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"El Paso" Book Review - Lunchtime Lit with Mel Carriere

Mel Carriere was born in the sizzling but scorned border burg of El Paso, and now struggles for acceptance in a frozen Colorado border town.

Your hero might be my villain.  Controversial Mexican Revolutionary Pancho Villa is one of many celebrity participants in Winston Groom's "El Paso."

Your hero might be my villain. Controversial Mexican Revolutionary Pancho Villa is one of many celebrity participants in Winston Groom's "El Paso."

Springtime Lunchtime Literary Thaw?

For my first few months here in my new home, I was thinking that Colorado was not fertile ground for reading. My last two Lunchtime Lit books did not bud, instead they withered and fell immediately to the ground, like autumn leaves that go straight from green to brown without passing through any colorful reds, oranges, or yellows first. I was starting to believe that maybe words get the deep freeze on the base of the Rockies too, along with the plant life, and my chilled old bones.

Then the daffodils bloomed through the mushy, slurpee-like April snow, and I changed my mind. I put aside the horrible The City We Became and exchanged it for El Paso, by Forrest Gump author Winston Groom. At once I regained hope that the colorless literary landscape around me just might come back to life. Now, I am certainly not saying that El Paso is among the best books that I have read, or that it will even be included in the celebrated Lunchtime Lit Hall of Fame. The novel has its own flaws and shortcomings, but sometimes the measure of a book is found by comparing it to others. When all we have had to eat lately is wilty lettuce, we are happy to choke down a piece of chopped liver. What I am saying is that, in contrast to the last two duds that failed to launch here, The City We Became and King Jesus, El Paso is SpaceX lifting off the pad. It doesn't explode in its first test flight, like the rocket did, but it doesn't exactly soar to the heavens, either.

I heard about El Paso during an NPR review sometime in 2016, after the novel was first released. I listened fascinated about the book's attempt to explain the unsolved fate of author Ambrose Bierce, who disappeared in Mexico during that country's revolution, shortly before the United State's entry into World War I. You might be familiar with this mysteriously-vanished turn of the century author because of his most circulated short story, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, later adapted into a Twilight Zone episode. Bierce was a pioneer in the realist, stream of consciousness style of writing, as well as being a fantastic satirist, and a ground-breaker in the genre of horror fiction. Some critics claim he ranks with Edgar Allen Poe in the pantheon of legends of the terror tale. I have not read much Bierce myself, I learned of him primarily through Civil War history, where he is often mentioned as one of the celebrity participants of battles such as Shiloh and Chickamauga.

But while the smoke of those brutal battlefields could not claim him, Bierce finally went up in smoke in northern Mexico, some say at the hands of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. El Paso explores this demise of Bierce from a fictional perspective, while also incorporating several other historical figures, especially the infamous Villa himself.

Okay, now time for a shameless plug. The El Paso review alone, not the actual reading of the book, inspired me to write my own novel incorporating historical personalities. Well, one of them. I set the book upon a fictional stage in the hot and dusty deserts of the southwestern United States, while also allowing it to dip its toe into the disquieting swimming pool of northern Mexico. I am hoping that the resulting Gasden Purchase (misspelling deliberate) will come out on Amazon sometime this year. It will be released at a dirt cheap price, as cheap as that mostly empty dirt that suffocates the landscape of Southern Arizona. There, the soil is bereft of the color green for the opposite reason of Colorado - it is too damn hot for anything colorful to grow, not too damn cold like here. In any case, I am hoping it will put a little green in my pocket.

Now that I have shamelessly plugged my own book, I will now attempt to plug the holes in my review of the novel that inspired it - one I finally read, five years after.

Winston Groom's El Paso attempts to explain the unsolved fate of author Ambrose Bierce, who disappeared in Mexico during that country's revolution.

Winston Groom's El Paso attempts to explain the unsolved fate of author Ambrose Bierce, who disappeared in Mexico during that country's revolution.

Lunchtime Lit Rules

Lunchtime Lit books are governed by international conventions. A clause in the NAFTA agreement prohibits them from being taken home to be read anywhere within the borders of the three nations' signatories. Therefore, in Mexico, Canada, or the good old US of A , Mel's reading is restricted to his half-hour postal lunchbreak. The only exception is in the wild, dusty DMZ of old El Paso, shunned and scorned by Texas, NAFTA, and the world at large. Having been weaned by the muddy waters of the Rio Grande, however, Mel has no intention of returning there just to enjoy a book upon his pillow, or to do much of anything else either. He's had enough of El Paso for one lifetime, or lunchtime.

Lunchtime Lit Year to Date Recap * **

BookPagesWord CountDate StartedDate FinishedLunchtimes Consumed

Thy Tears Might Cease

592

207,375

4/14/2020

6/26/2020

41

Every Man Dies Alone

500

194,500

6/27/2020

8/20/2020

29

The Three Body Problem

390

118,450

8/22/2020

10/1/2020

21

King Jesus

413

182,530

10/2/2020

1/13/2021

36

The City We Became

479

130,660

1/15/2021

2/25/2021

25

El Paso

477

183,280

2/26/2021

4/16/2021

30

*Word counts are estimated by hand-counting a statistically significant 23 pages, then extrapolating this average page count across the entire book. When the book is available on a word-count website, I rely on that total if it looks legit.

**Thirty other titles, with a total estimated word count of 6,671,709 and 1,047 lunchtimes consumed, have been reviewed under the guidelines of this series.

Groom Grooms His Novels with an Historical Comb

I was lured toward El Paso because of a previous sampling of its author, Forrest Gump creator Winston Groom. I have a sometimes obsessive tendency to want to read the book a movie is based upon, not always to my satisfaction. Once, while knee-deep into a history book I was intrigued by because of a movie, a friend of mine told me I would probably read the book about the guy who wrote the book, too. My friend was very perceptive, that is just the way I am wired.

In truth, Forrest Gump in print falls way short of achieving the legendary status of the celluloid version. Here's another shameless plug - I wrote an article about this very subject in Three Movies That Are Actually Better Than the Book - "Ben Hur," "The Mist," and "Forrest Gump," which can be accessed via my Hub Pages profile. My conclusion therein was that while Forrest Gump the novel is an enjoyable, often-entertaining read, it does not measure up to the cinematic version. What it does do well is what seems to be a recurring motif in Groom's books - incorporating historical characters into the fictional narrative. I enjoy that about Mr. Winston Groom, and intend to replicate it myself in my own stories. Let's face it, it is fun and thrilling to play God with history.

Maybe Winston Groom likes to insert real people between the lines of his fables because he is an historian himself. In addition to eight novels, Forrest Gump's famous Padre has published fifteen non-fiction books, several involving episodes of the American Civil War. Although he did not compose anything about the Mexican Revolution, Groom did cover Kearny's march, an important episode of the Mexican-American War. This author knows history, and he seems to know Mexico. El Paso trudges across the wide, diverse, ever-varying landscape of the disorder south of the border, from the low, sizzling deserts of Chihuahua to the frigid heights of the Sierra Madres. If nothing else, the novel is a solid introductory tour guide for the northern extremes of La Republica Mexicana.

Unfortunately, we will not be able to plumb into Groom's historical muse any further. With El Paso, he has penned his last fictional paean to the past. The author who sparked the creation of one of Hollywood's timeless masterpieces died in his Fairhope, Alabama home on September 17, 2020, of a suspected heart attack. Or perhaps he was poisoned by Pancho Villa's ghost. To digress a bit, the small city of Fairhope, on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, has spawned what seems to be a larger than usual share of celebrities. These include Margaritaville singer Jimmy Buffett, and Dallas Cowboys footballer Leon Lett, most famous for having the ball stripped from his hands while prematurely celebrating a touchdown in Super Bowl XXVII. Run Forrest run, indeed, but protect the damn ball while you're doing it.

"El Paso" author WInston Groom grooms his novels with an historical comb.  RIP brother, 1943-2020.

"El Paso" author WInston Groom grooms his novels with an historical comb. RIP brother, 1943-2020.

"El Paso" Aims for "Lonesome Dove," but Hits The Goodwill Drop Box

The novel El Paso recounts the fictional attempt of railroad baron Colonel Shaughnessy and his son Arthur's attempt to retrieve the family's children from kidnapping. These youngsters are whisked off the Colonel's Mexican ranch by sometimes bandit, sometimes hero, depends who you talk to Pancho Villa, taken from a spread is so vast that when the ranch foreman is wired to ask if he can supply 30,000 head of cattle in a pinch, he replies what color?

El Paso reads like a travelogue across our southern neighbor, complete with every cultural stereotype about that troubled nation, including cattle and castle rustling, destitute peasants toiling under exploitative hacienda landlords, bullfighting, and of course, at the end, the old Mexican standoff. Along the way we encounter great luminaries such as Woodrow Wilson, "blood and guts" George Patton - still an underling on General Pershing's punitive expedition against Pancho Villa, the notorious Guillermo Villa himself, the aforementioned Bierce, journalist John Reed - later played by Warren Beatty in the movie Reds, cowboy-actor Tom Mix before he was a superstar, and I am sure I am leaving somebody out. At least a half-dozen dazzling divas of history walk the red carpet here.

Despite these icons of history, literature, and cinema making for sometimes captivating reading, the book falls short as a novel. Even though Forrest Gump had failings as fiction, it was written in a unique style, composed in the same slow, southern drawl that actor Tom Hanks superbly employs in the movie. But El Paso, unfortunately, makes no such stylistic pretensions, there are no literary aspirations here on the part of a writer who is most noteworthy as a novelist. Instead, the story is hacked out in the tone of a throwaway, dime-novel western, something that might entertain you on an airplane for three hours, but you are going to toss as soon as you're off the tarmac. The book lacks poetry, there is nothing within that will be treasured by the human heritage. If not for the sub-saga of Ambrose Bierce's heretofore unexplained fate - especially the defiant way this legend meets his fictional end, El Paso would join The City We Became and King Jesus on the short list of Lunchtime Lit losers.

Another review of El Paso compares it to another broad, sweeping western, Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. I was unaware of that critique prior to reading the book, but as I went along I also found myself contrasting the two authors' attempts at opuses. The chief difference is that Lonsesome Dove truly is a literary masterpiece, an awe-inspiring work that would be permanently implanted into any reader's heart and mind without that late-eighties miniseries pinning it to the American cultural consciousness, one noteworthy for Robert Duvall's sterling performance as wise-cracking but butt-kicking Augustus McCrae.

At times Winston Groom's style seems to want to mimic McMurtry, but the imitation comes across exactly like that, an imitation. McMurtry's deceptively lazy prose lays you out to die in the cruel elements, without any warning, just when things were getting cozy. He does this with a poker face, not giving away his moves in advance. One minute his characters are sitting around a campfire, swapping yarns, then the scene turns suddenly sour. Maybe one of them suicides by rat poison, while another is roasted on a spit over that same comfy flame.

Groom has plenty episodes of brutal behavior in El Paso as well, but unlike McMurtry, who springs at you from behind a bush, Groom rattles the shrub too loud prior to pouncing. You know the bad is coming before it hits and, as such, the impact of the blow is lessened. McMurtry makes you gasp, Groom gives you an anti-climatic yawn. The result is that Lonesome Dove is an epic for all time that will be read over and over again by those who love it, but the epic-making creator of Forrest Gump failed to repeat the performance in El Paso. Maybe he aimed for epic, but only hit mundane. What this particular reader got out of this USDA literary serving was an enjoyable throwaway, several lunchtimes worth of passable reading that will go straight into the Goodwill box once the review is written, and I've counted all those damn words.

Sadly, McMurtry followed Groom to the grave shortly after the latter's death, passing without much fanfare on March 26, 2021.

President Barack Obama gives the National Humanities Medal to Lonesome Dove author Larry McMurtry.  Obama is a reader, you can read the reverence for this literary giant upon his face. RIP brother, 1936-2021.

President Barack Obama gives the National Humanities Medal to Lonesome Dove author Larry McMurtry. Obama is a reader, you can read the reverence for this literary giant upon his face. RIP brother, 1936-2021.

El Paso as The Shunned, Scorned DMZ of Texas, City or Symbol?

Oh, I almost forgot to mention it because I have spent my whole life trying to forget it, but your revered reviewer was, quite coincidentally, actually born in El Paso. I did not fall in love with a Mexican girl out in the west Texas town of El Paso, but I did eventually fall in love with one elsewhere. I still love her here in Colorado, even though she probably loves me a little less since I dragged her away from the San Diego sunshine. Anyhow, that sleepy border burgh gives this novel its name, but does not play a significant role in the plot. None of the real action takes place in El Paso, it merely serves as a symbol, a place caught in the middle of two fundamentally different worlds, a jumping off spot from whence one can plunge into the deadly, anarchic depths of Mexico, or leap for the relatively peaceful sanctuary of the USA.

El Paso city, by the Rio Grande, is really a place that belongs to nowhere, a demarcation zone. Texans either won't claim it, or only grudgingly accept it as the unwashed armpit of their state. In the past, I have proudly told San Antonians or Dallas-Fort Worthians "I'm from Texas too, I'm from El Paso," only to be subjected to the rather rude reply of - "Oh, that's not Texas." San Antonians are particularly snooty about the subject, Remember the Alamo and all that. That is why I walk around wearing the ballcap of the El Paso Chihuahuas, the San Diego Padres triple-A team, giving a metaphorical middle finger to those high-falutin' "real" Texans, strutting about in their haughty high hats.

One tall finger in the air for those "real" lone-star flag wavers deep in the heart of Texas, but only a reluctantly raised thumb for Groom's El Paso, and then only for its fascinating historical speculation, and then only because I have snoozed through too many bad books on my lunch break lately.

Your revered reviewer walks around wearing an El Paso Chihuahuas ballcap, giving a metaphorical middle finger to all of those high-falutin' "real" Texans.

Your revered reviewer walks around wearing an El Paso Chihuahuas ballcap, giving a metaphorical middle finger to all of those high-falutin' "real" Texans.

Comments

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on May 21, 2021:

Thank you James. Pancho's character and motivations are a subject of great dispute back and forth across the border. My Mexican wife tends to look upon him as a national hero who was ultimately betrayed by his allies in the Revolution, whereas here in the US he is viewed mostly as a terrorist and a bandit who used the Revolution as an excuse to rape and pillage. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

I appreciate you dropping in.

James C Moore from Joliet, IL on May 21, 2021:

Great in depth research on the topic and author. I'm a historical fiction fan. But Poncho Villa was just a footnote in most of my history classes coming up. So for that reason alone I might put this book on my 2 read list.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on May 21, 2021:

Thank you Devika. Yes, the weather is improving gradually. It hasn't snowed in over a week now. I hope you are basking in sunshine over there in lovely Croatia. I really appreciate you dropping in.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on May 21, 2021:

Thanks Pam, I've been reading a lot of so-so books lately. I'm waiting for one to come along that will really knock my socks off, but it hasn't happened in a while. I really appreciate you dropping in.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on May 21, 2021:

I really appreciate the nice words, Linda. Writing a novel is fun, but releasing one is terrifying. It makes you wonder if people who slog through your 3000 word articles will hang in there for 120,000 words. Thank you for dropping in.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on May 21, 2021:

Thank you John I really appreciate the kind words. You can safely skip El Paso, but Lonesome Dove is a must read. The miniseries was well done, but the novel is far more in depth and really touches the core of its colorful characters.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on May 20, 2021:

Another entertaining review, Mel. I do sometimes enjoy reading fiction novels that include real historical figures..if it is done well. El Paso sounds so so but you have made me want to read Lonesome Dove. I saw the mini-series long ago. I would like to read your book also when it is released on Amazon, so keep us informed. Good job as always.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on May 20, 2021:

This is an interesting and enjoyable book review, like your other reviews. Good luck with your own book, Mel.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on May 20, 2021:

I loved reading your review of El Paso, but I have no desire to read this book. I truly hope you find a wonderful book to review soon. Thank you for an enjoyable article about a so-so book, Mel.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on May 20, 2021:

Hi Mel you share a honest review and a book I have no idea of. This review makes me want to read it. I hope your weather is improving and that you taking care. Best wishes to you.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on May 20, 2021:

Oh you are quite welcome Bill. I love to throw the high heat at the haughty, and I am thrilled you appreciated it. I hope this final month of Spring is flipping some pleasant weather your way.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on May 20, 2021:

I don't know about the book, but your introduction to the book is brilliant and entertaining. And the photo of you giving the figurative middle finger had me laughing out loud this Thursday morning. Thanks for a totally enjoyable read.

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