In God’s Middle Finger, Richard Grant embarks on a sprawling adventure through the lawless Sierra Madre Occidental, home to many of Mexico’s most reviled narcos and banditos. Grant’s self-admitted addiction to “dark and dangerous places” leads him deeper and deeper into harm’s way as he encounters isolated indigenous tribes, cocaine and marijuana traffickers, and the kind of men who kill simply “to please the trigger finger.”
Despite the author’s well-intentioned efforts to portray the area’s people, culture, and history with an open mind and unbiased pen, he is eventually beaten down by what he calls the “Mexican machismo.” By the final chapter, in which Grant is hunted through the night by descendants of Pancho Villa, the reader is left with the overwhelming impression that Mexican culture, by default, produces greedy and violent murderers and rapists.
Was that Grant’s original intent? If the first three-quarters of God’s Middle Finger be the judge, then he most certainly did not seek to stereotype an entire population by its basest members. So why and how, then, did an otherwise marvelous work of travel literature (and a thrilling tale of close calls and derring-do) fail its subject matter so thoroughly? God’s Middle Finger begs the question: can a writer ethically portray another culture through the lens of the Western world?
Before he can even cross the border, a series of deadly shootings in the Sierra Madre threaten to put his adventure on hold indefinitely. Most travelers would have shelved their plans entirely if six soldiers were gunned down within miles of their starting point. But Grant eventually makes a connection on a ranch in the northernmost part of the Sierra Madre and drives across the border on the heels of a cold front.
Grant is in many ways the fearless traveller we secretly aspire to be: he’ll strike up a conversation with a stranger, dig for bandit’s treasure with new friends, and isn’t afraid to share a drink (or a snort of coke) with an unsavory character or two. Unassuming and nonjudgmental, Grant inserts himself into the local culture, developing the both reader’s trust and that of the people he meets.
Grant paints a vibrant picture of the region with characters like an old cowboy whose daughter was shot in the gut, the reclusive and taciturn Guarijio tribe, and more gun and profanity-slinging men than you could shake an AK at. He smoothly intertwines his oft-unbelievable experiences with the area’s diverse history. We learn about the last free Apaches, Pancho Villa’s attempt to go vegetarian, and the seeds that gave rise to today’s violent drug culture.
Throughout much of God’s Middle Finger, Grant struggles to understand the “bizarre” and “surreal” aspects of Mexican culture. At one point he writes, “I couldn’t understand what it was like to really live in a magical universe, controlled by God and the Devil, full of signs and portents, angels and demons, amenable to prayers, spells, magic stones, and flowers.” An admitted atheist, with “old-fashioned British common sense,” Grant, and most likely the majority of his audience, come to view the people of the Sierra Madre as something of a quaint peculiarity.
A well-travelled writer or thinker should know better than to set their belief system on a pedestal as the only true way of experiencing the world. However, like most travel writers, Grant diminishes the worldview of others to a mere curiosity.
Grant establishes himself as one of us, despite his unusual lust for danger. Wouldn’t you find a political parade featuring a disconsolate “chubby girl” in a tiger costume, a “man in a green parrot suit,” and a “capering man dressed as a big blue egg” strange, too? We could also agree it’s repulsive that “the punishment for stealing a cow [is] more serious than the punishment for rape in most of Mexico.” The shocking series of events that helps formulate Grant’s opinions would most likely influence ours in the same way.
So what’s the problem?
It’s safe to assume most of Grant’s readers have never visited the darker regions of the Sierra Madre. However, after reading God’s Middle Finger, I, for one, have developed an opinion about Sierra Madreans that is totally unfounded in personal experience. What gives me the right, as a privileged white American, to judge a culture I’ve never encountered?
And what gives Richard Grant the right to paint an interesting picture for the Western world to reflect upon from afar? For that matter, what right does any travel writer have to cast judgment upon unique and unusual cultures? Historically, artists and writers have failed time and again to represent The Other. Take French Orientalism, for example, in which men and women of the Far East were depicted as wild and lustful barbarians.
As a travel writer myself, I must confront the power of words and how my depiction of another culture might influence the opinion of others. Near the end of God’s Middle Finger, in which Grant is no longer entertained by the Mexican machismo, he draws a connection between modern-day Mexico and the Arab influence upon Old Spain. He writes, “Spaniards, like Arabs, believed that women were inferior wanton creatures whose sexuality needed to be strictly controlled and firmly dominated, and that women from other cultures were fair game for rape.”
Out of context, the above sentence sounds like a soundbyte from the latest Republican Presidential debate. But because of the horrific ordeals we’ve experienced vicariously through Grant’s engaging memoir, the reader is buttered up and willing to accept an oversimplification of a complex issue. God’s Middle Finger is a self-aware and admirable effort to fairly represent Mexican culture, but it failed. Grant was never fully able to escape his Western heritage.
Of course, no reader or writer can realistically raise himself above his cultural upbringing. Perhaps then, we should strive for a global perspective, one in which we acknowledge the repercussions of an artistic representation of The Other. In the case of a first person travel narrative, that could mean the writer casts as critical an eye upon himself as his subject matter. And while that may change the default template, one must ask, who is travel writing really for: the writer or his subject?