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The Reef

Translated by YVETTE SIEGERT


A powerful morality tale with laughs.



A zesty tale that balances darkness and light with aplomb.

At a Caribbean resort specializing in faked cartel kidnappings and staged guerrilla warfare, recovering ex-rocker, Tony Góngora, attempts to solve the mystery of an American scuba-diver’s murder. Against the backdrop of a deteriorating climate, a fast-eroding beachfront, cartel violence, official corruption, and delusional Western escapism, Tony and an international cast of hotel staffers make and break alliances as artifice and reality start to blur. With his signature wit, originality, and dashes of dazzling social theory, Villoro has created a biting satire of tourism and a brilliant analogy for Mexico’s unique position in global politics.

This is award-winning Mexican writer Villoro's first novel to be translated into English. While his story collection, The Guilty (2015), displayed his postmodernist leanings, this novel, originally published in 2012, showcases his edgy black humor and absurdist side. Meet Tony Góngora, our laid-back, heavy-drinking narrator, a 53-year-old former rock musician. (Picture a Mexican sort-of version of the Dude, Jeff Bridges' character from The Big Lebowski.) He's lost part of a finger and limps, and due to extensive drug use, he's also lost part of his memory, which he’s trying to get back. He builds and runs underwater sound systems for aquariums at The Pyramid resort in Kukulcán, on the Caribbean coast. It and other resorts, now vacant, rise up “along the shore like vertical mausoleums, circled by seagulls and ravaged by plants and rats.” The sand’s washing away. Oil rigs and city water have contaminated the sea and are now threatening “the second-largest coral reef in the world.” Thanks to manager Mario Müller, Tony’s friend and fellow ex–band member, and investor El Gringo Peterson, The Pyramid is hanging on because of its unique tourist offerings. Now a “Sodom with piña coladas,” it provides “extreme tourism.” Guests can experience “recreational paranoia” like fake kidnappings and other controlled dangers. Tony has the hots for Sandra, an illegal immigrant from Iowa who works there as a yoga/kung fu instructor. Then Ginger Oldenville, one of the resort’s diving instructors, turns up dead—shot in the back with a spear gun. In this warped utopia, the death loomed “like the black cloud of an approaching hurricane.” Villoro mixes genres (noirish murder mystery, eco-thriller) to fashion a wickedly satirical romp of Mexico as a “country of enormous delusions.” But that’s not all. It’s also a thoughtful tale of friendship and love.

—Francisco Goldman

“The Reef is whip smart, an ebulliently satirical take on contemporary Mexico, growing older and having a past, and so much else.  I love the relentless surprises embedded in the movement of Villoro's sentences.  This writer's brain obviously moves very fast and his art lies in slowing his prose just enough to let us in on the spectacle.”

“I have admired Juan Villoro ever since reading his stories in The Guilty. His new novel The Reef is even more impressive for a powerful, headlong narrative of sustained sleuthing and suspense and the inside-out of appearance and reality. This is the ultimate portrait of a sunny place with shady people, with reflections on Mexico ‘the land of impunity.’ Another Villoro triumph.”

—Paul Theroux

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