Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Ultimate Good Luck by Richard Ford- A review

The Ultimate Good Luck (TUGL) was not an easy book for me to read, but that isn't due to any flaw in the story, it is a testament to how accurately the entire novel captures the moods and viewpoint of its antihero, Harry Quinn. Quinn is veteran of the Vietnam War, a drifter, a laborer, a drinker and a bit of a druggie, the kind of person who used to be somebody's son, who went to school down the street, and who went to fight for his country only to find himself fighting ghosts and children in the jungle and the darkness. He wasn't destroyed by the war, completely, but he is no longer whole.

Quinn has answered a cry for help from Rae, his estranged companion, because Rae's brother, Sonny, is trapped in a Mexican jail on drug charges. Making matters worse, the drug charges are completely legitimate: Sonny was caught trafficking in cocaine, bringing it north from Columbia to the US via Mexico, a practice known as muling. The problem now is to get Sonny out of jail, and Quinn has set the wheels in motion to solve everything, as long as the good luck holds. Quinn has hired a well-connected lawyer, Bernhardt, and it seems that both the plan and the luck are on track. However, this is Mexico, Oaxaca to be precise, where the zócalo, or town square, is full of impoverished Zapotec Indians and bewildered tourists, and a constant stream of Indians circulates in a netherworld between the mountains and the valley below, where the capitol city lies. This is Mexico, and Mexico has bigger problems to worry herself over than a few US citizens, especially a small-time crook...

...and so it goes that the plans of all visitors, whether wide-eyed tourists from the Midwest or dopers from nowhere in particular, must bow to greater forces as the army, police, guerrillas, Zapotec and other groups feint, withdraw, and attack in a constant struggle for survival, civil rights, and any rights at all. Just because the struggle seems below the surface much of the time, one can't assume it has ceased- relax your guard, or just walk out of your hotel for lunch, and you may end up blown across a street by a bomb or taken away forever by soldiers, desaparecido.

What is a guerrilla? After a fatal gunfight and major cocaine bust at the airport, the lawyer Bernhardt offers an operational definition,

In Mexico, to obey the law is always to avoid it. If the police are shot, then guerrillas are accused... Many people don't know they're guerrillas before the police say so. But they begin to act that way as soon as they find out.
Through Quinn's peculiar vision, we glimpse wartime Vietnam, the confused childhood days that preceded it, and the aimless, rootless wandering that followed the war. We hear of Sonny's descent from State basketball champion to point-shaving pro in Norway, to drug mule, to prisoner. We learn of Rae's own restless drifting, no purpose to her life, no aims or goals, just a sequence of days to get through and occasional times to get high.

When Bernhardt tells Quinn, "Sometimes it is necessary to kill a man," Harry wants no part of it. Harry Quinn is a combat veteran and a survivor, and he can navigate through a violent landscape if things fall apart, but he isn't looking for trouble, he's just trying to get out of town with his good luck intact. Maybe that means getting back together with Rae, and maybe they'll have Sonny in tow.

Luck, however, starts to drain away like grains of sand, and intuition tells Quinn that his window of opportunity is closing. It is hard to depend on a plan when graft plays a central role, even in a place where graft seems to be a way of life. Sonny is still in prison when the avenues that could lead him back home start to close down, some closing with military barricades and some when lines of communication are cut. Guerrilla and army action disrupt life for all of Oaxaca and they disrupt the patterns and relationships that Quinn depended upon. As for Sonny, he has created more than enough bad luck for all of them.

TUGL is no summer potboiler of a novel, even though it offers plenty of suspense and danger. The story is hard and harsh, showing no sympathy and leaving many in its wake, like life itself. There are many villains and there are many victims. There are those who should survive and those who can't survive, and when they are one and the same, life and luck give Quinn and Rae pause. If they pause too long, however, they'll be dead.

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