The feel of the breeze and the warmth of the sun on my balcony take me to my last mid-winter trip to Mérida. If I close my eyes, I can almost imagine I’m out of the northeast and back in Yucatan. But my eyes are open, fixed on a paperback reprint of “Gringos,” a 1991 novel by Charles Portis, who is best known for writing “True Grit.”
Mérida is practically a Wild West town as depicted in “Gringos,” although the protagonist is nothing like John Wayne. Set among the expat community of the 1980s, the book gives Mérida a lawless apect. Expats were a fairly disreputable lot back then, at least if we believe the book.
Our protagonist lives in a Calle 55 lodging house run by a widow who subsists on cakes, cigarettes and the satisfaction of knowing that she once appeared on a Fox Movietone newsreel. She is just one of many quirky characters that Portis brings to life. The Centro is one of those quirky characters, but most of the action takes place in the jungles
“Gringo’s” is an overlooked novel by an underrated author. It belongs on the bookshelf of anyone who finds colorful, lively Mérida more than a convenient place to live cheaply. It’s a natural part of a love story, adventure or comedy. Maybe the Coen brothers will option Portis’ book, his last in 20 years, and find a way to film it as smartly as they did his more famous novel.