Both a rich portrait of mid-century oil speculation and a classic tale of mother-daughter conflict, Utopia Texas is no paradise, but it’s a satisfying–and sometimes frightening–trip through purgatory.
At the heart of the novel is Brya Harrison, a rich Texan woman trying her hand at petroleum exploration. The search for crude in West Texas is a man’s game–at least mid-century, when the novel is set. But Brya, a tough dame with whom Byrd obviously sympathizes, throws herself into this new enterprise with hurricane force, buying up properties, as her husband says, â€œfrom here to Timbuktu.” Brya, whose past is a tortured patchwork of pain and loss, is recently remarried to Cole, Utopia’s most provocative character. Cole is a Jack Daniels-swilling, lecherous Texan who, despite his flaws, boasts a generous streak and a warm spot in his heart for his stepdaughter Olivia. Though Olivia is Brya’s daughter the two are polar opposites. An eccentric soul, the tall, gangly girl has few friends and can barely hear out of one ear. She also has a strange–one might call it Carrie-esque–tendency to court danger. For reasons that only eventually become starkly clear, mysterious accidents happen when Olivia is around–near-drownings, broken bones, deep cuts–and the hard-charging Brya is repeatedly challenged to cover up her daughter’s â€œmishaps” as she tries to maintain her social standing and make her way as a big oil speculator. As Byrd is well aware, thick, black oil is both the dark blood that gives her novel’s world life and the pitchy trap that snares the unwary in greed and vice. Oil, in other words, yields both promise and peril, and the author is adept at mining the different meanings of her novel’s central symbol. She is equally capable when it comes to balancing her two complex heroines. Though their destinies are intimately related, Brya and Olivia need to cut distinct paths through Utopia, and Byrd gives each such strength and definition that their inevitable clashes–and there are many–burn with the energy of an oil fire.
A thrilling tour de force.