“The Bullet Swallower” by Elizabeth Gonzalez James

The Bullet Swallower (Simon & Schuster 2024) by Elizabeth Gonzalez James is a wild yarn of a story with elements of a classic western adventure invigorated with mystical realism and more than a gloss of karmic turbulence. In short, it’s fascinating. Literary historical fiction at its finest, this is an ambitious novel which more than lives up to its ambitions in terms of complex characters, vivid settings and world building, the sheer beauty of its language, and its imaginative, riveting plot. Themes of redemption and transformation carry it to an even finer level of literature.

The plot takes a hero’s journey archetype (or rather an anti-hero’s journey) and spins it on its head and across generations when a ruthless Mexican, son of an even more ruthless man, sets out in 1895 on a seemingly impossible journey to rob a train of gold. Antonio Sonoro is in dire straights due to a severe drought on his Mexican farm compounded by his own bad habits and worse choices. His wife and his children are suffering. His brother Hugo lives with them but is basically useless, and, in fact, Hugo is only a brother by choice, not by blood.

Antonio has many faults—he is cold-blooded, a bandit, a drunkard, gambler, and unfaithful to his wife. Yet, he is potentially redeemable as he loves his wife, children, and Hugo. These affections will drive both the plot and Antonio’s character arc. His genuine warmth for his wife will push him to fantasize about draping her in gold jewelry and making her hard life easier. His devotion to Hugo will steer him on a brutal, dangerous trail of retribution. Yet, it is also something selfish within Antonio that leads him on the quest for gold—he “needed to find that train as much for what it contained as for what it symbolized—something he couldn’t yet articulate, but that comprised no less than his manhood, freedom, and divine right.”

Against Antonio’s best judgment, Hugo insists upon going with him to rob this train of gold. After a long and perilous journey, things do not go as Antonio planned to say the least. Soon the two men find themselves stripped down to literally nothing:

They had no gold, no horses, no guns, no saddles, and no clothes. It had all been for nothing. Antonio tried not to dwell on these thoughts as they slunk along the back of a row of houses, trying to be as inconspicuous as two naked criminals could be in the middle of the night.

The title comes from an encounter with the Texas Rangers, in which Antonio is shot in the face and left for dead. He survives due to the kindness of a woman who finds and rescues him. Because of the resulting scar on his face, he becomes known as the “bullet swallower.” The old woman healer who saves him gives the story one of its many great lines: “Kindness is its own reward,” she said, “but cruelty is a self-inflicted wound.”

While the story suggests from its beginning that there is a curse upon Antonio and the Sonoro family, Antonio rejects this notion:

Antonio never believed in curses or bad legacies—he lived in a poor region in a poor country peopled by ignorant peasants ground down by centuries of exploitation, ruled by a corrupt and avaricious government, bounded on one side by a hostile foreign power with no regard for economic parity or national sovereignty, and unlucky enough to have suffered a prolonged drought. His grandfather could have murdered a dozen Indian tribes and Antonio knew it wouldn’t make him or the town any worse off.

Interwoven with Antonio’s story is the more modern story of his grandson, Jaime Sonoro, set in 1964. Jaime is far more likable than Antonio, but somehow in the story not quite as fascinating. He is a movie star who has starred in forty films, almost all ranchero comedies, a singer, and entertainer of some success, especially among large Spanish-speaking communities. He lives comfortably in a mansion with his wife, three children, and his father (Antonio’s son). All seems well until a short, frowsy woman presents him with an ancient book and he invites a stranger, Remedio, into his home. The woman is a rare-book dealer. Remedio is a mystery who becomes ever more mysterious.

Between the twin intrusions, soon Jaime’s cozy world is tilted. The book, “The Ignominious History of the Sonoro Family from Antiquity to Present Day,” is a haunting and disturbing chronicle of the Sonoro family and all their hideous crimes. Reading it ignites a feud between Jaime and his father as Jaime demands to know about his grandfather Antonio and the Sonoro family—truths his father has steadfastly hidden from him. What price Jaime might need to pay for the sins of his grandfather and family and what role the mysterious stranger will play in this karmic balancing comprise much of the magical realism in the story.

Remedio holds his own as an intriguing character, though he is not wholly of this world. His rebellious streak and his compassion for the poor humans make him more than a clever plot device. After trying and failing to make sense of people, he concludes he is like a woodcutter who clears the clutter to make way for the new growth. He appears in Antonio’s odyssey as a shadow man but is more fully realized to Jaime.

It is Remedio’s keen study of Antonio that emphasizes his redemption is possible. This clash between good and evil—a kind of struggle for Antonio’s soul—gives the book a strong undercurrent of a morality play, but this never interferes with the action in the book and rather enhances the novel. While Remedio initially perceived Antonio as “a man who defiled himself with violence and drink,” he also sees the complexity and conflicting forces in Antonio and therein sees the potential transformation:

 …he [Antonio] would carry a neighbor’s child to the doctor, or he’d comfort his wife as she wept for their poverty, or he’d take some of the gold he’d won at knifepoint and give it to a friend whose stillborn crops baked lifeless under the unforgiving soil. … committing murder and then saving a family from starvation on the same day, net equal.

Set in Mexico and Texas, the tale is imaginative, and the writing is excellent. The language in this story approaches poetry in places, with a rich, fluid lyrical quality. With phrases like “the river spooled emerald into the briny Gulf” and “he set his face like concrete in a wide grin,” the author spins a daring and spellbinding story.

Exciting, different, The Bullet Swallower—and this is worth repeating—is utterly fascinating. Within its themes of revenge, retribution, cosmic balance, and violence, The Bullet Swallower also asks important questions about racism and colonialism. While not overtly didactic, it should make readers think. The acclaimed Texas Rangers do not appear as heroic so much as brutal killers, and the chronic, historical mistreatment of Mexicans is an underlying theme.

Elizabeth Gonzalez James

All in all, this is an epic, magical story based in part upon one of the author’s own ancestors. Elizabeth Gonzalez James is the author of a prior novel, and several stories and essays published in well-respected journals. Originally from South Texas, she now lives in Massachusetts with her family.




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