Grief is a maze through which there is no correct path. You can speed through only to run into a wall. You can meander for years, forever missing the way out.
Or you can retrace your footsteps until it’s clear you seek something else all together: a discovery, perhaps, that its walls are not your obstacle but rather just witnesses to your search.
In his remarkable new book, “The Interior Circuit,” Francisco Goldman performs this last type of emotional alchemy with a seemingly ever-expanding maze: Mexico City.
Goldman first came here in the 1980s as a freelance reporter. The devastating earthquake of 1985 had spewn rubble everywhere. It was, to him, a city of drunkenly tilting churches, commandantes in disguise, the toxic haze of pollution.
“The Interior Circuit” is written in the wake of a far more personal earthquake. In 2007, his young wife, Aura Estrada, died from injuries sustained during a surfing accident on a beach in Mexico. In “Say Her Name,” Goldman told the lightly fictionalized story of their relationship.
“The Interior Circuit” is the tale of her town. In 2012, approaching the fifth anniversary of her death, Goldman decides he will learn to drive in Mexico City, so he can finally pay it tribute.
Goldman chooses a driving school off the Internet, and thus meets his guide to the city’s sprawl. Ricardo Torres is in his 40s, but looks older, has a ruined stomach, and doesn’t sleep. When Goldman explains why he wants lessons, Torres understands. He is fresh off a divorce that nearly killed him.
From the moment these two set off, “The Interior Circuit” does not move in a straight line. Rather it swerves in ever widening circles, doubling back past the apartments where Goldman lived, the galleries he attended with Aura, memorable restaurants, landmarks, places where people were shot, drowned, kissed, made love.
Sentence by sentence, Goldman brings to life a city that is bewitching, terrifying, beautiful. “When the moon is out in late afternoon it looms low over streets and buildings,” he writes, “enormous and pale yellow in the softer blue sky, like a ghostly school bus coming right at us.”
Gradually, Ricardo recedes, and it’s clear our guide is Goldman himself. A reporter by trade, a brawler by Bostonian birth, he is a fabulous and wonderfully erratic pilot for this trip across and through the DF, or District Federale, as Mexico City is known.
“The Interior Circuit” energetically covers so much of the city ground, from its traffic and politics, to its bars and streetwalkers. It speculates on why the violence of the narco wars receded from the DF in 2012, eddying from long expository passages into vivid anecdotes about the disappeared, from a man who drowned during a sudden traffic jam on a flooded road, to another shot in the head on the street not far from where Goldman was living.
The word chronicle is key here. In Latin and Central America and Brazil, so many of the best writers have worked in the cronicas form. It is a hybrid of travelogue and reporting, modernist in its sense of time, sketch-driven, and inherently political. Clarice Lespectre’s cronicas of Rio and Jorge Matillo’s on Guayaquil are among the high points of the form.
As an American who has lived in Mexico City on and off for more than 20 years now, Goldman brings something new to the form. He is intimate with the city in a way travel writers so often are not; but he is also intimate with the reader in a fashion that feels unusual to the form as well.
The book bleeds into 2013 and is yoked forward by the kidnapping of 12 people from a club, After Heavens. As Goldman follows a reporter on the trail of information, his story folds in on itself. The corruption and violence he describes early on comes into sharper view; the relative peace of parts of the DF suddenly seems under threat.
Most importantly, as he and his friend pursue the After Heavens story, the two narrative threads of this book — of its inner and outer city — come together. Goldman recognizes he is not alone in his grief. But there is little to soothe there, for in the suffering of worried families he sees a terrifying mirror to the maze he realizes he may never exit, “that place without solace where the dead often seem more alive than the living.”John Freeman is the author of “How to Read a Novelist.”