Ireland finds no heroes in his debut novel, which blends fanciful history with magic realism to create a critical allegory of the American expansionist experience.
Three primary characters roam the tale, all nameless, all symbolic rather than fully realized. One’s a boy raised aboard various vessels by an illiterate sailor. Shipwrecked, father and son wash up somewhere on America’s shores. The man’s killed; the young man—freed of his father’s dominance—heads west in a mule-drawn wagon. The man homesteads on the great western prairie, a place of welcome solitude. "He wondered how long it might be before this place he traversed became infected with people." A nomad band passes, leaving behind a pregnant young woman. She becomes a promise of something the man’s never had—home, family. A mysterious stranger arrives and tells the man he must go register the family for a census. After the man sets off, the stranger kills the pregnant woman. As the man treks across the mountains, pursued by the stranger, all that transpires shifts and shuttles through time—from Anasazi settlements to shopping malls to the Dust Bowl and back to Custer and Jackson, Pizarro and Cortés. Amid cannibalism, genocide, slave labor and other horrors, allegories abound: the man as a seeker of idyllic pastoral life and the stranger as the ravenous industrial future; or the man as peaceful aboriginal people and the stranger as invading whites, who believe "the ancient formula of progress…needed casualties….Death is progress."
Intellectual in theme, literary in execution: think Gabriel García Márquez reimagining Little Big Man.