A horrendous story told with bitter skill, highlighting the whole sordid, greedy mess that attends illegal broader crossings.—Kirkus Reviews
The Devil’s Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea. Little, Brown, 256 pp.
Poet, memoirist, novelist, short story writer, journalist—Luis Alberto Urrea is the best writer I’d never heard of until I read The Devil’s Highway. Urrea, creative writing professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, has published thirteen books. A 2005 Pulitzer finalist, The Devil’s Highway is about the suffering and deaths in a group of twenty-six Mexicans who tried to sneak into America through the Arizona desert in May 2001. This tragic incident is deeply and palpably researched and fully imagined.
The book begins with the Border Patrol’s discovery of the dying refugees. At least fourteen of the Mexicans, most of them from Veracruz, a leafy tropical place, died in the desert, sunbaked—as maladapted as gringos to heat over 100 degrees, no shade, their scant water scalding and then gone. This part is written from the point of view of the Border Patrol, the writer having spent much time with its agents and environs. He also met with smugglers and illegals.
One of the book’s impressive feats is that readers experience how each group thinks, jokes, sees the world—and, surprisingly for Border Patrol’s image, we see their compassion for Mexicans who risk their lives for the most modest dreams; in their rough way the agents aren’t above playing jokes on them, and call them “tonks,” for the sound a cop’s flashlight makes hitting their heads, but the macho border guards labor daily to save them, too. Rushing to help this group, Urrea reports, they sustain twenty-six flat tires, and some drive on rims.
The cops and the illegals alone know the stakes:
Death by sunlight, hyper-thermia, was the main culprit. But illegals drowned, froze, committed suicide, were murdered, were hit by trains and trucks, were bitten by rattlesnakes, had heart attacks. . . . The deaths, however, that fill the agents with deepest rage are the deaths of illegals lured into the wasteland and then abandoned by their Coyotes.
The book’s midsection recreates the fatal trip from beginning to end. As the illegal crossing falls apart in the trackless Sonora, Urrea artfully cites official reports and interviews. He’d already earned my trust, and my pleasure here extended to his imagination. He recreates the wanderings of the delirious, splintered group, and riffs on what it feels like to be at the mercy of careless, incompetent smugglers and to die horribly of thirst and heatstroke. Forget sunburn and cracked lips: the skin blackens, the kidneys stop, organs break down internally.
In places, the prose becomes surreal and hallucinogenic:
The day tormented them. Thirst. Pain. Men crawled under creosotes, under the scant shade of scraggly mesquites. It was a dull repetition of the entire walk. As rote as factory work. Their hours clanged by like machines. They were in the dirt like animals.
Six o’clock in the morning took ten hours to become seven o’clock.
A week later, it was eight o’clock.
The temperature screamed into the nineties before nine o’clock.
They waited. They couldn’t even talk. They panted like dogs, groaned. Men put their hands to their chests, almost delicately, as if checking their own pulses. But they were barely awake. They were half in dreams and half in the day, and the day itself was a bad dream. Dry wings swished in the air around them. Voices, coughing. Far above, the icy silver chips of airplanes cut the blue. Out of reach.
Named a best book of the year by many publications and optioned by Mexican director Luis Mandoki for a film to star Antonio Banderas, The Devil’s Highway reflects Urrea’s long interest, heritage, and expertise. As a young writer for The San Diego Reader, he published pieces adapted from and shaped into his first book, Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border. In a video interview on his web site, Urrea says of the brutal city desk editors of his newspaper days: “I had not been handled indelicately like that. I’d been rejected but not insulted. But they really fixed that book for me.”
I read The Devil’s Highway against the backdrop of rage about fabrications in various nonfiction books, and Urrea’s exhaustive but imaginative work makes shortcuts or fabrications seem lazy or puerile. Urrea is not nearly as button-downed as Tracy Kidder or John McPhee—at points he clearly imagines—but even without his long note explaining to readers his multiple approaches, The Devil’s Highway teaches itself and justifies itself in every line to anyone who reads it.