Arts Lost and found in Mexico 

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Trail of Feathers is the story of one man’s death and another’s redemption

Have you read Veronica? a friend recently inquired. No, I said wryly. I haven’t had time to take in Mary Gaitskill’s National Book Award nominee, but I did read the New York Times’ book review. Such are our over-scheduled lives, and so stiff is the competition for our free time, that books are often rare pleasures. Never mind, though, because the ever-mutating sphere of infotainment is constantly inventing new ways for us to “consume” our literature. Reviews, rather than incisive evaluations of an author’s style and substance, are often glorified book reports that, in a pinch, suffice for the real deal in cocktail conversation. Interviews carefully revisit plot points, ensuring dilettantes everywhere can drop a name in the appropriate pause. And yet, as much as I want to say that there is no substitute for the written word, we are a wired, social species and these type-free encounters with authors and their work are beginning to feel like extended, national book groups, valuable in their own right.

Just the other day, I heard an interview on Texas Public Radio with San Antonio Express-News Editor Bob Rivard, author of Trail of Feathers: Searching for Philip True. The book is Rivard’s account of the disappearance and murder of the Express-News reporter and Mexico City bureau chief who was killed in 1998 while trekking through Mexico’s remote Sierra Madre, home to the country’s most reclusive and least-modernized indigenous population, the Huichols. The pre-recorded clip hit some of the highlights of Rivard’s story, including the part in which he begins to dig out True’s corpse, hastily buried in loose sand at the bottom of a deep gorge, with his hands. His voice was almost monotone as he recounted the steep descent to the ersatz gravesite, his brief tête à tête with his own mortality when his military escort pleaded “twisted ankle” and sat out for the duration of the search, the “stench of death” — even his running joke that the money the Express-News spent flushing out clues to True’s whereabouts was the largest employment program the region has seen — a concession, perhaps, to public radio, which tends to encourage solemnity.

Rivard has taken a dead

man’s story and made it

his own — an act that is by

no means a literary crime.

Rivard was much more animated during a November appearance at Texas State University’s Southwestern Writers Collection and it was a performance, interestingly, that amplified an important dimension of Trail of Feathers: Rivard has taken a dead man’s story and made it his own — an act that is by no means a literary crime. As Rivard recounts in the book and on stage, he barely knew True when True was a reporter, insulated from him by layers of big-paper editorial staff. He didn’t know that True was upset that his pitch to write a feature story about the Huichols had been rejected, or that True was growing bitter over what he viewed as the paper’s waning commitment to Mexico coverage. And none of the editors in True’s chain of command knew that their reporter planned to use his upcoming vacation time to make a solo hundred-mile trek through the heart of Huichol territory. “I would’ve stopped him,” Rivard told the TSU audience, although it’s unclear how he might have swayed a man known for his stubbornness, his antipathy to authority, and his emotional remoteness.

It is this last quality that was essentially the hook for Rivard, who developed an affinity for True-the-memory as he tried unsuccessfully to ensure that True’s killers — two Huichol indians — were fairly tried and incarcerated (they are convicted but escaped, believed to be hiding in Huichol territory) in the corrupt Mexican judicial system.

Trail of Feathers
By Robert Rivard
Public Affairs
$27.50, 416 pages
ISBN: 158648222X

The introduction to Trail of Feathers recounts the surface coincidences of the two men’s lives. “We came from distant corners of the United States,” Rivard writes, “yet somehow made our way to the same small daily newspaper in the same small city on the Texas-Mexico border.” A few sentences later: “Our paths crossed for the first time in San Antonio in 1992; soon afterward, True and I found ourselves working together at the same South Texas newspaper.” Beyond the “of all the gin joints” rhetoric lies the heart of the book. True and Rivard were the products of difficult home lives that forged them into tenacious loners. The former’s childhood was marred by sexual abuse almost too awful to read; the latter’s mother beat him regularly with a belt and once gave him a stuffed black sheep as a present when he had his tonsils removed. Their fathers were largely absentee, although for different reasons. Yet one man is the editor of one of the Hearst Corporation’s gems, adept at playing the political games it takes to succeed (as Rivard acknowledges); the other is dead, victim to his own hubris. It is a “but-for-the-grace-of-something-or-other” looking glass that none of us can resist, and it is the reason True’s secret past is spilled unceremoniously in Chapter Three, but we learn about the author in carefully timed revelations.

Rivard crystallizes the context of True’s story as well, explaining for the reader why this reporter’s death is bigger than its immediate aftermath (which includes a widow and a son born after his father’s death): the unresolved tension between Mexico and its expansionist neighbor to the north; the way Mexico is to Americans what Africa was to the characters of Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky — a falsely familiar exotic that seems to promise escape, transcendence, and absolution. But he sounds most passionate when he writes and speaks about his connection, real or imagined, to the prodigal son who will never return — about finding a part of himself as he searched for Philip True.

By Elaine Wolff



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