Reviewed by Alyson Baker
Set against the backdrop of the war on drugs, environmental crisis and people disenfranchised by a corrupt world; Stray is the ultimate backpacking novel, a gripping journey into the Mexican ‘heart of darkness’.
STRAY is a glimpse into the wasteland created by drug culture from a south of the border perspective. “The dark secret of every American suburb is that every blunt, joint or bowl, line or pill, every Charlie-fed frat party, cranking rave or huddled knot of office stoners is washed in Mexican blood” – and in Stray the effect of the cartels and corruption on a small Yucatan fishing village isn’t unveiled by a gung-ho ex-marine or a naïve but true blue FDA agent – but by Tom Mullinger, a 20-something New Zealander fleeing his own drug based disaster back home.
When things go very very wrong in Auckland, Tom heads for the Yucatan, and a small seaside village recommended by his mate Dog as a haven, and far from the violence of the cartels. But Tom arrives in Ria Lagartos at the same time as three headless corpses; in the year since Dog’s stay, the capture of El Chapo and the unravelling of his Sinaloa drug cartel have allowed other cartels to make deals and spread – and the Los Zetas cartel now has a hold on Ria Lagartos. And along with the cartel, government corruption and a local armed citizens’ militia complete the trifecta of terror for the local community.
Tom gets involved with a local environmental protection group, in large part due to his fascination with Lorena, a researcher who has moved to Ria Lagartos to work on her thesis, and who has taken the cause of the local Maya fishermen as her own. In her sights is Miguel Sabas, the local rich guy whose short-term profit monopoly on the local industry is proving disastrous for the environment as well as for the locals.
As the intimidation of the cartels increases, their narcomensaje threatening messages going up around town and their blatant disregard of the local law enforcement being made apparent, it becomes increasingly difficult to work out who is loyal to whom. And Tom gets totally embroiled when he agrees to help Lorena get evidence of Sabas’ illegal activities.
There are some terrifically tense moments and lots of action. But what I loved most about this book was the feel of Mexico; you can smell it and taste it as Lang describes the village and the jungle, and the slow flying pelicans cruising over the Mayan ‘endless apocalypse’. At times the historical narrative gets a little adrift of the story, and almost all of the characters are extremely insightful and erudite, but sections such as Lorena relating the story of her forebears, are totally engrossing.
Tom’s story in Ria Lagartos is interspersed with the events in New Zealand that led up to his flight from Auckland, depicting a New Zealand drug sub-culture where the authorities are similarly powerless: “People are gonna do what people are gonna do”. Tom didn’t want to be a tourist, he was “an outsider who likes the company of others” and wanted to find a place just to exist. But STRAY is a great example of character arc! I really enjoyed this book.
Alyson Baker is a crime-loving librarian in Nelson. This review will also appear on her blog, which you can check out here.