This is the kind of novel that inspires slick reviewers and writers of publisher’s blurbs to new outrages in inflated but tacky description: “lusty,” “brawling,” “pulsing with ambition,” “passion and greed,” “an epic saga.”
The story begins in Mexico in 1927, with flashbacks going back to the turn of the century, and ends in 1982. Set mostly in Mexico with a few excursions north of the border, it relates the vicissitudes and intertwinings of three generations of two families—the O’Hares and Carrizos—one American, one Mexican. Maureen O’Hare (the touch of Irish in such novels is supposed to contribute spirit and passion) begins as the owner of a seedy hotel in a small Mexican town. With the help of her daughter, with whom she has a stormy love-hate relationship, she develops luxurious resort hotels in Acapulco. Her erstwhile servant, Gallo Carrizo, master of the Mexican style of bribery and double-dealing, ultimately becomes a tycoon and governor of a Mexican state. His nephew and Maureen’s daughter marry to form another of the passionate but perverted sexual relationships that characterize the novel.
Brawley spent his youth as an agricultural worker in California, a railroad switchman, and a guard at San Quentin prison and has lived for extended periods in Mexico and Argentina. He crams in an appeal to many interests: Mexican history, family saga, sex (mostly kinky), violence (in gruesome detail), lives of the wealthy and powerful, primitive Indian customs and beliefs, international drug smuggling, and the cause of the oppressed. He is a good storyteller and provides abundant variety in character and incident. But no important themes are developed in a consistent, penetrating, or significant way. Early into the novel, one realizes with a sinking feeling that the idosyncratic and often engaging characters, the singular incidents, the abundant and quirky sex are there as ends in themselves and will not work together to shape or illuminate our vision of human experience. The ultimate effect is a titillation of our shallower curiosities.
[The Alamo Tree, by Ernest Brawley; New York: Simon and Schuster]