Living Lives

This novel, focusing on a Mexican-American family, is brief but powerful

Sergio Troncoso's new novel, From This Wicked Patch of Dust, is a tightly focused and affecting work of fiction that has much to say about family, fidelity, religion and politics without ever seeming heavy-handed and pedantic.

Troncoso's prose is crisp and clear, with nary a wasted word, and he manages to deftly handle numerous storylines over a long period of time in just 240 pages. While a couple of the characters' arcs are a bit less developed and less believable than the rest, the book is a highly engaging read.

When the novel begins, Pilar and Cuauhtémoc Martínez have just moved to Ysleta, Texas (where Troncoso himself grew up), a neighbor of El Paso, with their four young children. The year is 1966. The novel then tracks the members of the Martínez family, and their various failures and triumphs—their births, educations, marriages, careers and deaths, and their ascendance from poverty to the middle class and beyond—over the next 40 years. Despite the shortness of the book, the plot rarely feels rushed or incomplete.

Part of this success lies in Troncoso's characters, each of which is given a distinct personality and appearance, with verbal and physical mannerisms that can be easily imagined in the reader's mind. As we watch these characters develop, we see their personality traits as children inform the choices they make as adults and ultimately manifest themselves as habits and/or neuroses. For example, as a child, Ismael, the youngest, is uncommonly bright, and we see this carry throughout his high school years as he becomes editor of the school newspaper, and then earns a scholarship to an Ivy League university. But at the same time, we see Ismael's shyness as a child come out in his constant fear of being rejected and his sense of being a fraud in any new or unfamiliar setting.

If any character is given short shrift, it is the eldest child, Julieta/Aliyah. Her transformation—from a slightly rebellious and sullen teenager, to a Central American freedom fighter, to a Muslim convert living in Tehran—never feels fully developed. But that aside, the plot is carefully constructed and for the most part feels believable, because Troncoso isn't the kind of author who conflates melodrama with plot. The events of the story arc feel real, like ones that might actually occur in many families. And it's nice to read a book that finds a solid middle ground, without a sickly sweet happy ending or one in which everyone ends up dead or bleeding.

Troncoso's novel also succeeds because of his ability to summarize in a clear, concise way—a necessary skill when skipping five or 10 years between sections. Early in the book, Troncoso sums up Pilar and Cuauhtémoc's courtship and move to the United States in just a few pages. Like many contemporary authors, Troncoso wants his novel to reflect the diversity of American life, and he does so by working in elements of history, philosophy, economics and more. But it's Troncoso's restraint and brevity that make his digressions engaging and meaningful. Take, for example, his summary of a method for calculating elevations that Cuauhtémoc uses in his work as a draftsman, which sheds light on his abilities and ultimately his success:

"Ándale pues." The "new method" was the one valuable skill Cuauhtémoc had salvaged from his brief foray into California: a way of calculating an average depth for any terrain, with dozens of reference points from the many hills and valleys within a particular plot of land. He used this average depth to determine where in the landscape to fill in, and where to cut in, so that the company achieved a relatively flat building site with the least movement of earth. When the quantities in question were tons of dirt over hundreds of acres, the right calculations could save the company significant money.

This is not simply the author showing his diversity of knowledge, but also an interesting tidbit that helps explain something about the novel's main character—in this case, how Cuauhtémoc's knowledge of this calculation helped him succeed in his job, which has specific importance and implications for other aspects of the novel.

In From This Wicked Patch of Dust, Sergio Troncoso has constructed a heartfelt and believable portrait of a family growing apart and coming together again as the individuals succeed in America on their own terms.

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