TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has just read a much-anticipated novel called "American Dirt." Maureen says that if the rest of 2020's novels are even half as good as this one, it's going to be a very good year.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: It was over a year ago that I began to hear off-the-charts recommendations from trusted booksellers about a novel called "American Dirt" by Jeanine Cummins. The novel's circle of admirers has since swelled to include the likes of Stephen King, Sandra Cisneros, John Grisham and Julia Alvarez. Such a disparate lineup of blurbs signals what an unusual creature "American Dirt" is. It's a literary novel, to be sure, with nuanced character development and arresting language, yet its narrative hurtles forward with the intensity of a suspense tale.
"American Dirt's" most profound achievement, though, is something I never could have been told about nor anticipated. Of all the what-if novels I've read in recent years, many of them dystopian, "American Dirt" is the novel that, for me, nails what it's like to live in this age of anxiety, where it feels like anything can happen at any moment.
"American Dirt" opens with the sudden, violent intrusion of the unthinkable into the mundane. An 8-year-old boy named Luca is standing before the toilet in his grandmother's house in Acapulco when a bullet, one of what sounds like hundreds, flies through the open window. A second later, Luca's mother Lydia runs in and shoves him tight against the tiled wall of a partially enclosed shower stall. The pair hold their breath as a gunman enters. Without glancing into the shower, he pees and leaves.
Outside, the corpses of 16 family members are scattered around the backyard. They'd gathered earlier that day for a quinceanera, a 15th birthday celebration. Among the dead is Sebastian, a journalist, who was Lydia's husband and Luca's father. It was Sebastian's expose of a cartel head nicknamed La Lechuza, The Owl, that sparked this mass execution. For the rest of the novel, Lydia will barely have time to take in her tragic losses. Cummins writes that trauma waits for stillness. And for Lydia, to stand still is to die.
What ensues from that horrific opening is a tense on-the-road ordeal in which Lydia struggles to save herself and her son from the long reaches of La Lechuza by trying to cross the border to the U.S. First, however, the pair have to get to the border from Acapulco - easier said than done.
Mexico has become one sprawling maze of a prison for Lydia and Luca. The cartels rule. They've paid off police, hotel desk clerks and airline ticket agents, and they maintain roadblocks on the highways between cities. The only way to travel north is to walk over a thousand miles or to ride La Bestia, the dangerous trains on which desperate migrants cling to the top of freight cars. With the help of two teenage sisters from Central America whom they meet along the way, this middle-class mother and son learn how to jump aboard the moving freight cars and hold on tight for their lives.
Cummins doesn't spare her characters from the predatory dangers the road poses - among them kidnapping, violence and sexual brutality. But random acts of kindness also abound - an outstretched hand to steady one's balance atop the freight car, the gift of an old knit cap to ward off cold. Early on in their ordeal, Lydia, who was a bookstore owner in Acapulco, is stunned to realize that what she'd first thought of as a disguise for her and Luca has become a reality.
(Reading) She and Luca are actual migrants. That is what they are. And that simple fact among all the other severe new realities of her life knocks the breath clean out of Lydia's lungs. All her life, she's pitied those poor people. She's wondered, with the sort of detached fascination of the comfortable elite, how dire the conditions of their lives must be, wherever they come from, that this is the better option. Lydia realizes now that after all those years of watching it happen elsewhere, Acapulco has joined the procession. No one can stay in a brutal, bloodstained place.
Cummins' novel brings to life the ordeal of individual migrants, who risk everything to try to cross into the U.S. But in its largest ambitions, the novel also captures what it's like to have the familiar order of things fall away and the rapidity with which we humans, for better or worse, acclimatize ourselves to the abnormal. Propulsive and affecting, "American Dirt" compels readers to recognize that we're all but a step or two away from joining the procession.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "American Dirt" by Jeanine Cummins.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROBBIE ROBERTSON'S "THEME FOR THE IRISHMAN")
GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Martin Scorsese, whose new film "The Irishman" is nominated for 10 Oscars, including best picture and best director. We'll talk about the film and his memories of growing up in New York's Little Italy and how that's influenced his movies. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Mooj Zadie and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROBBIE ROBERTSON'S "THEME FOR THE IRISHMAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.