Fractured American

David E. Stuart colorfully re-creates 1970s Mexico in his fun 'Flight of Souls'

As a child, the protagonist of David E. Stuart's latest novel was equally capable of holding imaginary tea parties with "Betty Anne" and smashing his drunken stepfather's privates with a ball-peen hammer.

As an adult, he teeters between similar impulses of hope and cynicism ... while he tries to hammer out personal emotional reconciliation.

Stuart's central character is a fractured American who searches for wholeness in Mexico.

West Virginia native Stuart, former academic administrator and current anthropology professor at the University of New Mexico, clearly appreciates Southwestern and Latin American cultures.

His 2003 memoir The Guaymas Chronicles: La Mandadera, which won Tucson-Pima Public Library's Southwest Book of the Year, recounts Stuart's life when, as a 20-something, he hung out in Guaymas to heal from a breakup. His 2007 novel, The Ecuador Effect, placed 20-something anthropology-trained "human- rights investigator" John Alexander in Ecuador in the mid-1970s. This current book places a slightly younger John Alexander in Southern Mexico doing graduate work in the early 1970s.

Flight of Souls opens with a realistic young child's sensation of out-of-body flying. It then degenerates into a quick narrative of his and his twin brother's Dickensian childhood of abuse, orphanages, foster families and reform school. By the time the second chapter opens, adult John has long since lost the ability to "soul fly"; he's tamped down any capacity for emotional expression, and he's exploited a native intellect into a scholarships-aided college degree. His brother Eddie has joined the service. The Vietnam War is on. The CIA and the KGB are waging an underground battle, and anthro student JA stumbles between them in Mexico.

After he gets implicated in the murder of an East German diplomat in Veracruz, JA spends the book baiting and running from undercover thugs. Meanwhile, he actively searches for "soul."

Stuart vividly portrays Vietnam-era Mexico. He puts JA in a lively Mexico City intellectual/ artistic milieu, one in which his fictional character encounters or hears about real-life academics and historical figures, including archeologist John Paddock, Jack Kerouac and Pete Seeger. Gina Lollobrigida sunbathes topless adjacent to JA's digs. From Mexico City, JA travels north to Veracruz's beaches (and Veracruz's Cortez-era prison); he hangs out around Oaxaca City, and heads south to the Pacific and Gulf of Tehuantepec towns and indigenous villages. And he does it convincingly--it's portrayed by a writer you're quite sure flagged down his own buses and used facilities that amounted to open drain pipes threaded into second-story floors.

Professor Stuart successfully avoids lecturing as he weaves in the stuff of anthropology and folklore. JA becomes interested in a group of Aztec descendents known as the Nahuat, whose "star-calling" ritual he participates in and whose language he works to acquire. A relationship with Malinalli, the daughter of a Nahuatl priest, jumpstarts some of this learning. It also introduces him to realties of class and racial prejudice. That reality, along with themes that readers of previous Stuart work will recognize, are central to Flight of Souls: Sensitive nortéamericanos can come alive in Mexico. Machismo rules. The "virgin or whore" dichotomy still reigned in the 70s: JA's first girlfriend is a devout Mexican girl eager to help him "find his soul," but she's saving herself for marriage. His second girlfriend distinctly subordinates "soul" to "kink." And sexual and spiritual reconciliation comes in the form of the young Natuatl woman who identifies in JA two souls--one Christian, the other "animal."

Flight of Souls is, however, not without its weaknesses. A plot-led book, not a character-focused one, it's packed with so much action that you sometimes question the plausibility of incidents and JA's motivations. Also a bit clumsy is Stuart's apparent attempt at magical realism. The reader can accept the child's out-of-body experience, but two recurring devices he uses--"The Voice" on the negative side, and "Betty Anne" and a firefly motif on the positive--could have been toned down yet still attain the desired effect. Those said, Flight of Souls is nonetheless colorful, entertaining and informative. In addition to JA's escapades with bad guys, readers can indulge their own imagination by following him to where "red-tiled roofs jut out over the shady courtyard" with "geraniums, marigolds and gladiolas in big brightly painted pots," where "an ancient carved stone fountain bubbles in the courtyard, and lush, blood-red bougainvillea cascade down (a) wall."

Reads like a place to find soul.

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