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A Factory of Dreams

Mesha Maren’s Perpetual West is a fearless exploration of borders

Mesha Maren’s themes dwell along the margins, both of geography and identity. Her acclaimed debut, Sugar Run, tells the story of a doomed lesbian romance in Appalachian coal country between an ex-convict and a battered wife. Her follow-up, Perpetual West, continues Maren’s genre-straddling exploration of the lives of restless, troubled characters drawn to downtrodden, disregarded settings where sordid violence and social injustice are common and accepted as normal.

Photo: (c) Natalia Weedy

The main characters, like their creator, are natives of Appalachia, but their story occurs along different borders, both literally and metaphorically. As the novel opens, recently married Alex and Elana have just moved to El Paso, Texas, where Alex plans to do graduate work in sociology, focusing on the culture of Mexican professional wrestling known as lucha libre. Adopted from Mexico by white American Pentecostal missionaries, Alex is also on a personal journey of self-discovery which becomes deeply complicated by his infatuation with Mateo, a masked luchador known in the ring as El Vengador del Norte.

“What [Alex] wanted to write about,” writes Maren, “was the way a young man could slide a mask over his face, step into the wrestling ring, and blur out his class, his background, his name. In the trust-pain struggle with another man, he could pantomime the death that dogged him daily and rise through it. See these boys, here in the ring they could be anything…This is a factory of dreams.” The dream factory exists in Ciudad Juarez, just across the U.S.-Mexico border from El Paso and consistently ranked as among the most dangerous cities in the world.

Elana takes a job waiting tables in a diner and finds herself in the destabilizing position of facilitating her husband’s ambitions. When a family emergency calls Elana home to West Virginia, both husband and wife seem somewhat grateful for a break from each other, albeit for very different reasons. Elana’s situation back home is harrowing — a crisis involving meth addiction — but she is at least afforded solitude on her journey and the familiarity of home and her clearly prescribed role there.

Back in El Paso, Elana’s absence permits Alex to explore his physical attraction to Mateo, long repressed thanks to his homophobic upbringing. By the time Elana returns, Alex has disappeared with Mateo, who, as it turns out, is the favorite luchador of an ambitious and unusually erudite narcotraficante. Alex leaves no explanation of his whereabouts, but he does leave his mobile phone, meaning Elana has no way of tracing his location.

Elana’s search for Alex gives the novel a narrative arc and elevates the tension, particularly given Elana’s fish-out-of-water status — her Spanish is poor and she knows relatively little about the culture of Juarez — but the heart and soul of Perpetual West dwell in the intersections and conflicts between the psychological struggles of the characters and the frequently staggering cruelty and absurdity of life along the border.

Maren is at her best in the minute observation of the culture and rituals of El Paso and Juarez. This territory has been amply explored by American writers in both fiction and nonfiction — in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, for instance, and in the voluminous New Journalistic reportage of Charles Bowden, most notably Murder City and Juarez: The Laboratory of Our Future. Maren honors those and other precursors and influences, but also effectively approaches the culture and landscape in a fresh and persuasive manner through the intelligent but essentially naïve perspectives of Alex and Elana. The richness and depth of description lends the text authenticity and authority.

A gifted stylist and a morally serious observer of human frailty, Mesha Maren’s intentions are bold, her mastery of language and narrative tension consistently remarkable and occasionally stunning. Simultaneously deep and thrilling, pleasurable and provocative, Perpetual West is a fine next step in the career of a promising talent, as well as a fearless record of a West the world can no longer afford to ignore.

A Factory of Dreams

Ed Tarkington is the author of two novels, The Fortunate Ones (2021) and Only Love Can Break Your Heart (2016). He lives in Nashville.