had an irreproachable intention behind writing American Dirt—“to create a pause where the reader may begin to individuate” instead of seeing Central and Latin American migrants coming to the United States as “one faceless brown mass”. However, in terms of execution, she is far off the mark. In part, this is because Cummins doesn’t imagine herself deeply enough into the lives of her characters. The visible, almost perverse obsession with the brownness of her characters’ skins, as well as the emphasis on its various shades, is a clear and unfortunate indication of an author who, despite her benign, even noble intent, forgets that to write about a marginalised people means to write them—and not herself—as the centre. Instead, one is appalled by the colonial undertones in the protagonists’ constant surprise at the kindness of strangers.

In popular criticism of the novel, Cummins, and the publishing industry, this failure has led to the levelling of the ever-reliable allegation of cultural appropriation. But, the term, as Zadie Smith argues in an essay in The New York Review of Books, is merely “our preferred verbal container for the phenomenon of writing about others”, and the practice could just as easily be called “interpersonal voyeurism”, “profound-other-fascination”, or “cross-epidermal reanimation”.

Few outside of members of fringe groups, after all, would argue that “only an intimate authorial autobiographical connection with a character can be the rightful basis of a fiction”. Cummins herself worried if she, being non-Mexican and non-immigrant, was the right person to tell a story about Mexican migrants. But, perhaps, the more pertinent question she should have asked herself is how she could imagine herself into a different subjectivity ethically, responsibly, and well. Despite being a product of four years of research, American Dirt remains, pitifully, the work of an outsider looking in, writing—explaining—for the benefit of other than its subject(s).

This is an engaging, mildly entertaining, but largely unexceptional suspense novel—none too bad for a weekend afternoon. Under the weight of expectations of political explosiveness, it crumples, politics being a subject too complex to be woven into its sparse plot.

Book details

American Dirt
Jeanine Cummins
Pp 465, Rs 699

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