New Orleans-based Nick Mainieri writes a coming-of-age story that treats border issues in a fresh, yet urgent, way. He draws two young lovers, Luz and Jonah, who are pulled into the violence of Mexico’s drug war when Luz embarks on a journey back to Mexico. While Mainieri’s characters begin their story as listless teens navigating the minutiae of young love, they quickly confront socio-political systems that span borders.
Luz is a high school student who immigrates to New Orleans to be with her father after her mother dies in Mexico. After becoming seriously involved with Jonah, she gets pregnant and her already distant father sends her to live with her grandmother in Mexico. When Luz leaves, Jonah quickly follows after. On separate journeys through Northern Mexico, they each come to understand U.S.- Mexican border relations in different ways and while Jonah is challenged to find some meaning in his life, Luz meets gang leaders in their most violent iterations. Luz finally reaches her grandmother’s home to find her trip has changed her in inevitable ways.
In explaining the drug war, Mainieri doesn’t merely focus on egocentric, masochistic drug lords. He also explains the drug war as the result of inequalities and broken political systems, questioning the logic of participation. The characters networks and loyalties create a complicated web of obligations and enemies. After deciding to sacrifice information to a cartel to save a friend, a drug lord says to Luz, “Your choice aligns you with us.” Both sides of the border are plagued with a dependency on the drug market, and those who participate, often do so out of necessity and lack of alternatives.
Mainieri also explains the political force of the border. He writes, “It doesn’t matter how close we are to each other, the border will always be there.” However, this is not written not as nihilism pointed at the discomforts of cultural difference, but rather as an admonition of the material, political reality of the border and its effects on people’s lives.
Mainieri’s first novel is a must-read for exploring U.S.-Mexico relations in a Trump-era. A coming-of-age story set through and against the border, the novel brilliantly points to faulty political systems and the traumas they cause.