“For years, I thought wearing a mask was a way to start over, become someone new. Now I know better. A mask doesn’t change who you are; it lets you be the person you’ve always been, the person you paper over out of habit or timidity or fear. Some people – people like me – have to try on a lot of faces before they find one that fits.”
Oaxaca, Mexico – the heart, we are told, of buried Aztec treasure and the folk art of carving masks. Here a meth-head with a gift for unearthing relics finds an ancient mask, one he suspects is valuable but which he, in his addled state, fails to recognize for its true worth. So begins a heart-pounding thriller of a story in which various interested parties – thieves, collectors, art lovers, and drug lords – stop at nothing to obtain the mask they believe is the burial mask of Montezuma.
Lili Wright’s debut novel is about Mexico and folk art, sure. But it is also inescapably about human ambition, about clashes of culture, about the fine line between the drive to protect and the drive to control.
“We need museums for the same reason we need zoos, but animals still need to live in the wild. Ancient people were buried with treasures. Should you dig up every grave when there is no money and no place to care for these things? We don’t have to see everything. We can imagine them. We can wonder. We can leave them for someone else.”
Wright explores the limits, and sometimes their lack, of what people can be driven to do – driven by love, greed, guilt, fear. Anna Ramsey, a young American who wants desperately to redeem her father’s reputation and to find a place in the world for herself, is constantly recalibrating her own moral code. Thomas Malone, an American ex-pat and renowned art collector, seems wholly without a moral code. Hugo, a gardener and part time drug-runner, is driven to madness by his infatuation with a young girl and his fear of a drug cartel. Reyes, the drug lord, is driven by greed, power, and an exquisite sadism:
“‘If that mask is not back to me by the end of Carnival, I will cut out your heart and hang it from a tree and watch the turkey vultures feast, and I will screw your little girlfriend and rape your ugly wife and kill your dog and cook your cat and burn down your house and blow up your car and throw your carcass in the Pacific, where the sharks will rip you apart and shit you out in pellets on the ocean floor. Have I left anything out? Do you have a mother? Or did she die from shame at having raised an incompetent?'”
The Looter, or “Twigger”, is driven by addiction, yes, but also by a broader hedonism and a desire to flee past mistakes and virtually erase his transgressions.
“His shady life in Mexico was exterior stuff, surface, cover of the book, not the book. What mattered long-term was a man’s inside, his core, his heart, mind, soul, being. If his insides stayed true, the outside could indulge in sybaritic delights: women, crack, looting. In fact, it would be irresponsible not to. Because there was time. Time for hedonism and excess. Time later to settle down. Reform. Rise from the ashes for a second act. A third. Wisdom was the rare province offered to those who’d tried everything once.”
Lili Wright’s “Dancing with the Tiger” was unabashed fun. Her facts and historical accuracy have been called into question by some readers, as has the film she casts over this region of Mexico, an area she describes as violent and run-down. These are the kind of critiques which usually set me on edge and color my response to a book. But this time? I couldn’t resist the clever and complicated web Wright was weaving. I don’t know if these criticisms have merit, but this book was not presented as non-fiction. This book was pure fiction, and taken as such, the details Wright created were thrilling, the atmosphere she created was alluring. At times her characters were hyperbolic, the plot’s coincidences radical, but even these extremes worked, simply feeding the blazing engine that kept this story churning. Wright has a razor-witted, edgy style that makes her story pop and sizzle. I devoured this book, guiltily reading just one more chapter, just one more chapter, just one more chapter, until my eyes were bleary and the book was at an end.
“He waited as his country waited for prosperity, as children waited for Christmas, as women waited for husbands to return from the North, as husbands waited for mistresses to return to bed, as Mexicans waited for a president who did not steal, as they waited for a police chief who did not steal, as they waited for a priest who did not steal. They waited with the patience of a donkey tied at the side of the road.”
Thank you to G. P. Putnam’s Sons for providing a complimentary manuscript in exchange for a fair and honest review.