It doesn't take long to get to know the J. Grigsby Crawford of 'The Gringo,' his always entertaining and at times moving memoir of a post-college tour in the Peace Corps. We meet Crawford at the beginning of his journey, a bright young man in his early twenties, fresh from college, ready to test himself against the world, and steadfastly confident in his views. For example, we know early on that Crawford is far from an idealist, someone who joined the Peace Corps believing wholeheartedly in its mission. Four pages in, we find his description of the Corps' application process and why it works as it does: "One thing the Peace Corps does to weed out applicants is complicate the process. They don't make the interview or application particularly tough or selective per se – they just make it a pain in the ass." This assessment sets the rough-and-ready, tell-it-like-it-is tone for the rest of the book. This may be a memoir of the "toughest job he ever loved," as the Peace Corps slogan goes, but it won't be without caustic humor, a welcome note in this tale of best intentions gone, if not wrong, then at least slightly off kilter.
After months of red tape and various mis-starts on the way to his Corps posting, Crawford is sent to Zumbi, a remote Ecuadorian village in the far reaches of the Andes. A comedy of high-minded errors, some of which Crawford finds none too amusing, ensues. There's an aborted kidnapping plot in his first host village, a jungle parasite that attacks his testicles (funnier that it sounds), and the thudding weight of an international bureaucracy that deadens the potential for doing lasting good (of an education program he struggles to get underway, Crawford writes, "So I embarked on a several-month process that I referred to as the twenty-first-century Peace Corps experience: living on my own way out in the jungle yet being bogged down with…paperwork."). The point of the book, beyond Crawford's journey to understanding and acceptance, is that the real world is difficult, it must be endured, and that achievement comes with cost. These are valuable lessons.
Crawford often rebels against the fruitless nature of the work he has been sent to do. He complains of the loneliness of his life, being away from his family, and his isolation from women (he's young). He has a hard time adapting to people he finds mysterious and unwise, he grapples with the dirty conditions – he's no fan of the outhouse – and always there are the never-ending Peace Corps rules to chafe against. Of that same education program, Crawford writes, "it became increasingly obvious that the more Ecuadorians were involved, the harder and more needlessly complicated things became." While this may speak to his experience, it's an appraisal that feels uncharitable. But it's his rugged honesty, the willingness to say things that perhaps he shouldn't, that makes this book complete, and something more than a young man's travelogue in uncomfortable surroundings. It makes it real, and worth reading.