J.M. Servín isn’t looking for pity. He spent some hard years as an illegal immigrant, back at the turn of the 21st century, and his memoir “For Love of the Dollar” never sugarcoats the experience. The book details the hours “drugged from exhaustion” and the shame over “chasing the carrot.”
Yet as a poster boy for the Downtrodden, Servín just won’t do. He shows too much spunk for that.
At times, the recollections in “Dollar” feel no less than rollicking. Servín caroms around greater New York, carrying false papers but nonetheless a familiar figure: a young man sowing his wild oats.
When the demands of getting I.D. keep him up all night, Servín finds a Manhattan strip joint and a girl with whom to do shots. During a stint as a rich man’s “manny,” he joins his employer’s slacker sons for pot and video games. Servín even swings a clandestine trip to Ireland, where he puts in plenty of pub time. Overall, he’s less a waif than a punk: “The Ramones and the Clash,” he admits, “were my patron saints.”
Which makes him a winning guide to the underground, actually. Since returning to Mexico, Servín has gained fame as a “gonzo journalist,” according to the jacket copy for this, his first book to be translated. So Anthony Seidman handles the English with scofflaw élan, and the structure proves engagingly loose. The reminiscences follow the chronology of Servín’s life stateside, but his very first stop, the Brooklyn rooms he shares with his sister, detours into a peek at the young woman’s character. Nothing like her rambunctious brother, she keeps her head down, playing the system cannily — and so provides, for the reader, a winning payoff for the digression.
Servín’s observations remain sharp even on his groggy end-of-day commute: “The electric light in the train made us look paler.” His alertness to humanity’s surprises extends to the stuff of sleazy old Times Square, like the “Porno-dome”; when he buys a lap dance, he gets to know the girl. When she laughs, he notices “the golden bridge near her right incisors” — evidence, he surmises, of her life’s dangers.
“Dollar” fleshes out a range of figures, from girls like this dancer to clueless white bosses. This sympathy, combined with smart-aleck acuity, goes a long way toward overcoming the lack of suspense that, inevitably, afflicts a tale of routine jobs and dead-end relationships.
The introduction by David Lida clarifies a key resource for Servín, namely that he’s a product of the fragile Mexican middle class. He first came north on a student visa, and his text is peppered with allusions to culture beyond punk rock, from Baudelaire to William Burroughs. Thus “For Love of the Dollar” shatters stereotypes of Mexican illegals — even as it shows how “for each poor soul who had a tragedy to share, there was someone else with an even more gruesome Calvary.”
John Domini is a writer in Iowa. His latest book is a story collection, “Movieola!”