A Review of The Gringo, J. Grigsby Crawford’s memoir by Kim Peek
I am an unapologetic book snob. You will never catch me reading 50 Shades of Grey or chatting idly about the Twilight series. I’d much rather settle down with a good classic or a novel by the latest acclaimed fiction writer. However, a few weeks ago, I found myself sitting down to a different type of book: The Gringo by RPCV J. Grigsby Crawford. Before coming to Ecuador, I’d never read a Peace Corps memoir and certainly hadn’t intended on doing so. Nevertheless, The Gringo grabbed my attention. Hand to hand, Kindle to Kindle, The Gringo is making the rounds among Peace Corps Ecuador volunteers. PCVs country-wide can’t stop talking about Crawford’s account of life in Ecuador. The more I heard, the more I wanted to read the book. Before I knew it, my own curiosity had gotten the better of me and I found myself clicking the “Download Free” button on Crawford’s Amazon.com page.
The bar was set high before I even cracked the cover. The book boasts endorsements by Chevy Chase and other lesser known sources calling Crawford’s tale “the Moby-Dick [sic] of Peace Corps stories,”“a sobering record of this world’s complexity,” and “what…Hunter S. Thompson would have written had he lived a life of service.” In Amazon’s review section, readers lauded the book for being “refreshing,” “informative,” a “great insight to human nature” and laugh-out-loud funny.
I sped through the book in 3 days; neither the writing nor the content is complex. The Gringo describes Crawford’s entire Peace Corps journey: his initial interview in Washington D.C., his training in the tiny Sierra town of Olmedo, his turbulent 8 weeks in the coastal town of La Segua, and his eventual site change and remaining service in the jungle village of Zumbi. Additionally, Crawford recounts his ominous interactions with the people of La Segua and their supposed plot to kidnap him, the constant frustrations and setbacks he faces in his new site, his turbulent relationship with his host family there, the debilitating prostate pains that leave him bedridden for part of his service, and his eventual success in procuring grant funding and building a school greenhouse in his community. All in all, it has everything you would expect from a Peace Corps memoir: adventure, sickness, disappointments, and successes. However, what it does not have is any scrap of respect for the country and culture that hosted him for two years or the organization that enabled him to work abroad. I’m surprised any writer or reader would soil the good name of Moby Dick and the works of Hunter S. Thompson by comparing them to The Gringo. If I had to describe this book in one sentence, I’d call it self-indulgent navel-gazing and shameless culture bashing masquerading as memoir.
Let’s start with the culture bashing, of which there is plenty. Who, exactly, is Crawford’s audience? If he’s writing the book to a Peace Corps audience, there certainly isn’t much novelty in his experience. Who among us hasn’t suffered from debilitating sickness in our time here? Who among us hasn’t been woken up by a counterpart or a host family member or a neighbor at 4:30am? Who among us hasn’t experienced setbacks, disappointments, and frustrations during our service? Crawford’s experience isn’t new or original. It’s the everyday life of Peace Corps volunteers worldwide. The difference is that Crawford didn’t seem to experience much of the benefits that Peace Corps volunteers, especially those in Ecuador, usually experience—fulfilling relationships, professional or otherwise, with host country nationals, enriching cultural experiences, the thrill of learning and mastering a new language, and exciting travels. If Crawford is counting on former and current PCVs to buy up his book, he’s overlooked the fact that for us his experiences are ordinary and not the makings of a memoir.
Of course, Crawford isn’t writing specifically to Peace Corps volunteers; he’s writing for the wider reading public. Despite writing for an audience that would naturally be unfamiliar with the ins and outs of Ecuadorian culture, he leaves out important cultural context that is integral for the reader’s understanding of Ecuadorian people and his own experiences. Crawford chooses to portray Ecuadorians as people who mindlessly reproduce, rather than explaining that Ecuadorians view the family unit as the core of their society. Crawford chooses to describe Ecuadorians as a people who are generally vicious, money hungry, and cruel rather than explaining how poverty and stereotypes about Americans seen through movies and television affect how Ecuadorians view volunteers. Crawford chooses to portray all Ecuadorian men as violent cheats and all Ecuadorian women as promiscuous baby manufacturers rather than explaining how a machista culture reinforces a society’s views on gender roles and family in general. (In fact, I dare you to find one woman in the book, American or Ecuadorian, who isn’t treated as merely a source of derision or as a sexual object. Maybe Crawford isn’t all that different from the Ecuadorian men he describes.) Given that Crawford provides absolutely no background regarding his knowledge of Spanish, I also doubt whether the conversations he relays really happened as he describes them. Unless Crawford was fluent in Spanish before coming to Ecuador, misunderstandings on the part of the author and his Ecuadorian counterparts are likely. How much of what was said did Crawford really understand? If the author had any intention of telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth—as a good memoir should do—then he would include cultural context. Instead, Crawford leaves it out so as to paint himself as the all-wise American volunteer with nothing but a heart of gold and who was terribly treated by those he was merely trying to help.
Maybe I shouldn’t fault Crawford for the book’s lack of cultural context. It doesn’t seem that he ever got to know or understand Ecuadorian culture much at all. At one point, he describes Guayaquil as “one of Ecuador’s richest cities” and claims Sierrans refer to Coasteños as monkeys because of “their huge consumption of bananas.” Indeed, throughout the book and apparently his service, Grigsby “others” Ecuadorians even as he complains that Ecuadorians are constantly making him “the other.” At one point, he complains that his host sister, who has a “Gringo fetish,” kept “flirting with [him] and would just happen to walk through the kitchen seminude at odd hours of the day when [he] was eating alone….” Did he ever have a real conversation with her about why this behavior made him uncomfortable? The book gives no indication that he did. At another point in the book, he criticizes his Ecuadorian counterparts for asking him for bus fare to and from a meeting in a neighboring town. He portrays his counterparts as swindlers, only interested in conning him out of a few bucks. But did he ever talk with his counterparts about his role in the community or the fact that despite his American heritage he was receiving no more than an average Ecuadorian living on minimum wage? In his two years of service, did he ever talk to Ecuadorians like real, feeling human beings? Maybe, but again, the book contains no evidence or indications that he did.
In addition to criticisms of Ecuadorian culture, Crawford fills the pages with endless self-indulgences and superficial self-reflections. The result is chapter after chapter of insufferable navel gazing. Chapter 29 is one of many examples; for sixteen unbearable pages, Crawford describes a bad trip on San Pedro and the horrifying discovery that the volunteers he’s tripping with “aren’t funny.” I personally found this chapter so intolerable that I skipped it entirely. The chapters in between—detailing his 11 hour journey to have sex with a volunteer “he didn’t care for” and his romantic misadventures, among other things—aren’t much better.
Finally, Crawford levels a number of contradictory criticisms at Peace Corps. As volunteers, we can make our own judgments about the inner workings of Peace Corps as an organization. However, Crawford’s complaints don’t match up. In one chapter, Crawford complains that Ecuadorians have become too accustomed to receiving an endless line of American volunteers, then criticizes Peace Corps for being “obsessed” with sustainability in the next chapter. Towards the end of the book, Crawford negates Peace Corps’s reason for existence in Ecuador all together, asserting that “five decades, or two generations—or more—of Ecuadorians being treated to the worldly generosity of the white man” is ridiculous. (As a country with a booming immigrant population, when has the United States ever been considered the home of “the white man”?) In the end, it is unclear if Crawford truly feels that the Peace Corps should have a better exit strategy or if he’s merely using this complaint as an excuse to gripe about how badly he was treated as a white man in a Latino country.
By the end of the book, the author’s message is clear. As a volunteer, Crawford was always in the right, and as such, he will have his revenge on those ignorant, ungrateful, and unworthy Ecuadorians who mistreated and abused him for two years. Crawford practically states it himself in Chapter 26: “I fantasized about someday telling those people [his Ecuadorian counterparts] what I really thought of them after I’d stayed quiet like an abused child, bottling it up day after day because I was scared of the consequences.” Empowered with first world opportunities and resources, that day has finally arrived for Crawford. This book is his tasteless and condescending way of telling his former Ecuadorian coworkers, host families, neighbors, students, and enemies exactly how he feels about them and the country they live in.
I know what some of you will say. “But wait a minute, Kim. You’re being unfair. The book is supposed to be humorous. Lighten up.” If picking on the impoverished and the disadvantaged is funny, then this book is hilarious. But last I checked, no one can control where they are born and privileges are privileges because they’re unearned.
If Crawford lived in Ecuador for over two years and never met a single kind, generous, and warm person, then we didn’t live in the same country. Am I saying that the people Crawford describes don’t exist? No. I’m only saying that describing an entire culture one way is unfair and shortsighted. As one of my PCV friends said, “Crawford never understood what Peace Corps meant, at home or in Ecuador.” After reading The Gringo, I think he’s exactly right.