Mexico

Stories
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The unforgettable characters in Josh Barkan’s astonishing and beautiful story collection—chef, architect, nurse, high school teacher, painter, beauty queen, classical bass player, plastic surgeon, businessman, mime—are simply trying to lead their lives and steer clear of violence. Yet, inevitably, crime has a way of intruding on their lives all the same. A surgeon finds himself forced into performing a risky procedure on a narco killer. A teacher struggles to protect lovestruck students whose forbidden romance has put them in mortal peril. A painter’s freewheeling ways land him in the back of a kidnapper’s car. Again and again, the walls between “ordinary life” and cartel violence are shown to be paper thin, and when they collapse the consequences are life-changing.
 
These are stories about transformation and danger, passion and heartbreak, terror and triumph. They are funny, deeply moving, and stunningly well-crafted, and they tap into the most universal and enduring human experiences:  love even in the face of danger and loss, the struggle to grow and keep faith amidst hardship and conflict, and the pursuit of authenticity and courage over apathy and oppression. With unflinching honesty and exquisite tenderness, Josh Barkan masterfully introduces us to characters that are full of life, marking the arrival of a new and essential voice in American fiction.

Praise

Selected as a Best Book of 2017 by Library Journal

“I kind of think the purpose of life is to sing,” muses an American picked up by thugs in “The Kidnapping.” “I don’t mean, literally, always to sing, but to sing metaphorically, to sing in some way of beauty, to raise the spirits of our voices in hope.” In that sense, “Mexico” is an ensemble performance for which Barkan composed all of the parts. - The New York Times Book Review

“These tales . . . are told with confidence and precision . . . As a whole, the book follows a smooth, symphonic arc, rising with the dark whimsy of ‘The Chef and El Chapo’. . .  Barkan works without the deceptions of 21st century cerebral irony. Behind the scenes lies a sophisticated intelligence that yields to a sense of humanity. The author identifies closely with the suffering of his characters . . . powerful epiphanies are the treasures buried within ‘Mexico.’”  - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 

"Barkan’s journalistic qualities shine through in each piece. He writes in first person, as if he interviewed each character and they relayed their story to him, yet he takes a fiction writer’s care in crafting each story. Fortunately for the reader, Barkan not only reveals the violent external world of Mexico, but also the struggle in each character’s inner world." - Rain Taxi

“These stories are gripping… I had to blink and look away occasionally because these are also intentionally, and successfully, terrifying… With a fine instinct for selecting the telling, sensory detail, he captures Mexico City’s sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. . . Sometimes, in a collection, one story stands out, or calls out and speaks to an individual reader’s preferences.  This is a uniformly strong gathering. . . Mexico demonstrates his significant talent and promises there is more to anticipate from this fine writer.” - Washington Independent Review of Books

""Congratulations on having penned a collection of stories dealing with crime, the drug cartels, prison, immigration, religion, morality and other compelling issues. They are told in a variety of voices—some violent, others soulful—but all are beautifully crafted and go right to the heart." - The Huffington Post

“Barkan…brings a journalist's eye to his stories and lends each of his primary characters a believable sympathy and often a life-changing moment. Despite the inherent compassion in many of these stories, there's also an underpinning of violence from Mexico's ongoing drug war that gives them a very unsettled air…Masterful stories that peel away at the thin border between everyday life and profane violence in modern-day Mexico.”Kirkus (starred)
 
“Barkan turns in a near-perfect debut collection that's addictive, delicious, and confounding in its knife-edge ride through the hard lives of its characters.Library Journal (starred)
 
"In Josh Barkan’s new story collection, Mexico, the prize-winning teacher of fiction shares stories that include transformation through love, struggle, and fate—but also almost always because of crime. . . He’s traveled there extensively since 2009 and is writing from experience, not hearsay. . . These are energetic, sympathetic, surprising tales." - Lithub

"Ordinary lives lived in an extraordinarily violent country in the grip of a drugs-based cartel. Josh Barkan’s Mexico: Stories is beautifully written against an ugly background of violence." - Town and Country

“What an unsettling, thrilling experience it is being dropped into the middle of Barkan’s Mexico. It is fraught, surreal, off-kilter, and very funny. Violence is as apt to erupt from any moment of fragile peace as great beauty and human spirit are apt almost miraculously to persist, to blossom out of all the mayhem and apparent hopelessness. These stories are wholly immersive, bizarre and recognizable at the same time, vital in their own unrepeatable, artful sensibility. “-Paul Harding, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Tinkers
 
“Mexico is a remarkable achievement. It is a portrait of a nation told from an astonishing range of characters, examining their daily lives in the wake of the violence created by the drug cartels.  With great authority and compassion, Josh Barkan explores the human cost of this violence, looking at this world with an eye that is both uncompromising and tender.  The stories are beautiful, funny, and terrifying; Barkan has created a collection that is utterly riveting and necessary. This is fiction of the highest order; read it now.” --Karen Bender, author of Refund (National Book Award Finalist, 2015)
 
Mexico is a poignant and original collection of stories.  “In Mexico everything’s about excess” the narrator explains and Josh Barkan proves this truth at every turn.  He also reminds us that short stories, when beautifully written, are never short. “ - Jennifer Clement, author of Prayers for the Stolen (PEN/Faulkner Award Finalist, 2015)
 
Macabre, outrageously funny, touching, and irresistibly readable, the stories in this collection depict with boldness the complexity, and madness, of contemporary Mexican society. The ensemble of diverse voices narrating these tales is mind-blowing. We have here the work of an original, terrifying and spectacularly gifted storyteller.” --Jaime Manrique author of Cervantes Street

“"Do you think you can stomach such a story?" one woman asks another in Mexico, Josh Barkan's impressive new collection. He possesses the skill, nerve, and compassion to tell unforgettable stories from across the border, stories that are by turns violent, tender, heart-breaking, haunted, and surprising, rendered with such exacting care that readers will answer that question with a resounding Yes.”-- Christopher Merrill, author of The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War (Director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa)
 
Mexico is a marvel. Josh Barkan has created a suite of stories that are beautiful and harrowing, wise and comic. His heroes, mostly American ex-pats who have headed South to reinvigorate their lives, are continually cast into danger, and forced to reckon with the darkness that lives around them, and within them. And yet, the wonder of these stories is their ability to guide us through this rough terrain without descending into cynicism. As readers, and humans, we are inspired by these tales to “sing in some way of beauty, to raise the spirit of our voices in hope.” --Steve Almond, author of The Evil B.B. Chow and Other Stories and Candyfreak
 
Raw, strange, beautiful, the stories bring us into the heart of a very dangerous country, which is Mexico, and something else, which is ourselves.” --Peter Behrens, author of Carry Me (Winner of the 2006 Governor General’s Award, Canada)
 
“Barkan's collection will thrill anyone curious about what goes on behind closed doors in contemporary Mexico. These tales mic the seductive voices of the marginal and lost. With a ventriloquist's skill,​ Barkan gets his speakers to lure you up surprising steps:
​toward a​ sacrificial plateau where anyone might steal your heart, including ​
the notorious drug lord El Chapo as well as your neighborhood soldier and corner prostitute. Barkan's prose is empathic and lucid in stories too fantastic to be anything but real.”- Edie Meidav, author of Kingdom of the Young and Lola, California

Excerpt

THE CHEF AND EL CHAPO

How the hell “El Chapo” Guzmán chose my restaurant to come into, I’ll never know. It was just like the stunt he’s done in a few other cities—Nuevo León and Culiacán. Guzmán—“Shorty”—it was him, with all his narco clothing. He had on a baseball cap with some of that digitalized camouflage the U.S. Army invented for Iraq, and a beige down parka. It was one of those cold days in June, after the rainy season has started, and the most badass narco in the country must have felt just a touch of a chill. Crazy! In my restaurant. With fifteen bodyguards swarming around him. The guards came in first. They all had AK‑47s swinging in their arms. They came in fast and polite, rushing past the maître d’. The leader of the guards, a tall guy with a neatly trimmed thin mustache and a diamond earring, swooped into the center of the dining room and yelled out, “The Boss will be coming soon. Everyone give us your purses and cell phones and continue with your meal. Nobody leaves before The Boss is done. If you cooperate, everything will be fine. You’ll get your purses and phones returned when The Boss is done. Leave your check. The Boss will pay for your meal.”

I knew Shorty was short, of course, but when he came in, it was surprising to see just how small the biggest drug kingpin was. He walked in quickly, like he knew where he was going. He turned to the first table, to the left, and introduced himself. He removed his cap and said in polite Spanish, “Hello, my name is El Chapo Guzmán. Nice to meet you.” He smiled and extended his hand to shake with one of the customers, an old man in a blue blazer who, fortunately, had the presence of mind to shake back. The customer looked like he’d just seen a ghost.

Guzmán went from table to table shaking hands like a politician asking for votes of approval. But the way he smiled, with a permanent grin and his eyes a little too focused on the clients, he seemed to be saying: You will like me! I’m not so fucking bad, right? After he reached the last table, he chuckled, cracking himself up. He was the most badass jokester in the world. He was the biggest gentleman, extending his hand of courtesy to every diner, after he’d killed hundreds.

Everyone in Mexico knows about him: how he married yet another young woman, some beauty queen, and how she had twins in a hospital in Los Angeles. How the guy controls all the cocaine, pot, and most of the meth and heroin that’s going into the U.S. I’ve only been in Mexico two years, building the restaurant up, but anyone who’s spent time down here knows the names of all these narcos like they’re the heroes and devils of the soap operas that are on all day in every housewife’s home and in every cantina.

So it didn’t take a genius to know the guy who’d just walked into my restaurant was capable of killing me and every one of my clients, and I was the head chef.

EL CHAPO ASKED to be escorted to a private room, in back, where we sometimes have lunches for important business people. My restaurant is in the neighborhood of Polanco, on the border with the most expensive neighborhood of Las Lomas, where all the international banks are located. The food in my restaurant is a mix of French with new American cuisine—meaning anything is OK, fusion with Asian touches, wasabi with bourbon crab, pork with chanterelle mushrooms in a ginger cream sauce with Beluga caviar sprinkled on top, arugula salad with truffle shavings and Cointreau sauce.

I wake up early in the morning and go to the San Juan market, in the center of Mexico City, to buy the freshest produce I can find. The market looks typical, at first, in a wide concrete warehouse, but the stalls are full of the latest vegetables trucked in pickups from small farmers, and there are even a few Korean stands where you can find Asian vegetables that are less common in Mexico City. Fusion cooking has been the rage in the U.S. for thirty years, but in Mexico it’s a new thing, so I’ve received more attention than a comparable chef would get in the U.S. That’s one of the reasons I came to Mexico. A friend of mine, who was living in Mexico, came into a restaurant where I was the head chef in Pittsburgh, he tasted some cured duck breast I was preserving in the cellar of the restaurant, he slurped up the homemade vinegars we were using in the salad dressings and to pickle baby carrots and peas, and he told me I could be an instant hit in Mexico City.

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