Monday, January 14, 2008

Reading :: The Devil's Highway

The Devil's Highway: A True Story
By Luis Alberto Urrea

The Devil's Highway is this year's First Year Forum book at the University of Texas, meaning that every introductory Rhetoric and Writing course uses it. The book, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, tells the true story of a disastrous border crossing in Arizona in which 26 men attempted to walk across the desert to a US town. Only 12 made it.

The story is compelling, well researched, and meant to help readers think through the issue of border policy. Unfortunately, the book's prose is less compelling. The author, not content with a gripping story, continually looks for ways to infuse supernatural and religious symbolism into the book whether it fits or not. Here, for instance, he makes a big deal of the fact that one procurer is named Moses and the desert guide is named Jesus:
He has another alias, too. His boyhood nickname among friends was sometimes Chuy, the diminuitive of "Jesus."

This is his true name: Jesus.

Jesus led the walkers gathered by Moses into the desert called Desolation.

Jesus had the inevitable birthday of December 25. (p.68)
It's like the book was ghostwritten by John Stossel. Not only do these dramatic paragraph breaks make the book longer, they impair the storytelling, distracting from the very real tragedy. Like a cook who can't resist one more grind of pepper, Urrea relentlessly looks for symbolism and tries to tell a quasireligious overstory when just one story would do. And unfortunately this immoderation made me wonder how much I could trust his descriptions. Were things in Veracruz or Sorona as bleak as his prose suggests, or was he just laying it on as in the passage above?

Similarly, the conclusions he draws are troubling. Urrea condemns border policy as insane and unworkable, but in the Reading Group Notes at the end of the book, he admits that he has no answer to the problem. Intractable problems shared by multiple interests, of course, tend to lead to fragmented public policy. The closest Urrea comes to an answer is when he argues that illegal immigration helps the US economically, implying that the borders should not be vigilantly maintained. The argument, however, is entirely economic -- no discussion of how maintaining a permanent, permanently vulnerable underclass of noncitizens affects a working democracy built on principles of equality, or on how an open border policy disproportionately affects certain states, counties, industries, landowners, or workers in particular market segments.

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