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God's Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart…

God's Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre (2008)

by Richard Grant

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A thrilling page turner of an adventure novel. You learn the history and current state of north central Mexico's Sierra Madre mountain range as the author tries to travel its spine in order to see if it is really as dangerous as you have heard. It feels like a mix of Sebastian Junger and Ernest Hemingway. It's hard to tell if the overwhelming narco-traffic content is embellished, but I sense that it's not. It certainly gives more perspective on the nature of the drug trade coming from Mexico to the US, and the lifestyle of those willingly or unwillingly involved.

It's not often that I bring a book to work with me and hope for red lights to be longer so I can read a bit more on stops in the drive. ( )
  patl | Feb 18, 2019 |
Excerpts from my original GR review (Feb 2013):
- Couple of comments: the book is heralded as a great travelogue, or travel memoir, and it is. But I should emphasize that it rises above that genre. He has built an impressive amount of cultural and historical perspective into his narrative, so that I came away with a multi-dimensioned understanding of the Sierra Madre, and a better grasp of Mexico as a whole, a land where, to quote Octavio Paz, "reality has always had the quality of the absurd".
- The constant atmosphere of danger he encountered, the pompous "machismo" of the narco traffickers and their enablers, left him with no desire to ever enter the forbidding terrain again. ( )
  ThoughtPolice | Mar 9, 2018 |
Wry, hilarious, wrenching, scary. ( )
  LaurelPoe | Dec 25, 2017 |
God’s Middle Finger
Author: Richard Grant
Publisher: Free Press, Simon and Schuster
Published In: New York City, New York
Date: 2008
Pgs: 288


900 miles north to south, 11,000 feet in elevation, the Sierra Madre mountains dominate the interior of Mexico. Time has stood still here. Bandits, drug smugglers, Mormons, cave dwelling Tarahumara Indians, opium farmers, cowboys, and the outcasts of a continent hidden from wider civilization. For 15 years, Richard Grant’s fascination drove him into this region despite the dangers. Drug cartels at war with the Federales and the Mexican Army. Distrust of the outsider rampant. A narcocracy where the drug lords rule. Grant was advised to stay away. But the land and the people drew him in. Religion, cocaine, and buried treasure, welcome to the Sierra Madres. Hope you survive the experience.

Autobiography and memoir
Behind the Scenes
Travel guides
Travel writing

Why this book:
The blurb caught me.


Favorite Character:
The Bad Man in the Dress

Least Favorite Character:
The author’s deathwish. I wonder if he had post divorce PTSD. The way that he went about exploring the Sierra Madre and the chances that he took point directly to a deathwish.

Favorite Scene:
The prologue: Running for his life from a group of hunters who are hunting him, just because. Just because they can. Because as they put it, the trigger finger needs it. Hunting him through woods and a creek where he is forced to growl at a wild animal nearby because he is afraid to tell it to leave him alone and scare it away with his human voice for fear that the hunters will hear it and know where he is.

When the ranch owner’s son who guided the author into the Sierra Madre on his first trip tells about the first time he encountered the Bad Man in the Dress. The BMD was hired to run the cattle ranch in the Sierra Madres for his father. The son was making a supply delivery to the remote ranch and when he arrives the place looks deserted. As he stops the truck and gets out, a cowboy in dress and makeup appears out of the treeline carrying a Winchester rifle and challenging him about who he was. Hundreds of miles from nowhere and this is what greets him unexpectedly. Not that there’s anything wrong with his lifestyle choices, I bet that was a helluva sight having that image suddenly appear out of the woods when you were expecting a gruff old ranchhand. And then, challenging the boss’s son about what he was doing there.

Hijacked into towing a bigger, heavier truck up a mountain road than his smaller truck could handle, the author’s truck’s transmission locks up. Smoke coming from under the truck, he struggles up the mountain track. The hijacker lets him go when the truck can’t pull anymore. He struggles off stuck in one gear with smoke coming from the truck and ends up missing his turn for Chinipas. His brakes filled with dust and squealling, stuck in a single gear, and struggling up the mountain. He finally crests the mountain and begins fighting the downhill hairpins. At this point, a kind of road mania gripped him. ...and this needs to be quoted direct from the text, it’s too delicious not to.

My mania curdled into a kind of demented bravado, where I no longer cared what happened to me or my truck. It was all in the hands of fate now and I dared fate to do its worst. I shit in the mouths of ten saints. I shit on the twenty-four testicles of the apostles of Christ! Whatever happened would happen and I didn’t give a goat-fornicating goddamn.

This whole story is a love affair that the author had with the Sierra Madres. All his deathwish, high risk, adventures in those mountains were all toward understanding them better, them and the people that live there. And then, you get to the climax where he’s being hunted by a gang of tooted up High Sierra hillbillies and he finally overcomes his love of the Madres.

The flow of the story is excellent.

Plot Holes/Out of Character:
It seems that the author should have taken more care. He put his life at considerable risk time after time throughout his journeys in the Madre. He was lucky. Occasion after occasion could have turned out much differently and he could have been one more person who disappeared in the Sierra Madre never to be seen again. Don’t ge me wrong. I love his story. But I hope no one takes him as their Joe Brown and goes on a quest through the Madre in the near future. Luck like that isn’t likely to repeat itself.

Hmm Moments:
The Aztecs claimed it from the local tribes, the Spanish took it from them, the Mexicans took it from them; thing is the local Comanches, Yanquis, and Apaches never really surrendered their hold on the area. The Sierra Madre is basically ungovernable by outside authority.

Many of the Tarahumara believe that God gets drunk during Holy Week. And that it is the only time of the year when the Devil has a chance to overpower the people and God. So it is their duty to drink as much corn beer as possible and get drunk...so they can protect God. I would love a closer anthropological explanation of how that came about instead of the matter-of-fact way it was presented. The Tarahumara Easter celebrations sound incredible.

The author illustrates his deathwish pretty well at one point or at least the jangle of stress nerves releasing after the near violence, near death experience has been survived. He had just survived a showdown on a remote road between logging and anti-logging factions with drug cartel connections with a hired assassin on the opposite side. After surviving, he is drinking corn beer with his Tarahumara compadres and getting that post event high from the stress draining away plus the beer.
...it occured to me that this was more of less the moment I had been looking for when I set out on this journey. Here I was in the heart of the Sierra Madre about as far from consumer capitalism and the comfortably familiar as I could get, drinking tesguino with a wizened old Tarahumara and feeing that edgy, excited pleasure in being alive after a bad scare. It was an uncomfortable realization. To put it another way, here I was getting my kicks and curing my ennui in a place full of poverty and suffering, environmental and cultural destruction, widows and orphans from a slow motion massacre. I tried to persuade myself that I was going to write something that would make a difference and help these people, but my capacity for self-delusion refused to stretch in that direction.

Why isn’t there a screenplay?
You could make excellent movies out of the stories that abound in the Sierra Madres. It would be nigh impossible with the near civil war constancy of violence and death that roll across the Sierra Madres to do a documentary that does the region justice or that would show the actual lives of the people there. It is dangerous for the police, Federales, and the soldiers in the region so camera crews from the Discovery Channel or Nat Geo would find it difficult and dangerous indeed.

Casting call:
How Hollywood hasn’t already made a movie about the Bad Man in the Dress astounds me. If there was ever a movie that needed to be made, this is one. A drug growing, drug dealing, smuggling, hitman up to no good and worse while occasionally dressing up in a dress and makeup. I can see Johnny Depp in the role. Not happy go lucky Jack Sparrow Johnny Depp, but dark, foreboding, loaded with gravitas Johnny Depp infusing the role with menace.

Last Page Sound:
And the sun shines bright on the author as he comes to an awakening. Hopefully his ennui and post divorce stress was blasted clear by his deathwish vision quest through the Sierra Madres.

Author Assessment:
His writing style is great. The prose flows. The action is well presented and the exposition blends with the flow instead of stopping it down.

Editorial Assessment:
The story is well edited and put together.

Knee Jerk Reaction:
really good book

Disposition of Book:
Irving Public Library
Irving, TX

Would recommend to:
friends, family, colleagues


It is wild to me that the Sierra Madre rises that close to the US border, 20 miles, and the degree of lawlessness that seems to take place there. The Madre seems like the Wild West never ended. ( )
2 vote texascheeseman | Dec 2, 2014 |
Grant travels throughout Mexico's Sierra Madre, exploring what history and culture can be gleaned from such a desolate and isolated place. It is an extremely dangerous area infested by murderous narcos. An element of voyeurism thus runs through his journeys. I liked the writing. It was not gonzo, but somehow reminded me of Hunter Thompson. ( )
  nemoman | Jun 27, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 12 (next | show all)
I couldn't help but think of the Paul Bowles story "A Distant Episode," in which a linguistics professor blindly steps off the edge of civilization in North Africa, only to be abducted, have his tongue cut out and get traded from tribe to tribe as a sort of jester. But Grant is no clueless academic. Rather, he is an ideal guide, willfully heedless yet preternaturally observant. So while the potential for meeting a violent end hovers over the entire journey, Grant succeeds in painting a portrait of the region that is detailed, sympathetic, insightful and thoroughly compelling.
added by Roycrofter | editLos Angeles Times, Antoine Wilson (Mar 9, 2008)
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During the revolution Martin Luis Guzman rode the train through Navojoa and looked over at the sierra and felt what we all do when we see its green folds rising up off the desert. We all wonder what is up there and in some part of us, that rich part where our mind plays beyond our commands, we all dread and lust for what is up there.
— Charles Bowden, The Secret Forest
The real Sierra Madre ... the wondrous cruelty of those mountains. — J.P.S. Brown, The Mulatos River Journal
Our art movement is not needed in this country. — André Breton, French surrealist visiting Mexico
For Kezia
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So this is what it feels like to be hunted.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Original title in the UK: Bandit roads : into the lawless heart of Mexico
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Twenty miles south of the Arizona-Mexico border, the ... Sierra Madre mountains begin their dramatic ascent. Almost 900 miles long, the range climbs to nearly 11,000 feet and boasts several canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon. The rules of law and society have never taken hold in the Sierra Madre, which is home to bandits, drug smugglers, Mormons, cave-dwelling Tarahumara Indians, opium farmers, cowboys, and other assorted outcasts. Outsiders are not welcome; drugs are the primary source of income; murder is all but a regional pastime. The Mexican army occasionally goes in to burn marijuana and opium crops -- the modern treasure of the Sierra Madre -- but otherwise the government stays away. In its stead are the drug lords, who have made it one of the biggest drug-producing areas in the world.… (more)

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