Thursday, November 10, 2011

Tyler McMahon

Tyler McMahon received his MFA in fiction from Boise State University. His stories have appeared in Threepenny Review, Sycamore Review, and Surfer’s Journal, among others, and he has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He is a professor of fiction at Hawaii Pacific University.

How the Mistakes Were Made is McMahon's debut novel.

His reply to my recent query about what he was reading:
Lately, I’ve been immersing myself in expat novels—partly because of the project I’m working on at the moment, and partly because I’ve come to realize that they were my first literary love. In my youth, reading the far-flung accounts of Greene, Bowles, Lowry, and Hemingway embodied two of literature’s greatest powers: to teach about the world, and to allow some escape from it.

One of my favorite novels of 2011 is A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism by Peter Mountford. In this story, Gabriel de Boya lands in Bolivia on the eve of the historic 2004 election, just as Evo Morales looks to be the nation’s first indigenous president. The son of a leftist academic, now working for an unscrupulous hedge fund, Gabriel is first and foremost a confused twenty-something American abroad. Mountford covers the whims of high finance without a trace of easy morality. Gabriel’s flawed behavior might make you cringe at times, but it will always ring true. He is the rare character who understands that—like it or not—jobs and bank accounts often outlast human relationships. I love the way that Mountford’s book is as fast-paced and readable as any thriller, but also boldly profound and utterly relevant.

I recently re-read Radiant Days by Michael FitzGerald. In this great expat novel, protagonist Anthony Sinclair rides the tide of San Francisco’s dotcom boom. Unsatisfied by his accidental success, he follows the beautiful Gisela to Budapest. There, they encounter a road-weary British journalist named Marsh. Together, the unlikely threesome undertakes an ill-fated journey into the war-torn Balkans. Radiant Days is at times a send-up of mid-century expat tropes: Gisela as the duplicitous femme fatale, Marsh as the wise and accented sage, Anthony the bumbling American desperate for authentic experience. But the juxtaposition of rising San Francisco and crumbling Yugoslavia is the central organ that pumps blood throughout this novel. Anthony and his dotcom peers live in an age overwhelmed by images of distant wars—a hyperinflation of tragedy. Radiant Days asks whether anything is so escapist and indulgent as hiding among the comforts of home.

One of my favorite novelists of all time is Russell Banks. He’s got a few books that might qualify as expat novels. The Darling definitely does. A former member of the Weather Underground forced to leave the States, protagonist Hannah Musgrave heads to Africa and meets Woodrow Sundiata—a cabinet officer in the corrupt Liberian government. They are married, have three sons, and nearly settle into a life of servants and privilege in Monrovia. But Hannah doesn’t take well to her new role as a kept wife and mother. Instead, she finds purpose and solace in a chimpanzee laboratory. Liberia’s brutal civil war intervenes. Hannah witnesses the death of her husband and must abandon the sons she no longer recognizes. She manages to fly away on September 11, 2001—and lands in an equally foreign America.

Fearless in his exploration of sixties radicalism, African strongmen, and Islamic terrorism, Banks wrestles not just with the questions of our age, but with even older, harder questions about political violence.

I’ve tried to keep it well rounded, but if anyone wants to check out more expat novels on Latin America, I’d also recommend Pacazo by Roy Kesey and the amazing Santiago and the Drinking Party by Clay Morgan.
View the trailer for How the Mistakes Were Made, and learn more about the book and author at Tyler McMahon's website.

My Book, The Movie: How the Mistakes Were Made.

--Marshal Zeringue