Peter Chilson’s recent fiction collection, Disturbance-Loving Species, won the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference Bakeless Prize in Short Fiction and Peace Corps Writers’ 2008 Maria Thomas Fiction Prize. He is the author of the travelogue Riding the Demon: On the Road in West Africa, which won the nonfiction award from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. His essays have twice appeared in Best American Travel Writing. Peter has also published in Creative Nonfiction, Ascent, The American Scholar, TheSmartSet, Audubon, The North American Review, Gulf Coast, and High Country News, where he was an editor. He teaches writing and literature at Washington State University and is working on a book about borderlands in Africa.
Reviewed by Peter Chilson (Niger 1985–87)
IN 1975 LARRY LIHOSIT LOST HIS JOB and took off with a couple of buddies on an odyssey through Mexico and Central America. Their adventures led them to the Peace Corps and Lihosit to the love of his life, a Mexican woman he married two years later. This is the arc of his book, South of the Frontera: A Peace Corps Memoir
Lihosit has chosen a hot region to write about. The United States’ tragic relationship with Mexico — a country immersed in unprecedented poverty and drug violence that has taken 23,000 lives in the last four years and sent millions fleeing north — has never been more important. The author’s experience during the 1970s puts him in position to show something of how we’ve come to what Charles Bowden describes in his recent book, Murder City, about the border town of Ciudad Juarez and the troubles that extend much farther south. “Imagine living in a place where you can kill anyone you wish and nothing happens,” Bowden writes, “except that they fall dead.”
But South of the Frontera loses its way in the opening pages as we follow the author and friends Dick and Milt in a “sports car” speeding “south across the open expanse known as the “Sonoran Desert ” and over the “international frontier.” The writing blurs landscape and character so that we don’t see either. We cannot tell who is who or where we are. We don’t know what jobs these Americans lost or why they are headed to Mexico and not, say, Morocco or Spain. Dick and Milt may as well be the same person. Mexico barely differs from Arizona, or the Honduran port town of La Ceiba from Mexico City.
Lihosit chooses instead to tell a lighthearted tale of travel and coming of age. The jacket blurb spells it out: “From basking in the Sea of Cortes alongside a pelican to learning to dance in Honduras.”
As a Peace Corps Volunteer Lihosit was assigned to urban planning, drawing apparently on his job experience in the U.S. He worked in, among other places, La Ceiba, where municipal authorities struggled to manage rapid population growth without adequate garbage disposal, water treatment, roads, heath care, and schools.
Lihosit witnessed a great deal and to his credit shows us the professional challenge. He writes, for example, of a rain swollen river that flooded La Ceiba soon after he began his job: “One night the river . . . brought the city garbage dump racing down the city’s main street with four feet of water. Since barrios on either side were lower, the water also moved east and west. Approximately thirty percent of the city was under water and with it, garbage.”
We learn how Lihosit and city officials worked to relieve flooding. But the human interest — the stories of individual people who died or survived and coped with catastrophe, and the stories of Hondurans who worked to repair the damage and relieve human suffering — are left untold. The book would gain much from the story of one person, or a family, whose lives the flood washed over. Nor do we see the devastation or learn what it was like to be there and witness a soup of water and garbage ruining a city. We don’t know what La Ceiba was like to live in before the flood, or after.
At the end of his book, Lihosit gives us a list of the main characters, 13 people, underlining a central problem with his narrative: Just two of them, including the author’s wife, are from south of the border. The rest, nine men, and two women, are American friends and colleagues. This is odd, given that the book’s first 60 pages — before the Peace Corps enters the picture — focus on Lihosit and his friends cavorting with two Mexican women, Elsa and Patricia, whom they met in Puerto Penasco, a resort town in Mexico on the Sea of Cortes, near Baja. One wonders why these women did not rank with the American characters or why so few Latin characters emerge as memorable figures.
Lihosit writes in his preface about an important Peace Corps goal: That Volunteers return to the U.S. to help raise awareness of cultures beyond our shores. He certainly gives readers a sense of the adventure and challenge of traveling in Mexico and working in Honduras in the 1970s. But he has missed a chance to broaden our understanding of a troubled region and to tell the story of the Hondurans and Mexicans who changed his life.
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