The Bullet Swallower: A Novel

  • By Elizabeth Gonzalez James
  • Simon & Schuster
  • 272 pp.

This absorbing western-like saga is shot through with magical realism.

The Bullet Swallower: A Novel

Based loosely on author Elizabeth Gonzalez James’ family history, The Bullet Swallower is a mesmerizing tale of greed, revenge, and the yearning for redemption set in the shifting borderlands between Mexico and Texas.

Decades after Alferez Antonio Sonoro brings calamity on his family and neighbors at the beginning of the 19th century through his insatiable appetite for gold, his descendant Antonio lives in poverty in Dorado, Mexico. The year is 1895. From his humble jacal, or adobe shack, where he lives with his wife, Jesusa, two children, and gentle younger brother Hugo, Antonio can see Alferez Antonio’s crumbling mansion, a constant reminder of the family’s once glorious but bloodstained past.

Rather than eke out a living from the drought-stricken land, Antonio subsists by rustling cattle and smuggling. When he hears of a train passing through Houston filled with beautifully crafted saddles, gold jewelry, Toltec masks, and other treasure, he plans an ambitious heist, with only Hugo for backup. Predictably, the scheme fails. Texas Rangers kill Hugo and shoot Antonio’s face half off. Such lush, agonizing descriptions of self-disintegration sharpen the sense of mortality that permeates the book:

“Then came the shot — clipped through the head along the right side of his face. Antonio was surprised to feel the bullet as it entered him. His lips parted and he allowed in the hot metal bee. It opened a door into his flesh, rutted through his tongue, blasted his teeth one by one, sending splinters and fragments ricocheting through his mouth like broken china. It kicked a hole out the other side through the jawbone and kissed his ear and continued its journey.”

Remarkably, Antonio doesn’t die. He dons a bandana over the damaged side of his face and swears to seek vengeance for his brother’s death. His seemingly miraculous survival earns him the epithet El Tragabalas, “the Bullet Swallower,” and his search for Ranger commander Cyrus Fish takes him across the Texas frontier. Forever chalking up crimes (including murder) and evading capture, the Bullet Swallower becomes a legend.

Antonio meets Peter Ainsley when both escape a terrible fire in Corpus Christi. The two are unlikely comrades. Peter is an elegant Englishman and property owner, but he’s also an ace shot with a hatred of the Rangers that rivals Antonio’s. He urges Antonio to use his disfiguration to his own advantage: “There’s power in a mask,” he tells him. “Behind there a man could be anyone.”

Peter admires Antonio’s tenacity and loyalty to his brother’s memory. He helps Antonio out of several dicey situations, as when he hides him from the Rangers in a whites-only brothel, where Peter is sure (mistakenly) that Fish will never look for him. In spite of Antonio’s reluctance to accept him as a friend, Peter stays with the Bullet Swallower until one of them meets his end.

Simultaneously with Antonio’s story unfolds that of his grandson Jaime. In the 1960s, Jaime Sonoro is a famous movie star — “Mexico’s guiding light of ranchera comedies, el Gallo, the Rooster” — living in Mexico City with his wife, children, and widowed father Juan Antonio. When Jaime’s son has a serious accident that could have been fatal, a mysterious character named Remedio appears and offers help. It soon becomes clear that Remedio is Death and has been present all along.

One day, a rare-book dealer thrusts a malodorous parcel into Jaime’s hands — the history of the Sonoro family, “from Antiquity to the Present Day,” published by María Gaspar Rocha de Quiroga in 1783. Until this moment, Jaime has had no idea who his ancestors were. His own father never mentioned them, and when Jaime tries to prod the older man for information, Juan Antonio balks. He wants nothing to do with the Sonoro legacy.

Naturally, Gaspar Rocha could not have foreseen the stories of Antonio and Jaime, but her narrative raises important questions with regard to time. “Time moved in a spiral,” Jaime realizes. “Not a line. A spiral. Meaning Remedio could be following Jaime in Mexico City in 1964. And at the same time he could be following Antonio decades before.” Remedio is a constant presence. Death, evil, and the yearning for redemption are eternal human realities. Yet human existence is marked by events in time, and Hugo’s death marks a turning point for Antonio:

“The words my brother, my brother beat a rhythm in his chest…Antonio felt his soul torn in two, and he knew his life, whatever remained of it, would henceforth be split, bifurcated. Hugo’s death a large black X on the page and all time known only for its proximity to the event — before the death, or after.”

The immediate “after” is marked by violence, but when Antonio finally returns home to Dorado, his life takes a new direction. Remedio was supposed to claim Antonio as an infant but somehow declined to do so. When he faces Antonio much later, Remedio gives him the choice of paying for his sins or passing his legacy of evil onto his heirs. One way or another, the Bullet Swallower will live on, as becomes clear when Jaime decides to make a film based on the life of his grandfather.

Although the novel reads like a western with elements of magical realism, it is actually an exploration of complex metaphysical themes — among them, the nature of time. Does time really advance chronologically, or does humanity live and relive the same moment over and over? Are we caught in an endless spiral of violence and repentance? Is redemption actually possible? In The Bullet Swallower, Elizabeth Gonzalez James offers readers an intriguing and multifaceted story that will keep you thinking long after you turn the last page.

Bárbara Mujica is a novelist, essayist, short-story writer, and critic. Her latest novel, Miss del Río, based on the life of Mexican movie star Dolores del Río, was named one of the best books of 2022 by Library Journal and one of the five best recent historical novels by the Washington Post. Mujica’s novel Frida, based on the tumultuous relationship between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, was an international bestseller published in 18 languages. Sister Teresa, based on the life of the Spanish saint Teresa de Avila, was adapted for the stage by the Actors Studio in Los Angeles. Her novel I Am Venus revolves around the identity of the mysterious model for the Rokeby Venus, the only extant female nude by Spanish painter Diego Velázquez. Mujica’s story collections are Imagining Iraq, an Amazon bestseller, Far from My Mother’s Home, and Sanchez across the Street. Her Collateral Damage: Women Write about War is a compendium of writings on the trauma of war. Mujica has won numerous prizes for her writing, including the E.L. Doctorow International Fiction Competition, the Pangolin Prize, and the Pioneer Prize from Dialogue on Diversity. She is a two-time Pushcart nominee. She is also a professor emerita at Georgetown University who specializes in early modern Spain and is the author of numerous books and articles on Spanish theater, mysticism, the counterreformation, and women’s writing. In 2022, her book Women Religious and Epistolary Exchange in the Carmelite Reform won the GEMELA Prize for best book of the year on early modern Hispanic women.

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