It turns out that Zone of Tolerance is not that kind of volume, despite the jacket's tantalizing allure of sun, sand, sea and steamy Sonoran sex. Ad copy to the contrary, this is not a book about purchased passion in Mexican whorehouses. Instead, it is the tale of David Stuart's 1970 search for a former lover--a prostitute--whom he adored, then abandoned, but wanted to see again before he settled down to marry a north-of-the-border colleague.
The somewhat self-indulgent memoir is Stuart's second volume about his life 30-some years ago in the port of Guaymas, Mexico, on the Sea of Cortez, a couple of six-packs south of Tucson. The book ostensibly is about las putas (prostitutes) from the now-long-gone red-light district, or Zona de Tolerancia. Such subject matter could lend itself to salaciousness on every page, but a recapitulation of heartfelt passion is not Stuart's focus.
Granted, he includes brief moments of purple prose to let us know that he could have told that tale if he wanted to: "In the Zona, one walked not through the valley of the shadow of death but through the valley of mortal sin. Drink and gambling on the left, the vibrant flesh of Babylon on the right. Sodom and Gomorrah re-created on Earth and right in front of you. You had but to walk through the front door ... the devil's forked tail slicing through the heavy night air just behind you. And if one listened carefully, one might occasionally even hear him lick his fetid chops, anticipating the capture of yet another soul."
But alas, he makes clear on the first page of the author's note that he's not going to go in that direction: "This story is not about 'love' as most of us define it. It isn't even about 'sex' in the ordinary sense. Rather, it is about the Gordian knot of conflicting needs, wants, realities, fate, passions and above all, illusions that formed the core of the viejas ('working' girls') lives ... funny, sad, angry and poignant. It is also, at times, desperate. Tragic. Occasionally triumphant."
Stuart calls it "a refreshing change from the textbooks I've written in the field of anthropology." Perhaps for him. It only took a few pages before I began to long for the scientific prose of a research monograph or the melodrama of one of those bodice-ripper novels.
The memoir is based on transcriptions of Stuart's journals and is written, according to the author, "in the genre of creative nonfiction." Readers can only wish the writer had done more than change names, places and dates in "novelizing" a memoir "to tell the girls' stories as best I can." Truth be told, his recollections would have been much more interesting had the author remembered less about the chronology of the actual events and revealed more about the drama and passion behind them.
In the acknowledgement section, Stuart admits he knows "writing is hard work. Writing well, even harder ... and writing tragicomedy with attitude, the most difficult of all writing styles." Yet he does little to demonstrate he fully understands his conundrum or how to write his way out of it.
Acclaimed author Max Evans penned the foreward, although he should have known better: "Stuart has written these works with his heart as a pen. The words coming from his naked and deepest feelings." If this is a volume that used a heart as a pen, it's an aortic pump that needs a new nib.
Stuart does have the skill to paint word pictures, however. "I awakened to the slamming of taxi doors just feet from my window. It sounded like business was good. I loved Guaymas in the morning--clear, turquoise blue sky, a warm breeze spiced by salt water, creosote smells from the shrimp fleet, and the sounds of children playing. Simply walking up the main street was an experience. Kids, taxis, beggars, cops, food carts--life, vibrancy, community, all rolled up into one," he writes. If only that emotional kind of writing that comes from the gut was omnipresent rather than sporadic throughout the volume.
The author appears almost prophetic (albeit unintentional) when he writes in his opening chapter, "Even in paradise ... shit happens." Oh for a writer who could leave readers with the impression that they were there with the author when these events did take place, and not on a journey that revisits yellowed memories now three decades old.