The Bullet Swallower

S. & S. Jan. 2024. 272p. ISBN 9781668009321. $26.99. F
James’s second novel (after Mona at Sea) is both the epic story of a family and a Western full of violence, machismo, and magical realism. In 1895, Antonio Sonoro leaves his drought-stricken Mexican village, crossing the Rio Grande to rob a train, with younger brother Hugo in tow. In the act, Hugo is killed by Texas Rangers, and Antonio is gravely injured. But he arises as El Tragabalas, the Bullet Swallower, on a quest for revenge that ranges across Texas and home again. In 1964 Mexico City, Jaime Sonoro is a movie star writing a script about his famous bandito grandfather. During his research, Jaime is mysteriously given a history of his family, going back generations. It’s full of corruption, cruelty, and darkness and shakes up his comfortable life. In both timelines, the Sonoros are shadowed by the immortal Remedios, who must exact payment for generations of evil deeds.
VERDICT This is a Western full of classic tropes, but it also surprises with its philosophical examination of generational trauma, justice and retribution, and racism and politics. The supernatural element ties together the timelines and the themes, adding resonance. With a powerfully drawn setting and viscerally convincing characters, James’s novel is a strong addition to any general fiction collection.
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