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Under the Volcano
by Malcolm Lowry

Field-Tested by Andrei Codrescu

in Oaxaca, Mexico

My friend Philip Herter was a firm believer in reading the right book in the right place, so I read Malcolm Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano in Mexico. I fell violently in love with it and decided to duplicate some of the Consul’s journey from his one moment of happiness in Hotel Francia in Oaxaca all the way through the circles of hell he travels to Death in La Baranca. I intended to stop short of Death, however.

I checked in at the Hotel Francia where the Consul had come out of his alcoholic fog to make love to his beautiful wife and to vow never to drink again. When she falls asleep with a beatific smile on her face, he goes to the bar to have a celebratory beer, then decides to have one mezcal in a nearby bar, then another in a worse bar, and he has a lot of mezcal in circles that take him farther and farther away from his wife and happiness, until he meets Death: the last shot of mezcal.

So I had my beer, my first mezcal, my second, many more, and I ended up in a dank dive that displayed nothing but black clay bottles of mezcal on bare shelves. Several sinister, gold-toothed guys at a wooden table watched me like alligators waiting for a sick bird to fall into their jaws. A few fat whores dressed in spandex were sitting at another table, looking bored and reading illustrated novels. I knew that I couldn’t stand up and that La Baranca might be my next stop, so I motioned one of the women over and said, “Vamos.” She was the biggest and meanest of the bunch, and she propped me up like a doll out into the street where I said, “I pay you how much you charge for sex, but you only have to show me the way back to Hotel Francia.” She was indignant. “That’ll be twice as much!” No problema.

I got back to the Happiness Spot and had a three-day hangover that felt like I was upholstered in linoleum inside, and the gallons of water I drank just flowed over it without effect. So yeah, read Malcolm Lowry’s novel of Mexico in Mexico if you love Death. And read, for the same reason, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice in Venice.

Andrei Codrescu is the author of numerous books, including Jealous Witness: New Poems (Coffee House Press), New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years of Writing from the City (Algonquin Boooks, 2006), and Wakefield, a novel (Algonquin, 2004), among many others. Codrescu is a MacCurdy Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, where he edits Exquisite Corpse: A Journal of Letters & Life. He is also a regular commentator on National Public Radio and winner of the Peabody Award for the film Road Scholar. His work has been widely translated, and he is the recipient of National Endowment for the Arts fellowships for poetry and editing, the Romanian Literature Prize, the ACLU Freedom of Speech Award, and the Ovidius Prize. He can be reached at his website.

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