A boy growing up alone in a hardscrabble Texas town weathers poverty, violence, and heartbreak in this coming-of-age saga.
Archuleta’s (Rio Sonora, 2010, etc.) tense stories unfold like chapters in a novella about a boy named Josh struggling to make his way in the 1950s and ’60s. In “Jolie Blon,” readers meet little Josh living in a tent with his mother, Belle, and an itinerant farm laborer named Cecil. The boy’s unsettled life is upended when the frustrated Belle steals Cecil’s car, sells it for quick cash, and packs Josh onto a Greyhound. In the gothic “La Tormenta,” readers discover Belle abandoned Josh in a nameless west Texas hamlet. He goes to school, earns his keep—a cot and meals—by doing odd jobs, and observes the town’s darker undercurrents. In “Tormenta,” a wife’s infidelities spark macabre bloodshed, and in “Old Dan’s Lament,” the blighted life of a reclusive, bookish ranch hand maimed in the Korean War becomes grotesquely immediate. As Josh enters high school, the tales merge into episodes in a more conventional adolescent yarn. He scores a touchdown in the homecoming game—rendered with gripping play-by-play by Archuleta. And Josh gets the attention of Missy, the flirty daughter of an affluent rancher who tantalizes him by playing Beethoven on the piano and making out with him in a truck, and Roble, a down-to-earth Mexican-American girl who dreams of becoming a doctor. Dirt poor and with few prospects, Josh wonders how he could fit into either girl’s life as he scrounges work, hangs out at the gas station, and fends off hooligans. Josh is a bit blank—good-hearted but unformed and unambitious. Fortunately, Archuleta surrounds him with more colorful and charismatic characters, from a no-nonsense deputy and a flinty rancher to a tart-tongued, motherly diner waitress. Josh’s town is convincingly crafted from punchy, plainspoken dialogue—“Anyone helping me on this, well, no more beer until it’s over,” a lawman admonishes his posse—and windswept landscapes. (“Tumbleweeds bounced and rolled across dry fields until they became tangled and trapped along the fence lines and as the wind blew south toward the town, it gathered more dirt from the fields and pushed it higher until it formed a great dark rolling cloud, gaining speed and dimming daylight.”) The result is an atmospheric Texas bildungsroman reminiscent of Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show.
A well-wrought panorama of small-town dramas and discontents.