A dazzling magical realism western in the vein of Cormac McCarthy meets Gabriel García Márquez, The Bullet Swallower follows a Mexican bandido as he sets off for Texas to save his family, only to encounter a mysterious figure who has come, finally, to collect a cosmic debt generations in the making.
In 1895, Antonio Sonoro is the latest in a long line of ruthless men. He’s good with his gun and is drawn to trouble but he’s also out of money and out of options. A drought has ravaged the town of Dorado, Mexico, where he lives with his wife and children, and so when he hears about a train laden with gold and other treasures, he sets off for Houston to rob it—with his younger brother Hugo in tow. But when the heist goes awry and Hugo is killed by the Texas Rangers, Antonio finds himself launched into a quest for revenge that endangers not only his life and his family, but his eternal soul.
In 1964, Jaime Sonoro is Mexico’s most renowned actor and singer. But his comfortable life is disrupted when he discovers a book that purports to tell the entire history of his family beginning with Cain and Abel. In its ancient pages, Jaime learns about the multitude of horrific crimes committed by his ancestors. And when the same mysterious figure from Antonio’s timeline shows up in Mexico City, Jaime realizes that he may be the one who has to pay for his ancestors’ crimes, unless he can discover the true story of his grandfather Antonio, the legendary bandido El Tragabalas, The Bullet Swallower.
A family saga that’s epic in scope and magical in its blood, and based loosely on the author’s own great-grandfather, The Bullet Swallower tackles border politics, intergenerational trauma, and the legacies of racism and colonialism in a lush setting and stunning prose that asks who pays for the sins of our ancestors, and whether it is possible to be better than our forebears.
About the Author
Elizabeth Gonzalez James is the author of the novel Mona at Sea, as well as the chapbook, Five Conversations About Peter Sellers. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Idaho Review, Southern Humanities Review, The Rumpus, StorySouth, PANK, and elsewhere, and have received numerous Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominations. Originally from South Texas, Elizabeth now lives with her family in Massachusetts.
“Gonzalez laces magical realism into her vivid epic of the Texas-Mexico border and the violence that shapes a family for generations. . .The novel’s striking centerpiece follows Antonio and fellow desperado Peter Ainsley as they cut a swath across the border badlands [with] blazing guns and rich, Butch and Sundance–esque banter. . .Readers will find this a refreshingly modern recasting of the classic western.”—Publishers Weekly
“Mesmerizing and important. . .The Bullet Swallower is valuable for its gorgeous language and gripping story alone, but the questions it asks could hardly be timelier. Should we be expected to pay for the sins of our ancestors? To whom do we owe reparations? How do we break generational cycles of abuse and trauma? There's not much overt discussion of race in this novel, but the impact of racism on Antonio's life is impossible to miss, as is his family's complicity in exploiting both the land and its Indigenous inhabitants. . .Elizabeth Gonzalez James makes such deft use of tropes from Westerns, Gothic literature, and magical realism that they don't feel like tropes at all. She clearly understands why these motifs persist, and she gives them life with prose that's both spare and intensely rich.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"This is a Western full of classic tropes, but it also surprises with its philosophical examination of generational trauma, justice and retribution, and racism and politics. The supernatural element ties together the timelines and the themes, adding resonance. With a powerfully drawn setting and viscerally convincing characters, James’s novel is a strong addition to any general fiction collection."—Library Journal (starred review)
"I won't soon forget The Bullet Swallower, a rich, sparkling novel that raises questions of destiny and who pays the debts of our fathers and their fathers before them. Alive with the people, landscape, and fauna of the Texas-Mexico borderlands, Elizabeth Gonzalez James' novel captured my imagination, then took up residence in my heart."—Kelli Jo Ford, Plimpton Prize-winning author of Crooked Hallelujah
"One Hundred Years of Solitude meets Lonesome Dove. A gunslinging Western laced with magical realism that illuminates the complicated history between Texas and Mexico, and the impacts of colonialism and generational trauma. The Bullet Swallower is the historical novel of our time because it asks: “What do we owe for the crimes of our ancestors?” A masterpiece!"—Mary Pauline Lowry, author of The Roxy Letters
"An utterly original, wild ride rendered by Gonzalez James’ masterful hand that turns the traditional redemption narrative on its head. In cracking open her own family legends, The Bullet Swallower brings to vibrant, three dimensional life the people and history of the Mexican and Texas border. Full of heart and humor, the magic in this book is not what is invented, but that it makes you wonder what it is, in all our histories, we may have forgotten?"—Xochitl Gonzalez, New York Times bestselling author ofOlga Dies Dreaming
"The Bullet Swallower is a rollicking, inventive tour-de-force, a novel you don't so much read as fall into like a dream—vivid, violent, and magical. Part Western revenge narrative, part family epic, part study of colonialism and displacement, this is the Texas-Mexico novel I wish had existed decades ago. We're lucky to have it now. Elizabeth Gonzalez James is a force."—Katie Gutierrez, bestselling author of More Than You'll Ever Know
“Mythic, epic and multigenerational in scale, this novel reclaims North American history through its grand story—a gritty and bloody, iconic and subversive, smart, heartbreaking, and often funny fireside tale. The Bullet Swallower contends with such big and necessary questions and will mark new edges on a far larger map of the American literary and historic West.”—Robin McLean, author of Get ’em Young, Treat ’em Tough, Tell ’em Nothing
"To the lineage of Saramago and Borges add Gonzalez James. Resplendent and magisterial, The Bullet Swallower is an exploration of great evil, desperate longing, and redemption. This is a triumph: one of those rare stories which dwells in this our world but is not of it."—Tom Lin, author of The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu
"Elizabeth Gonzalez James has accomplished an astounding feat — a book that is as thrilling as it is beautiful, that challenges toxic masculinity as it envisions what manhood could be. Yet, my favorite part of The Bullet Swallower is the elegance with which it collapses boundaries between genres, crafting an entirely original text—a magical realism western that calls to mind Don Quixote? Sign me up, please. Gonzalez James is a master storyteller who has gifted us a wild, unexpected story. Bravo!"—Cleyvis Natera, author of Neruda on the Park
"Brutal in all the best ways, The Bullet Swallower makes a feast of every page. Elizabeth Gonzalez James has resurrected a world of Southwestern mythos, braggadocious bandidos, and heroes near and dear. This white-knuckle ride is made all the better for its ambitious breadth and powerful conjuring of the Sonoro family, a cast of characters who have earned their epic tale. A devilish whirlwind of a novel that I won’t soon forget."—Ariel Delgado Dixon, author of Don't Say We Didn't Warn
"Elizabeth Gonzalez James has taken the raw history of the Texas-Mexico borderlands, simmered it with her own epic family story and a dash of the uncanny, and produced a phantasmagoric guisado of a novel in which past and present, real and unreal, are blended together in perfect balance."—Stephen Harrigan, author of The Gates of the Alamo
"Riveting and haunting — you’ll get so caught up in this suspenseful sins-of-the-father story, you might forget to notice the gorgeous, impeccable sentences. Elizabeth Gonzalez James has written a brilliant homage to Cervantes, Marquez, Esquivel, and Allende - with a little McMurtry thrown in for good measure. Full of conscience, mystery, and adventure, The Bullet Swallower is a book to read with one hand held over your heart. Just don’t forget to breathe."—Nina de Gramont, New York Times bestselling author of The Christie Affair