Let The Water Hold Me Down
Author: Michael Spurgeon
Publisher: Ad Lumen Press
Number of pages: 354
Before I get into my review for “Let The Water Hold Me Down”, let me state that I know the author, Michael Spurgeon. In fact he is a former professor, adviser and mentor of mine, not that this will prevent me from writing what I really feel about his book, in fact it may even make me want to exact some revenge for too harshly graded writings of my own. I also know Prof. Spurgeon on a personal level and consider him a friend. I know the way this novel weaves in and out of his personal life, both as a writer “writing what he knows” and as a passion project that became his first published novel. Knowing the number of revisions that took place, the pages rewritten at the behest of publishers that wanted to change the theme of the novel and the struggles that took place in re-imagining the ending; I take some measure of pride in knowing the man that produced such an engaging and approachable book of loss and love, friendship and betrayal & an exploration into a man that comes of age after living his first life.
The novel begins in first person with the narrator telling us how he met his compadre (little inside secret, the original title of the book was “Compadres”, I wish it had remained so though I think the published title fits the author’s poetic style better), Cesar. A picture is painted of Cesar in much minute detail that I feel more connected to him than I do the narrator, I can imagine Cesar with his charming smile and athletic build far better than I can the man behind the voice in my head. The sole dark spot on this novel (in my eyes) is that I never see the narrator, not really. I do not know what he looks like except that he has a beard before he goes to see Cesar’s parents and shaves it off to be presentable to them. Not that this detracts from the story much, I just find it interesting that the author does such a great job of describing the people in the book but never the voice through which tells the story.
Moving on, we meet Cesar and then come to find out what tragedy led to the narrator to move to Mexico, we are also given the name of our protagonist, Hank. Hank has a horrible event happen to him that haunts him for roughly a year, haunts him to the point that he decides to give up his job and life in America to move to San Cristobal, Chiapas Mexico to be with his compadre, Cesar. The move is impulsive and Hank begins to regret it the minute he walks inside the high walled gate of the estate of the Lobos de Madrid family in San Cristobal. He doesn’t flee though, he realizes that his ghosts will haunt him no matter where he goes, that he may as well try to forget them here, with his best friend around to keep him occupied.
Only that doesn’t happen. Cesar’s family is rich and powerful and Cesar is essentially being groomed to take over the company when the time comes, so there are things that he must do for his family and their interests. This keeps him away a lot of the time (often for odd lengths of time) and gives Hank some time to wander the local streets and meet some other interesting characters. I won’t really get into who Hank meets, why a woman decides to call him Henry or where the cocaine came from, but it all happened and it all matters. There is not a word written on the page that doesn’t need to be read, Michael Spurgeon isn’t one for unnecessary words.
There are two sex scenes in the book, that there are that many surprised me to be honest, I hadn’t expected it from what I knew of the book and I am glad I was not prepared. Mainly because the first one was awkward and almost painful to read, quick and full of suggestive and unsexy words that made me happy when it was over. And then it was and the next morning comes and it is suddenly January 1st, 1994. The Zapatista uprising has begun and we find Henry watching the rebels take of the municipal building in the zocalo of San Cristobal. This is Mexican history unfolding before the eyes of our narrator, brought to life by a man that was there, watching these events unfold. The sex from the night before was a precursor to the events of the next day, the attempted liberation of the impoverished indigenous people of the region and all of Mexico. We get to bear witness to the tanks rolling through streets paved hundreds of years before, the armed soldiers standing guard in the square to prevent the return of the men, women and children armed with wooden guns.
The second sex scene is the one to look for, in the passion of terror and conflict we see “sex” tossed to the side, “fucking” doesn’t describe what happens, instead to use the author’s own words: “It was revenge for being alive.” One of my favorite lines from the book.
At its heart, “Let The Water Hold Me Down” is really the coming of age story of a late 20-something, educated, white male in Mexico, forced to take a stand and declare that something is worth fighting for, even if that means he might have to kill or be killed. Hank reflects throughout the book on how easy he had life before the tragedy that was the catalyst for this all, how little effort he had to put into making things work, it was all so natural and fell into place. He comes to realize that anything can be taken away and that while some things you have to let go of, there are some things that you can fight to keep even kill to keep safe.
This isn’t a happy book, not really. Sure, Hank survives and we see the first person narrative move from past tense to the present, we see him speak of the future and what might happen. 1994 was a long time ago now, too many do not know who the Zapatista are and Hank learns that everything worth fighting for comes with a cost, growth comes from loss and Mickey Mouse t-shirts on gringo cowboys are moments that should be held onto in those moments when all that was has been lost under the flow of the dark water.