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Book Review: ‘South of Normal’

April 19, 2013

At its heart, “South of Normal” is about two friends bonded by prison. The author, Norm Schriever, is free in every way – single, 40 years old, and newly arrived in Costa Rica. His friend, nicknamed “Pistol,” is imprisoned in every way – arrested for growing marijuana plants, awaiting trial and pilloried by his own hubris.

Throughout the book, Schriever visits Pistol and consoles him, smuggling in money and news from the outside world. Schriever serves as a messenger between Pistol’s American family and the surreal Guanacastan prison. Their friendship is old and complex, and Schriever cannot voice his misgivings. After all, Pistol is guilty of a crime, and his hard-boozing life seemed doomed for a long time. Schriever is calmer and more conscientious than Pistol, but he also lacks Pistol’s chutzpah. Like most of the book’s relationships, these opposites attract.

Otherwise, “South of Normal” is a typical romp through paradise’s underbelly, a satire soaked in alcohol and buzzed by cocaine, with some wacky local characters to boot. No Costa Rican will be surprised by its setting – Tamarindo – and the hijinks are exactly what you’d expect: thuggish hermanos, eager Ticas, and wisdom-spouting Rastas floating through the background. Schriever mocks U.S. tourists, but his own experiences are fairly quotidian; he struggles to install Internet, he accidentally sleeps with his semi-attractive roommate and he sidesteps the local hooligans.

Aside from its typos and gee-whiz innocence (how did Schriever not know about the rainy season?) the book is a decent DIY addition to the screwy-white-guy-in-the-tropics genre. Schriever lovingly refers to his idols, from Hemingway to Kesey, but his style is most reminiscent to J. Maarten Troost and Andrew Gottlieb, gold-hearted guys who hurl themselves into weird locales and return with wild anecdotes. Schriever is clearly writing for an American audience – why else would he describe Costa Rica as “Third World” or transcribe all Tico dialogue in italics, even when they’re speaking in English? Schriever accepts himself as an outsider, a pilgrim of crisis, and Taramindo is his beachfront monastery.

The book is a pleasant afternoon read, and thousands of expats will see hints of themselves in its pages, especially the short-termers of Tamarindo. But Schriever succeeds in unexpected ways: In the press material, “South of Normal” is described as “a gonzo blast of laughter and adventure,” but the book’s best parts are simply gonzo. Schriever writes about drug smuggling and prison life. He explores government corruption and the justice system. He describes the relationships between surfers and late-night hoods. These segments are thoughtful and closely observed, and they offer a counterpoint to Costa Rica’s utopian rep.

Behind the outrageous veneer, Schriever is startlingly masochistic. He moves to Costa Rica to improve his health and escape “the hamster wheel” of U.S. life, but his generosity bleeds him dry. He wants to “help people,” but he doesn’t know exactly how, and freeloaders often stymy his efforts. He is too old to party, too beleaguered to date, and too frightened to raise real hell. In the end, Tamarindo drains Schriever dry, and nothing around him has changed. Yet Schriever resolves to finish his book, and “South of Normalis that dream, nakedly come true.

A stronger editor might have cloven chunks from Schriever’s manuscript. The relationship between Norm and Pistol is also the story’s backbone, and by traditional standards, the rest of the narrative is so much chum. But Schriever is an enthusiastic storyteller, and he wants us to know every last detail. Some might say he’s showboating. Others might call it generous.

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