Gutierrez’s debut sets the industrialized murder of World War I as backdrop to the murderous industry of coal mining in the American West circa 1919.
When Neal Stephens finished school, he left New Sligo, Colorado, for Paris to learn the art of photography. While there, he married Lorraine, an African-American woman; it was a passionate, fractious relationship until Lorraine was killed while both were near the front. As we learn in back story chapters, Neal spent time on the front line as a photographer, then went home to work for the Eagle, New Sligo’s newspaper. As with much of everything in town, it belongs to Neal’s uncle, Seamus Rahill, owner of Rahill Coal & Electric. At home, Neal becomes mired in a different war. The workers are organizing, but Rahill has hired Pinkertons. Tensions fracture when Clyde O’Leary, a sheriff more interested in blackmail than law enforcement, is murdered. Rumor is the "notorious anarchist" Jesse Stephens, Neal's father and Rahill’s brother-in-law, is responsible. While some of the characters intrigue—there's a Confederate general’s granddaughter, "a tender girl of 13, lost in a poker game from her father’s poor bluff"—the conflict in this dark, complicated narrative is between archetypes: Rahill is a righteous bully, full of pretensions and maudlin conceptions of the family, while Neal is straight out of Hemingway’s Lost Generation. The catalyst is Jesse, once one of the Rahill overlords, a man with a bizarre secret history. While Gutierrez draws Paris, the Belgian war-front, and the rough-hewn frontier town with a good eye—"the sun hovered over the Rocky peaks, shading the mountain snow like a bruise"—the novel’s unfiltered lens reveals war’s cost to the human psyche, the amorality of concentrated wealth, the cancer of racial and ethnic hatred, and the nearly unresolvable conflict between familial loyalty and moral responsibility.
By turns lyrical and brutal, Gutierrez stretches an intriguing piece of historical fiction to cover multiple themes.