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El Paso


El Paso

In a better world, the name “Winston Groom” would be as well known as “Forrest Gump.” It is Groom who created that iconic character, the popularity of whom has spawned everything from the much-beloved film adaptation to chain restaurants and, yes, lip balm. In an even better world, it would be known that Groom has written a shelf full of novels and nonfiction works concerning a number of different topics, all of which are wonderfully worthwhile for similar and different reasons. Thus his latest novel, EL PASO, should not escape your notice.

Groom has confined his output primarily to nonfiction matters over the past two decades. EL PASO demonstrates a return to fiction from a historical standpoint. He gives us a somewhat fictionalized account of Pancho Villa’s attempt to overthrow the Mexican government in the opening years of the 20th century. It was a tumultuous time, to be sure, and not all that far removed from our present day. Villa was a self-styled man of the underdog who, if he was alive today, would probably look in the mirror and believe he saw a social justice warrior staring back at him, one whose ends justified the means that were often worse than the wrongs he felt compelled to correct. It takes a bit of time before we meet Villa, though.

"Whether approached as a historical entertainment or an ironic statement of current events through the looking glass, EL PASO is worth your time and interest."

EL PASO begins with Arthur Shaughnessy, the heir apparent to his family’s railroad business. Arthur began life in an orphanage and was almost certain to be doomed to a life of poverty and failure when he was literally plucked up and adopted by John and Bertie Shaughnessy. John had purchased what was to become the New England & Pacific Railroad (NE&P) when it was a small company on the brink of failure and boldly extended it. Arthur was raised in his new family’s business and became his father’s second-in-command. Circumstances conspired against them, however, as did John’s penchant in his later years for reckless spending.

So when the novel opens, the Shaughnessys and the NE&P are almost out of money, even as John’s plans to extend the railroad out to the Pacific Coast seem doomed to failure. Desperate for capital, John has a somewhat desperate and risky plan to bring his cattle holdings on his Mexico property to market in El Paso. Arthur objects for several reasons, not the least of which is the political climate in Mexico, where the aforementioned Pancho Villa is at war with the Mexican government and is busily appropriating by force money, food and supplies where he finds it. Nevertheless, John feels that the family holdings in Mexico are safe and secure, and arranges a combined business and pleasure trip for his extended family. Disaster, of course, ensues.

Along the way, various historical figures dip and swirl into and out of the narrative, including Tom Mix, a cowboy with dreams of being a movie star; author Ambrose Bierce, in the twilight of a brilliant and controversial career, traveling incognito through Mexico; and a no-nonsense Army lieutenant named George Patton, who is part of a military detachment that finds itself on the brink of history. The ending is not entirely upbeat, by any means. Call it a draw.

Groom, by his own admission, is not concerned with a strict recitation of the facts, and spends his Afterword noting where his narrative strayed from the river of history. What he has created is a magnificent story against the backdrop of real world events, instantly memorable and readable. The book is also very much a cautionary tale; many of the problems that Groom describes as existing a century ago can be found in today’s headlines, to the extent that such are acknowledged. Whether approached as a historical entertainment or an ironic statement of current events through the looking glass, EL PASO is worth your time and interest.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on November 4, 2016

El Paso
by Winston Groom

  • Publication Date: September 5, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Liveright
  • ISBN-10: 163149340X
  • ISBN-13: 9781631493409