In the first few pages of Malcolm Lowry’s posthumous novel, Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid, the book’s protagonist, Sigbjørn Wilderness, travels by plane to Mexico. Alcoholism and paranoia keep him in a state of acute nervous excitement and dread at the prospect of being detained by Mexican immigration officers on his arrival at the airport. Sigbjørn, of course, has a British passport and should have nothing to fear, were it not for his state of mind and, perhaps, for some of his previous experiences in that country.

I read Lowry’s novel at least 30 years ago, and yet Sigbjørn’s fear at the thought of reaching immigration remains etched in my memory—and far more deeply than the rest of the narrative—for one simple reason: Throughout my adult life, I’ve been victim to a similar fear, the fear of being...

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