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God's Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madreby Richard Grant
Synopses & Reviews
Twenty miles south of the Arizona-Mexico border, the rugged, beautiful Sierra Madre mountains begin their dramatic ascent. Almost 900 miles long, the range climbs to nearly 11,000 feet and boasts several canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon. The rules of law and society have never taken hold in the Sierra Madre, which is home to bandits, drug smugglers, Mormons, cave-dwelling Tarahumara Indians, opium farmers, cowboys, and other assorted outcasts. Outsiders are not welcome; drugs are the primary source of income; murder is all but a regional pastime. The Mexican army occasionally goes in to burn marijuana and opium crops — the modern treasure of the Sierra Madre — but otherwise the government stays away. In its stead are the drug lords, who have made it one of the biggest drug-producing areas in the world.
Fifteen years ago, journalist Richard Grant developed what he calls an unfortunate fascination with this lawless place. Locals warned that he would meet his death there, but he didn't believe them — until his last trip. During his travels Grant visited a folk healer for his insomnia and was prescribed rattlesnake pills, attended bizarre religious rituals, consorted with cocaine-snorting policemen, taught English to Guarijio Indians, and dug for buried treasure. On his last visit, his reckless adventure spiraled into his own personal heart of darkness when cocaine-fueled Mexican hillbillies hunted him through the woods all night, bent on killing him for sport.
With gorgeous detail, fascinating insight, and an undercurrent of dark humor, God's Middle Finger brings to vivid life a truly unique and uncharted world.
"As he travels through Mexico's Sierra Madre, one of the largest drug-producing regions in the world, British journalist Grant (American Nomads) encounters a rugged landscape where the mythical old Mexico meets the challenges of the new. The birthplace of Pancho Villa and the Apaches' last refuge, the Sierra Madre has long been home to outlaws and eccentric characters that inspired a variety of American westerns. Into this legendary danger zone, with its exceptionally high murder rate, rides Grant — on horseback, though he has never ridden previously. Grant is the finest kind of travel narrator; though fully cognizant of the dangers and foolhardiness of his obsession with this land, he throws himself into crazy situations, such as a quest for buried gold treasure, a sampling of Mexican folk remedies, a terrifying Tarahumara Indian ritual when 'God gets into his annual drinking bout with the Devil,' a little cocaine or 'blasting parakeet' with local drug dealers, and lots and lots of drinking. He narrates these adventures with unflappable charm and humor, risking his life to the reader's benefit, shared fear and delight of discovery. Though eventually worn out by his physically and emotionally challenging journey, Grant still manages to produce a clear-eyed, empathetic account of this complex, fascinating place." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"This intriguing and ultimately terrifying Mexican walkabout belongs to that subgenre of travel writing that can generally be summed up in four words: Should have stayed home. It's the author's first job to persuade us why he didn't, and in the initial chapters of 'God's Middle Finger,' Richard Grant does not quite succeed. Something about a sad divorce, a taste for risk and a desire... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) to see the Sierra Madre, the mythical but quite lawless mountain range that forms the backbone of western Mexico. Rugged, impoverished and all but closed to outsiders, the Sierra Madre is indeed a fine place to hide buried treasure — or to grow marijuana and opium poppies, while murdering anyone who tries to stand in your way. The rule of law is literally a distant rumor in the Sierra Madre, where the nearest police station can be a day's drive away (and the police in question are likely corrupt). Most murders and nearly all rapes go unreported; the locals simply sort things out among themselves. Grant, a British journalist, spends a lot of time on how-I-got-the-story, but not enough on why. 'Are you looking for your death?' he is asked by a folk healer. It seems a fair question, for at the outset the author comes across smelling like a bit of an adrenaline tourist, slumming for thrills. 'Here I was at last, riding an outlaw trail into the high wilds of the Sierra Madre,' he declares, having arrived in the fabled mountains and feeling smug; not long afterward, he's whipping out a hunk of Italian prosciutto. Thankfully for the reader, Grant's self-satisfaction soon withers, replaced by a genuine fascination with this isolated, violent place. He describes a small-town festival that manages to be 'a solemn religious celebration, a drunken party, a social occasion, and a flea market, all rolled into one.' 'Behind his tented stall,' he writes, 'I saw one of the vendors dip a long thin knife into a plastic bag full of white powder, administer a parakeet-blast to both nostrils and then step up to relieve his partner. "Senores y senoras!" he bellowed. "I now present to you a most exquisite item of the finest quality at a price that is not to be believed! I have no boss, I have no wife, I have no children, my friends say I have lost my mind! Maybe that is why I can offer you a price of one hundred — NO! Eighty! — NO! Seventy! — NO! Fifty pesos is all I ask for this beautiful, hard-wearing set of saucepans."' The festival is crawling with a more sinister type of character: The narcos, both real and wannabe, the former distinguished only by the heft of their gold jewelry. The narcos run everything in the Sierra Madre, which is the headwaters of the drug supply stream. In the hardscrabble mountain villages, marijuana is known as the crop that pays, and pretty much everyone grows it. That he navigates this dangerous land safely (for the most part) is a testament to his drinking abilities — and his thoroughgoing command of Mexican curses. ('Sons of obscene perpetrations!' is how he translates a standard Sierra Madre toast.) In one fascinating scene after another, he meets peasant marijuana farmers, very many drunks and a few Mormons and Mennonites, who fled south for various political and religious reasons. He spends time with the indigenous Tarahumara and memorably attends an Easter festival in a Tarahumara town that descends into total madness, fueled by the local corn-brewed beer, tesguino. (The local statue depicting God is missing all but one of its fingers; hence the book's title.) But not until about page 200 do we encounter anything like a larger point: in this case, the utter futility of the war on drugs and the hypocrisy of waging it against suppliers rather than consumers. The impoverished farmer who grows marijuana is merely responding to market forces, as any good American capitalist would. It's not a message we really want to hear, up in El Norte. When Grant volunteers to teach English in a local schoolhouse, he has his students compose a letter to their American peers, describing their lives. He shows the letter to teachers in Tucson, but they decline to use it in their classes because of the references to pistols and pot. Better to build a border fence and pretend that this Mexico doesn't exist. When an American expat activist expresses the hope that Mexico is headed toward a liberal-democratic future, Grant is doubtful: 'I thought the whole nation was turning more feral, violent, and chaotic, that the Sierra Madre held glimpses of Mexico's future as well as its past.' A strong editor might have moved this up and turned it into the book's controlling thesis, but Grant is more of a rambling sort of writer, one who keeps pushing the limits. Not to give away the ending, but I think I can sum things up in six words instead of four: He got what he came for. Bill Gifford is the author of 'Ledyard: In Search of the First American Explorer.'" Reviewed by Bill Gifford, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"[A] fascinating book, filled with tales that will surely keep readers in suspense. Grant's own near-death experience alone will captivate them. Highly recommended." Library Journal
"It was an arduous trip for Grant, but readers will be glad that he took it." Booklist
"This is exactly the book you're hoping for when you pick it up: a crazy, sprawling story so well-written, you can't decide whether to keep reading or go to Mexico to see for yourself. Keep reading: You have an extraordinary book in your hands." Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm
"There is nothing here of the 'I jumped over a puddle' aspect of modern adventure stories. As an Englishman, Grant has far too much of the mad dog in his character, and I am surprised indeed that he survived his journey. This is a thoroughly enlivening book, the rare kind that makes you want to sleep with a pistol under your pillow." Jim Harrison, author of Returning to Earth
Part gonzo misadventure, part cultural history, God's Middle Finger explores a fascinating land — the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico — where few outsiders are foolish enough to venture.
About the Author
Richard Grant is an award-winning travel writer who has published his work in Men's Journal, Esquire, and Details, among others. He is also the author of American Nomads and God's Middle Finger. Grant currently lives in Tucson, Arizona.
Table of Contents
Prologue 1 Boiled Vultures 2 Dead Soldiers 3 Bad Man in a Dress 4 Sleeping with Lions 5 Intrepid Norwegian 6 For Their Health 7 Lofty's Gold 8 Blasting Parakeet with The Pelican 9 Hat Talk 10 A Girl Needs a Pistol 11 Bandit Country 12 The Secret Sex Lives of Narcotraficantes 13 The Liver Does Not Exist 14 God Is Drunk 15 Sons of Obscene Perpetrations 16 The Centaur of the North 17 Deliverance in Durango Selected Bibliography Index
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