In the Shadow of the Vulture


283 pages
ISBN 0-88922-233-9






Reviewed by Chris Redmond

Chris Redmond is Director of Internal Communications at the University
of Waterloo.


Life is sordid for the peasants and whores of Mexico’s rural poor. Freedom and death come hand in hand from the barrel of a gun. Violence in Vietnam fits an ex-soldier for heroic deeds in the American southwest. Anything is better than slavery.

These are the themes of this depressing novel by playwright-novelist George Ryga. It describes the descent, captivity, and liberation of a shabby handful of Mexican ne’er-do-wells whose nobility of spirit is revealed as they reach the depth of degradation. One is a former priest betrayed into rootlessness and poverty by unquenchable lust; one was a petty bandit; one has never come to terms with her artless sexuality and is constantly denying the contemptuous label of “puta” (whore). All spend a good deal of time thinking about food, drink, and sex, and about the meaning of life.

The story of Ryga’s novel is the transportation of this little band of anti-heroes from the hopelessness of Mexican hills and villages to the greater hopelessness of a run-down chicken farm across the American border, where the callous Ramon has sent them as indentured workers: slaves. The uncouth, neofascist, but still pitiable farmer has no better success with them than with any other technique he has tried for raising his filthy chickens; he idly mistreats them, and after an exchange of casual brutality — the book is full of it — they escape.

Enter our hero, Sandy, formerly of Vietnam, now of no place but his uneasy dreams. In his encounter with Anastasio and Juan and Antonia, now raised to full humanity in their thirst and scabs and dirt, he finds a purpose, and he resolves that his jeep and his guns will be their route to freedom in Mexico. The reader is not told whether the escape succeeds and is left to speculate on whether the new life they may find in Mexico is likely to be any more purposeful than the old one from which slavery was their release.

The language is stark. The sentences are well made, their matter-of-factness giving extra horror to the quick desperate sex, the putrefaction, the urine, the starvation, the disgust. The novel may be intended to expose actual horrors: there have been newspaper hints of slave-keeping on grubby farms in the American south and southwest, and there is no doubt that migrant workers have died of heat, thirst, and violence in broken-down trucks on the journey across the Texas border.

“He had wept for America the beautiful, who once took to its shores all the wounded and discarded of the earth,” Ryga writes of his hero. “Now in the throes of world empire, it had redefined its destiny — or allowed its noble sense of purpose to be redefined by the lesser ones who had turned against the ancient dream and were now draining and mutilating it in vicious exercises of acquisition.”

One of the downtrodden Mexicans puts the real point of the novel in less purple prose: “I think God was trying to make a pig when he made His first man.”


Ryga, George, “In the Shadow of the Vulture,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 23, 2024,