Jiles follows up National Book Award finalist News of the World (2016, etc.) with another atmospheric adventure in post–Civil War Texas.
During his few reluctant months in the Confederate Army, Simon Boudlin’s main concerns are staying alive and protecting his precious fiddle so that after the war he can make enough money to buy some land and settle down with the right woman. He sees her after his unit surrenders, at a dinner for the officers: Doris Dillon is an Irish indentured servant to Yankee Col. Webb, and by the time Simon learns her name he already knows that Webb is an arrogant SOB who mistreats the help and is nasty to musicians. That’s the last Simon sees of Doris for more than a year, as he forms a band with fellow veterans (three of the novel’s many deft characterizations) and they play their way across Texas, technically under military rule but mostly in a state of near anarchy; the musicians’ gigs, brilliantly captured in Jiles’ quiet but resonant prose, are as likely to end in a brawl as with applause. Simon and his mates bunk down in stolen boats and shelled-out buildings that make visible the cost of war, but magnificent descriptions of their travels make palpable the varied beauty of the landscape, from East Texas pines to the banks of the Nueces River, where Simon plays at a wild Tejano wedding and finally has enough money to buy his dreamed-of land. He’s been in touch with Doris via letters supposedly from his Irish-American drummer, Patrick, who helpfully invents some shared relatives, and is making his way toward San Antonio to rescue his beloved, who’s finding it increasingly difficult to evade Webb’s determined advances. The pace picks up and tension rises after Simon reaches San Antonio; there are some menacing moments, but clever plotting has laid the groundwork for a happy ending with just enough hints of potential troubles ahead to remain true to Jiles’ loving but cleareyed portrait of Texas’ vibrant, violent frontier culture.
Vividly evocative and steeped in American folkways: more great work from a master storyteller.