"Perpetual West" takes readers from Appalachia to the southern border.

“The older I get and the more that I write, the more that I think that doubt can be your best friend,” Mesha Maren says, “and that empathy and doubt can have a good relationship.”

Maren says this one gray January afternoon from a bench at Duke Gardens, near her office on Duke University’s campus. It’s a few days out from the paperback release of her second novel, Perpetual West, first released in hardback by Algonquin in January 2022, and the dust is beginning to settle—both for the book’s publicity cycle and for Maren, who moved to Durham in the fall of 2019, right before the pandemic, to start a job in Duke’s English Department.

Maren wrote her first novel, Sugar Run, while waiting tables in Iowa City while her partner was attending graduate school. After sending the manuscript to a former teacher, the writer Lauren Groff—whom Maren calls a “literary fairy godmother”—the book found an agent, and then editors, and then sweeping acclaim, with a New York Times review by Charles Frazier praising Maren’s writing as a “recompense for a world that presses up against you all raw and aggressive and dangerous.”

Sugar Run was set in Appalachia, and Perpetual West takes readers farther south and then back again, following Alex and Elana, a young married couple moving for grad school from West Virginia to the bordering towns of El Paso and Juárez. The novel, which clocks out at an expansive 370 pages, slips gracefully between those places, with Alex comparing them at one point and observing that he had “thought vertically all his life, but here it flipped. The land rushed out away from you, both endless and dissipating.”

Alex, who is Mexican and was adopted as a baby by white American Pentecostal missionaries, is intent on connecting with both his birthplace and Mateo, the Lucha Libre fighter he has secretly fallen in love with—and who is, unbeknownst to Alex, sponsored by the leader of a powerful drug cartel.

Meanwhile, Elana, disillusioned with academia, is waitressing, suffering from an eating disorder, and receding into herself and away from Alex. (A note of caution here: the descriptions of Elana ’s anorexia are particularly evocative and may be difficult for some readers.) 

When Elana  goes home to West Virginia to see her younger brother, who is home from rehab for meth addiction, Alex takes a trip with Mateo and goes missing. Here, the pulse of the book picks up and turns into something close to a thriller.

Maren is a stylish and sensual writer, stretching an elastic suspension between the cerebral preoccupations of the characters and the novel’s noir, violence-inflected center.


The titular idea of a “perpetual west” is one that Elana and Alex both grapple with, as strangers to a border that, as Elana observes, has primarily functioned in the American literary and historical imagination as a “final and perpetual frontier, a place of eternal contrast that America can always compare itself favorably to,” with “Mexico as the ultimate crucible for the formation of individual identity, a great plow to break yourself against and find out who you really are.”

Maren, who was born in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, followed her own love interest to El Paso in the early 2000s, where she fell in with a leftist activist circle similar to the one in which Alex and Elana run. It was a formative period, she says, but one that required her to “live more life before I could really understand it.”

Those attempts to understand it also required years of research—Maren started writing Perpetual West between 2015 and 2016—involving everything from returning to El Paso and Juárez to training at a boxing gym in Greensboro to better understand Lucha Libre and the feel of a boxing ring.

Research also required a perpetual awareness about, Maren says, “what it means to write a novel about a place that does not belong to me.” 

Empathy and doubt, or the ability to place curiosity above ego, are key here. I like the novelist Brandon Harris’s definition of empathy, from a 2016 LitHub essay—“writing requires you to enter into the lives of other people, to imagine circumstances as varied, as mundane, as painful, as beautiful, and as alive as your own”—and Maren’s is effective, too: “I think of it as a muscle that you build up through asking questions and not being afraid to doubt yourself.” 

Mesha Maren. Photo by Brett Villena

In this case, the process of asking questions led Maren to recognize the ways that Mexico acted as a crucible for her own characters, as well as parallels between the transience of the border and West Virginia, a place that, as Elana  observes, is in “a continuous state of being left.” 

The book is strongest in these moments of subtle parallel. Like Cormac McCarthy (who was raised in Tennessee and also ended up in El Paso), Maren is interested in the hinterlands of Southern literary traditions—the margins between borders and repudiated mountains, and the margins between the selves we present to the world and those we long to understand and have known.

In Perpetual West, both are rendered with care.

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