In undertaking what would become the New Mexico trilogy, John Nichols adopted a mode of storytelling different from his earlier and later novels, a mode similar to that of the “proletarian” novels of Upton Sinclair and John Steinbeck. The trilogy derives much of its tone and texture from a host of minor characters, many with colorful ethnic names and too numerous to be singled out for individual attention. Against such a background stand characters whose actions in time will prove remarkable, whether by accident or by design. Joe Mondragòn emerges as a most unlikely central character in The Milagro Beanfield War; even at the end of the novel, he feels quite unprepared to be a leader or a symbol and is much more at ease with the simple role of troublemaker. Bernabé Montoya, the sheriff of Milagro, tries to avoid conflict whenever possible; Nichols’s portrayal of Bernabé, although generally sympathetic, often borders on caricature. For example, the sheriff often appears in an emergency situation with his boots on the wrong feet. Charley Bloom, a fugitive from the Eastern law establishment, comes across as a conflicted, often weak, but generally admirable character, perpetually at odds with the upwardly mobile ambitions of his second wife, Linda, a Chicana from Colorado who resents Charley’s involvement with the local Hispanic population.
The “Anglo Axis,” meanwhile, is portrayed close to caricature, a crowd of latter-day robber barons and their acolytes totally ignorant of the population that they are displacing. Ladd Devine III is a ruthless capitalist, married to an alcoholic “trophy wife” who carries on an affair with one of his foremen. The undercover agent Kyril Montana is scheming and sinister, intent on discrediting Charley Bloom with false gossip and quite prepared to gun down Joe Mondragòn in cold blood, if need be. Herbie Goldfarb, a VISTA volunteer posted to Milagro for reasons that are never quite made clear even to him, is likewise drawn close to caricature, yet he serves as an outside observer when not providing comic relief in his search for feminine companionship and pest-free shelter.
In The Magic Journey, Nichols’s characterizations grow sharper and deeper, as does the shape of his tale. Rodey McQueen, the stereotypical “snake-oil salesman,” settles all too easily...
(The entire section is 960 words.)