Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, August 30, 2021

Monday, August 30, 2021: Maximum Shelf: Perpetual West

Algonquin Books: Perpetual West by Mesha Maren

Algonquin Books: Perpetual West by Mesha Maren

Algonquin Books: Perpetual West by Mesha Maren

Algonquin Books: Honor by Thrity Umrigar

Perpetual West

by Mesha Maren

To compress Mesha Maren's exhilarating second novel, Perpetual West, into a quick description would be an injustice to her intricately plotted, unsettling narrative about two 21-year-olds unsure of who they really are. Whereas her debut, Sugar Run, had its characters return to Maren's home landscape of rural West Virginia, Perpetual West removes a young couple from their West Virginia upbringing cross-country to the El Paso/Ciudad Juárez border for startling, transforming discoveries.

Elana and Alex met at 17, when Elana was a high school junior and precocious Alex already a Hall College freshman. Elana's father, Meyer, is "an undergraduate history professor at [Hall] an unknown liberal arts college in bumf*ck Virginia." Elana was raised in rural West Virginia by her maternal grandmother after her mother died giving birth to Elana's brother, Simon; the siblings eventually reunited with Meyer. Alex was a scholarship student whose academic promise landed him a room in Meyer's home. Six months later, Elana and Alex married because Alex, a transracial adoptee from Juárez raised by Pentecostal parents, couldn't, wouldn't, have sex before marriage. Meyer's only comment? "Wow, huh, seems almost a little incestuous."

Four years later, in August 2005, Elana and Alex drive west to start their University of Texas El Paso degrees: a sociology master's for Alex, undergrad English for Elana. Initially, they try living on the Juárez side of the U.S./Mexico border. After a brief attempt to expand Alex's origin story--"tiny dark-eyed baby nestled inside the clothing donation box outside the Heart Cry Holiness Mission House of Juárez, yellow blanket, no note"--the pair settle in El Paso at Elana's urging: "Elana didn't understand why he wanted to spend so much time in Juárez when El Paso was full of people like him who looked Mexican but didn't speak perfect Spanish." Alex, understandably, wants to experience his heritage. "It was the friction that he liked, though. He couldn't pick up where he had left off as an infant, no, of course not, he would never be Mexican like that, but here in Juárez he felt like he was being etched into a more precise version of himself. Instead of carrying around with him the face of a country and people he did not know, he was joining himself here--not finding himself, that was stupid and cheesy, no, he was joining himself."

Already, Elana and Alex are diverging. Elana is skipping classes and working at Susie's Tex-Mex Café. Alex goes south at every opportunity, mostly to Kasa de Kultura, a collective house filled with anti-government activists and artists. He's recently changed his thesis topic from "the psychogeography of accountability" to lucha libre, masked Mexican wrestling both flamboyant and menacing. His adviser thinks he's genius to explore "how it's a staging ground for contradictory sociological domains: tradition and modernity, violence and security, machismo and feminism."

By December, their separation becomes literal--although initially not intentional. Elana travels to Virginia to welcome her brother, Simon, home from rehab. A month after Elana and Alex's move west, Simon, demanding cash for his next hit, threatened Meyer with a knife; Meyer had him committed. With Elana gone, Alex goes to Juárez, to Mateo, a lucha libre champion with whom he's been having an affair. Mateo is facing his own complications--his wrestling promotion agency has sold him to a ruthless cartel boss. A last-ditch escape attempt traps Alex in Mateo's dangerous vortex. When Elana returns, Alex has disappeared. From dark basements to mansion roof decks, questions multiply, answers elude her.

Maren masterfully crafts flawed yet deeply empathic protagonists unsure of how to live their own lives. Elana and Alex, despite bonding as teens, know virtually nothing about each other as adults; each presents "a prefab identity," Elana later muses. She can't tell Alex (or her father) she's quitting school. Alex has dismissed his attraction to men ever since--well, ever since he's been attracted to men. Without looming controls--Elana her family, Alex his upbringing--the pair become virtually unrecognizable. Beyond remarkable characters, Maren slyly hones seemingly minor details into narrative dominance: Simon's homecoming leads to revelations about his drug abuse enabled by a maternal uncle; the prevalence of opioid addiction; his "My Higher Power is Jesus Christ"-Narcotics Anonymous reinvention--all of which Maren will adroitly connect to white-savior syndrome, NAFTA-induced corruption, drug cartels and religious salvation.

Enhancing her dynamic cast is Maren's remarkable ability to create a sense of place with just a few phrases and sentences: Elana's grandmother's dilapidated remote farmhouse is "too proud to crumble," still standing "among the clotheslines and cannibalized cars" guarded by a pit bull "chained with a BEWARE OF DOG sign hanging from his neck." Mateo's rented room, where Alex spends his first night away from Elana, has windows that "overlooked the pickup basketball games on Camomila, dogs snuffling through trash, an old woman sweeping her steps as she waited for the water truck; the other ones looked onto... the pink lights of Tito's Sex Shop and Playboy Disco across the way."

Maren's people, their landscapes, create an immersive experience, made memorable for all the twists and turns that never quite lead to a straightaway. A chimerical storyteller, Maren writes with candor and grit, refusing likely endings, searching for--but never promising--new beginnings. --Terry Hong

Algonquin Books, $26.95, hardcover, 384p., 9781643750941, January 21, 2022

Algonquin Books: Perpetual West by Mesha Maren

Mesha Maren: 'Fear and Unease Can Be a Writer's Best Friend'

(photo: Natalia Weedy)

Mesha Maren's 2019 debut, Sugar Run, took almost a decade to hit shelves. In the meantime, she published short stories in various prestigious journals (the Oxford American, the Southern Review) and won numerous prizes and fellowships (2015 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize, MacDowell and Ucross residencies). Maren's sophomore novel, Perpetual West (Algonquin, January 25, 2022), introduces a young couple from West Virginia hoping to establish new lives on the El Paso/Ciudad Juárez border.

Sugar Run--murder, prison, domestic abuse, long-gone fame, family dysfunction, and, of course, love. And now Perpetual West--transracial adoption, borders, academia, lucha libre, activism, addiction, God. Well, wow. Where do these stories come from?

For me, both plot and themes, like the ones that you pointed out, are actually the last aspects of the book that I focus on. What comes first are the images and then the characters. With Sugar Run I began with an image of a curtain blowing in an open window and a glass of melting ice and whiskey on the windowsill. I asked my brain to expand the lens a little. When I opened the frame, I realized that it was a window in a motel room and two women were there.

With Perpetual West, I began with the image of the border station, the clogged chaos of the road going south into Juárez, and the incident with the groceries that occurs at the opening of the book. I knew there were two people in the car, but it took me a while to figure out who Elana and Alex were. I also had this feeling that there was a third very important person on the other side of the border. That ended up being Mateo.

Both novels are so much about place. How did Perpetual West land at the El Paso/Juárez border?

Place is very important to me in my life and in my writing. West Virginia is home for me. The only other place that has drawn me in like West Virginia is the landscape right around El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua. I moved to that area when I was 21. I was following a woman who I was in love with. She was participating in a study abroad program where she lived in Juárez and took classes at the University of Texas El Paso. I lived mostly on the El Paso side and worked with an organization called La Mujer Obrera, a community organizing center that formed after NAFTA, when the garment workers in El Paso lost their jobs. I crossed the border into Juárez multiple times a week and became fairly familiar with both sides of the border. While I was living there, the woman I was in love with ended up leaving me for a punk activist and up-and-coming wrestler. I moved away from the area after nine months, but I always knew that I wanted to return and write about both my time there and the landscape. Years later when I began to seriously draft what would become Perpetual West, I actually found the wrestler who I had lost my love to and we reconnected on Facebook. He was generous and gracious and ended up helping me learn about the wrestling world in both Juárez and Mexico City.

I found an article you wrote in 2020 about West Virginia's wrestling scene. Did interest in lucha libre come first, or local wrestling?

I've been fascinated by wrestling ever since I was a kid and went to a few very small local matches in West Virginia. Juárez was the first place where, as an adult, I spent time around wrestling communities and it reignited my interest.

I actually studied wrestling while I was writing the first draft of Perpetual West. I was living in Carrboro, North Carolina, and I suddenly felt so physically distant from the matches I had seen in Mexico and the matches from my childhood. In order to write Mateo's chapters, I had to know on a physical level what the ring feels like. I signed up for classes at the Firestar Pro Wrestling School in Greensboro and it was such a wonderful experience. My goal was not to actually become a wrestler or even be any good at wrestling but to feel some of the same physical feelings that Mateo would feel, and the owner of the school was very open to that. He did however tell me, at a certain point, that I was likely going to give myself a concussion and then I wouldn't be able to write my novel at all, so I did more observing rather than actually wrestling.

Did you ever feel uncomfortable writing about a closeted transracial adoptee desperate to reconnect with his Mexican heritage? And what about creating Mexican native Mateo on the page?

Yes, of course, I think that if I didn't have any concerns or fears I would be out of touch. I had and have lots of concerns. What I try to do with those concerns is put them to work on the page, utilize them to force myself to dig deeper and look closer. There is this incredible essay by Kwame Dawes ["Back to Empathy"] that I really relate to, where he talks about empathy as a function of the imagination.

My process is to use my concerns and fears to drive my research and writing. My fears disallow me from becoming lazy and thinking that I prematurely understand a character. I think fear and unease can be a writer's best friend. Feeling comfortable and at ease doesn't always produce the best writing.

You're a creative writing professor at Duke and an NEA Writing Fellow at a federal prison in West Virginia. That must be a rather polemic experience, moving between the privileged and forgotten. How do you manage such diverging spheres? 

These two disparate teaching experiences inform and enrich each other. I taught creative writing in various state and federal prisons before I ever taught in a university setting; I think the wide range of students who I came into contact with in the prison classrooms was one of the best preparatory experiences I could have ever asked for. I had to leave all my assumptions at the door when teaching in prison because my classes were such a mixture. I have had students with PhDs or multiple master's degrees alongside adult students who learned to read and write while in prison, students who never finished high school but have written several novels. This experience prepared me to meet each and every student exactly where they are, to find out why they signed up for my class, what they want from the class and then try to help them achieve that. Strangely enough, that carries over very well in an environment like Duke. I learned to set aside assumptions and look instead at the writing that each student submitted, and then help them build from there. --Terry Hong

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