Into the Beautiful North

By Luis Alberto Urrea

Little, Brown. 342 pp. $24.99

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Reviewed by David Hiltbrand


This wonderfully entertaining novel is starkly different from the heroic magical realism of Urrea's last novel,

The Hummingbird's Daughter

, set 100 years ago.

Into the Beautiful North

is a picaresque contemporary jape.

Imagine John Nichols' The Milagro Beanfield War, updated and set in Old rather than New Mexico.

Into the Beautiful North's rich cavalcade of infatuating characters is set in motion by Niyali, a spirited 19-year-old in the flyspeck town of Tres Camerones, south of Mazatlan. Because all the men, including Niyali's father, migrated across the border years ago to seek work, Tres Camerones is exceedingly vulnerable when a nefarious narco decides to expand his drug operations there.

While watching a screening of The Magnificent Seven under the corrugated tin roof of the town's theater, Niyali has an epiphany. She resolves to cross the border to recruit a band of stalwarts, including her father, to return with her and rout the bandits.

Even in her remote village, the girl has had some experience with Yanquis, mostly missionaries, but other exotic strains as well.

"For a short while, an ashram run by a Wisconsin woman named Chrystal, who was in constant channeling-contact with the Venusian UFO-naut P'taak, rose north of town. Several local workers had made good wages working on Chrystal's pink cement pyramid on her leased 40 acres of scrub and pecan trees. But the local water cut short P'taak's mission to the world. And Chrystal rushed back to Sheboygan with typhoid and amoebic dysentery."

Accompanied by two girlfriends and the flamboyantly gay Tacho, owner of the village's cafe, Niyali sets off on her quest, with warnings from all the locals not to drink the water in the United States. The naïve plan entails slipping through the border illegally - twice. But our pilgrims will cross that fence when they get to it.

Or rather, if they get to it. Because the wheels start coming off this expedition immediately. The travelers' possessions and dignity are snatched away before they even reach Tijuana. They find shelter for a time with the human flotsam living in shacks in the shadow of a mountainous garbage dump.

While Into the Beautiful North is riotously funny for most of its run, this section is achingly sad.

Urrea, who was born in Tijuana and served for a time as a relief worker at the city's massive dump, describes this bleak environment in shattering detail. The poor denizens live in conditions so grinding they seem postapocalyptic. The desolation is as stark as in the slums of Mumbai depicted in Gregory David Roberts' novel Shantaram.

But it is in this hell that Niyali finds Atomica, a tattered and quixotic warrior. Actually Atomica finds her, appointing himself Niyali's inseparable (and often insufferable) protector. He is the first of an unlikely band of knights she assembles, a group that is more motley but far less menacing than Yul Brynner, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, and the rest of the original Magnifico Seven.

One of the recurring pleasures in the book is experiencing North American pop culture refracted through an outsider's sensibilities. For instance, as Niyali and Tacho drive toward Las Vegas in a clanking minivan, they flip through radio stations:

"Country music. Talk radio. El Rushbo. JEE-sus.

"Country music. Sports talk. Hannity. JEE-sus.

"Country music. Norteño. News talk. JEE-sus."

In the end, Niyali's scheme, for better and for worse, doesn't work out the way she envisioned.

Not that it matters. The pleasures of Into the Beautiful North lie in the journey - and the journeyers.

David Hiltbrand, the author of several mystery novels, is an Inquirer staff writer. Contact him at 215-854-4552 or dhiltbrand@phillynews.com.