War, dispossession and atomic fallout afflict a decent ranching family in 1940s New Mexico.
“Seems like we was bred for bad luck,” Ross Strickland comments—justifiably, although neither he nor his less taciturn brother Baylis initially grasps the magnitude of ruin bearing down on them and their Bar-X ranch. First, Ross’s son Jack enlists and is reported dead fighting in the Philippines. Then the War Department claims their land for a bombing range, expunging years of toil and investment. As the ordered universe implodes, so the Stricklands’ moral compass starts to fail. A feud with reprobate brothers Wink and Napoleon Seery, the Stricklands’ dark opposites, turns violent: Wink’s innocent son Felix is wounded, and then Ross guns down Napoleon in a claimed act of self-defense. But it is Jack, not dead but a prisoner of the Japanese, who is punished most harshly. Malnutrition, beatings, torture and wholesale slaughter are commonplace in the slave labor camps, which reduce him and his peers to their most atavistic selves. Jack finds camaraderie and survivor wisdom among Mexicans, Native Indians and other underdogs. “Maybe it’s better you don’t think about justice,” one sagely advises. Both Jack and Baylis witness the blistering flash of an atomic bomb detonation: Jack near Tokyo, his uncle close to Bar-X land. With Ross in prison and the family scattered, Baylis’s marriage falls apart, and the succor of a brief affair with his sister-in-law turns to corrosive guilt once Ross is released. Jack returns from the dead, a mere skeleton of himself, haunted by anger and more guilt. Ross’s hopes for the ranch are dashed when the War Office denies restitution of their land, and he dies in a car crash. This final blow irretrievably crushes Baylis, leaving to disfigured Felix and scarred Jack the burden of rediscovering a purpose.
Second-novelist Parsons (Leaving Disneyland, 2001) unnecessarily overloads the scales: His sensitive evocation of historical atrocities and a scouring way of life would be affecting enough without the pile-up of misery.