While the name Winston Groom may not be instantly recognisable, his literary creation, Forrest Gump, certainly is. Casual readers may be forgiven for thinking Mr Gump was the creation of a one-trick pony, but Mr Groom has, over the past thirty years or so, authored more than twenty books, both fiction and non-fiction, each of them exploring such facets of Americana as he sees fit.
In El Paso, Winston Groom explores the American attitude towards Mexico – a timely subject in an era of Trump’s Wall. But Groom’s novel is not set now, but rather in the waning grandeur of the Edwardian era. In America this means a backdrop of the glamour of the Guggeheims, the rackets of the Rockefellers, and the hedonism of the Hearsts. Against this, Groom superimposes the negative image: Pancho Villa. Groom invents a railroad tycoon, the Colonel, and pits him against the Bandit King on Villa’s home turf.
Villa appropriates cattle from the Colonel’s Mexican land holdings to feed his army. When the Colonel’s foreman complains he is eviscerated, and a young lady kidnapped. This sets the scene for the Colonel and his imperial hubris as he travels from Boston with his wife, son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren to sort Villa out. The best laid plans go awry, and Pancho kidnaps his grandchildren as well, demanding ransom. The Colonel, rebuffed, returns to his Rough Rider roots and the stage is now set for a showdown between the two great egos.
The charm of this book lies not in the plot, which is nonetheless formidable and satisfying, but in the cameos Groom has peppered throughout. Celebrities like Tom Mix, Ambrose Bierce, George Patton and John Reed weave throughout the storyline adding colour and pathos. While this is not used for comedic effect, ALA George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series, the constant appearance of these known quantities reminds us that we are reading about (mostly) real events. We see Villa’s disastrous attack on Chiuhuahua City, his repulse at the Battle of Agua Prieta, and the raid on Columbus through the eyes of newspaperman and socialist Reed, and newspaperman and curmudgeon Bierce. Groom offers a wonderfully imaginative death for Bierce, whose last days in Mexico are historically unknown.
Groom’s prose is a delight, his history is accurate, his characterisations realistic and his world-building superb. This book shows what the Western genre is capable of in the hands of a truly great author.
Reviewed by D C White
Rating out of 10: 9
Published by: Liveright Publishing Corporation
Release Date: September 2017