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Marianne’s Pick of the Week: The Bullet Swallower

“Alferez Antonio Sonoro was born with gold in his eyes.” So, begins The Bullet Swallower by Elizabeth Gonzalez James.  

Westerns, even ones with sparks of magical realism, are new reading territory for me. Usually, when I think of Westerns, my mind conjures up cattle drives, little houses on prairies and stagecoaches. I do not think of cursed books passed down through the generations, or ghosts who present lead characters with moral choices or the impact ancestors’ choices have on us.  

This is a different type of horse all together.  

We first meet our hero (or is that anti-hero?) Antonio Sonoro, a fearsome bandido who sets off on one last heist to end all heists, or so he tells his long-suffering and well-loved wife. His younger brother, Hugo, joins him. After a shoot-out with the Texas Rangers leaves Hugo dead and Antonio with a hideous facial injury that earns him the nickname “El Tragabalas,” the Bullet Swallower we are confronted with Antonio’s rage and thirst for vengeance. Flip to 1964, and we meet Jaime Sonoro, the star of immensely popular Mexican ranchera comedies and the great grandson of the Bullet Swallower.  

El Tragabalas travels through Texas seeking to avenge his brother’s death and meeting new folks, including the family ghost and fellow desperado Peter Ainsley. El Tragabalas and Peter join forces to cut a swath of chaos across the Texas/Mexico border. This path of destruction continues, gunfighting with the Texas Rangers, hiding out in a house of ill-repute and bantering in true Butch and Sundance style with the family ghost always hovering in the background. Finally, El Tragabalas’ long-awaited reunion with his wife and child forces him to realize that continuing to shoot ’em up does not ease the pain and will visit the consequences of his misdeeds on his descendants forever.  

In the parallel narrative Jaime meets the family ghost, finds a cursed book of family lore, and puts El Tragabalas’ story to film. Our movie star grows to understand his own father’s choices regarding the Sonoros’ ghostly legacy and the sacrifices his father made to end the curse.  

As the story shifts between the two time periods, the reader is provided with an exploration of the impact our ancestors’ decisions and actions have on us today. What makes this book even more fascinating is that it is based on Gonzalez James’ actual family history, including James’ great grandfather, who is the origin story for El Tragabalas. As she tells us in the Author’s Note, “Everything in this book is true except for the stuff I made up.”  

A great read that pulls you in and beautifully illustrates the generational impact of choice.  

Readers of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses or Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold will want to pick up this book.  

Photograph by: Nancy Rothstein

Categories: Books and More

Tags: Books and More

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