Two Tacos for A Moveable Feast: A Writer's Life-Changing Barter in Tijuana

In 1972, Daniel Woodrell traded part of his lunch for a copy of Ernest Hemingway's posthumous novel. After he read it, he became determined to be a writer.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.

Doug McLean

Book discovery—the publishing industry’s term for how readers find new things to read—can be an unpredictable process. Though book clubs and GoodReads and magazine reviewers try to codify our tastes, we often pick up books for mysterious and whimsical reasons: A conversation overheard on the subway, a beguiling title that stands out in a shelf of spines. Then there are the moments when a complete stranger hands you something new and life-altering and tells you, Just read this.

For Daniel Woodrell, author of Winter’s Bone, this book was Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, its evangelist a ragged Tijuana alms-seeker.

Woodrell’s stories, largely set in the hills and hollers of the Missouri Ozarks, are a long way from Hemingway’s Paris. But as he describes in his essay for this series, the book’s terse lyricism ensnared him so completely that Woodrell—then a high-school dropout and listless ex-Marine—decided he would give his all to try to be a writer. 

Daniel Woodrell’s new book, on shelves today, is his first novel since 2006's Winter’s Bone (and the 2010 Best Picture Oscar-nominated film it inspired, starring a then-unknown Jennifer Lawrence). The Maid’s Version is based on a forgotten historical tragedy: the fatal explosion in West Plains, Missouri that rocked a city block, turned a crowded dance floor into a blistering fireball, and made national news in 1928. Woodrell’s novel uses this blast, which in real life occurred for unknown reasons, as its point of origin, and refigures it as a brutal crime of passion. Using a Faulknerian shifting-perspective narrative, he takes readers through the tangled lives of the victims towards a central story of attraction and betrayal.


Daniel Woodrell: In February of 1972 a snowstorm blew into Kansas City and I decided to hitchhike to California. The roads were icy, snowflakes howling, and nobody would drive me to the highway, so I humped through the snow and ice and caught a ride with a concerned cop to the Kansas Turnpike. I had my sea bag, a few shirts, socks, a sleeping bag, two notebooks I expected to fill with my observations of the world and the beatnik poetry (even high school dropouts think they can write beatnik poetry) that would spring from my observations. For sustenance I had $50 and a large jar of honey. The first night I stopped to visit a pal in Topeka who lived over a tavern, and the next day I had $28 and a large jar of honey. People were nicer to a hitchhiker in a snow-scape, plus my sea bag announced that I’d been in the military, and that attracted rides.

I was almost 19, out of the Corps for 60 days, and off on what felt like a mandatory hitchhiking trek to rejoin my generation. Three days later I hit Tijuana with an excited kid from Minnesota who’d never been anywhere famously nasty before. We lodged at Caesar’s on Avenida Revolución, because I’d stayed there many times while stationed at Camp Pendleton. The food was good (the salad was invented there) and the bar on the first floor had a lot of character. You were also unlikely to get rolled in your sleep at Caesar’s.

Next day I bought a few tacos from an old woman cooking on a brazier curbside, and as I chewed the first this bum comes up to me and says, “How’s Lassie taste?” He was American, a little too young to really qualify as a bum, maybe, but, man, the fucker was in sad shape. His stink stood out even among the stinks of Tijuana, and he seemed off in the eyes.

“But maybe it’s Ol’ Yeller today.”

“You want one, say so.”

“I want two.” He held up a paperback book, waved it before me. “I’ll trade you this for two.”

I wasn’t hungry anymore and took the deal. It was A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway. I’d never read him, famous as he was, and thought I might’ve just gotten screwed. “Is this a cookbook?”

“No. But it’ll make you hungry, man.”

Me and the kid from Minnesota parted ways after a few nights flopping at the Holy Order of Something-or-Other, in the Tenderloin of San Francisco. We ate supper with the Brown Brothers there, but lunched at St. Anthony’s. He had money coming to Wells Fargo and missed Minnesota and certainty. I got a job handing out flyers advertising soaps, vacuum cleaners, hair-care products, mostly around Union Square. The Holy Order had good soup and great dark bread but you had to sleep with your clothes wadded under your head if you wanted to put them on in the morning. We’d pool nickels and get jugs we shared, but guys from that crowd were always after me to give them a boost into open windows visible from an alley, any alley, or keep watch on the corner while they muscled a guy in the middle of the block, any block. It was free to flop there, but I had earned $25 on my own and spent $18 to book a week in a private sleeping room on Eddy Street.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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