“El Paso: A Novel”
Author: Winston Groom
Publisher: Liveright: a Division of W. W. Norton
Price: $27.95 (Hardcover)
After publishing 7 novels, including the mega-hit “Forrest Gump” in 1986, Groom left off writing novels and turned to nonfiction. He has published 10 works of history, mainly on military subjects, from the Civil War battles of Shiloh and Vicksburg to WWI fighting in Flanders to the darkest period of WWII, the year 1942.
Groom has ventured into popular biography with his books on famous American admirals, generals and aviators.
Readers and reviewers of these nonfiction works have remarked that he brings to them a powerful skill at storytelling and a novelist’s ability to draw living, believable characters, whether the character in question is Charles Lindbergh or Ulysses S. Grant.
Groom has, at least temporarily, reversed direction again and published his first novel in 17 years.
Now he brings to the novel “El Paso” all those fictional skills and a historian’s grounding in the events along the U.S.-Mexican border, in this case in the year 1916. Groom’s long interest in earlier U.S.-Mexican relations was fully developed in his history “Kearney’s March,” set during the 1846-1847 conflict with Mexico. (This is the war that Henry David Thoreau went to jail for briefly, rather than pay taxes to support it.)
In 1916 Mexico was in turmoil. Revolutionaries like Pancho Villa led armies across northern Mexico, fighting Mexican federal troops loyal to President Venustiano Carranza.
There is considerable uncertainty over how we should view Villa. Was he a true revolutionary, like the Washingtons and Adamses of our American revolution, fighting for freedom for his people? Was he a kind of Chihuahuan Robin Hood, stealing from the rich gringoes, and reclaiming railroads, mining operations, and huge tracts of land owned by foreigners, that is, Americans, who had bought them for a song? Or was he something of a psychopath, a violent killer?
In this sweeping novel, which ranges from Boston to Juarez, Groom builds his story around the Irish Shaughnessys. The “Colonel” has come to the U.S., worked his way up and now owns the New England & Pacific Railroad Co.
Arthur, his adopted son, manages the line. Arthur is modern, even owns a plane.
The Colonel and the family will visit their immense holding in Mexico, preposterously large we are told, nearly a million acres, with over 200,000 head of cattle. For sport, Arthur races his father from Chicago to El Paso, Arthur in his plane, the Colonel in his private railroad car. This is a satisfying novella all by itself.
Villa appears at the hacienda to steal cattle for his army, and we get a look at Pancho. He has been a hero to many, but has suffered reverses, and can be very moody. In a fit of pique one afternoon in Sonora he had 600 Chinese immigrants killed because they were taking Mexican jobs.
Villa is a disturbed man, filled with wrath and cruelty. Over the course of “El Paso” he will commit a number of fascinating atrocities, killing his enemies creatively, sometimes sadistically.
Villa will kidnap Arthur’s son and daughter, among others, and the bulk of this novel is the story of chasing Villa around Northern Mexico, across the desert, into the Sierra Madre Mountains, up to the U.S. border.
In Villa’s entourage, Groom has placed a number of colorful real-life characters including Tom Mix, who with his wonder horse Tony will later be a Hollywood star, John Reed, the communist who is reporting on Villa for the papers, a German spy/provocateur here named Claus Strucker and the famous cynic/writer Ambrose Bierce, who had been at the bloody battles of Franklin, Shiloh and Chickamauga and who did disappear in Mexico, but may or may not have been with Villa. (Who cares: it works.)
There are also cameo appearances by General George Pershing and a young George Patton, who did in fact serve in 1916 on the U.S. Mexico border.
This is an action story that never slows down. At one point there is a bloody and somewhat unorthodox bullfight in a box canyon. At another point, Villa’s men are slaughtered by Federales who have machine guns and throw dynamite.
Over the years I have reviewed many, many novels by, for and about women. This Christmas, instead of a necktie or a barbeque apron, buy the real man in your life “El Paso” by Winston Groom.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” A shorter form of this review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio.