By Bob Dunton
The first time I finished Sergio Troncoso’s “Nobody’s Pilgrims,” I realized that I was absent-mindedly petting the cover. His characters had somehow taken up residence in my heart. It was love at first sight.
A second reading, and a rereading of some of his earlier fiction, only confirmed the power of this odyssey of Turi, Arnulfo and Molly.
The story begins with two teenage boys working a dead-end job at a chicken ranch outside El Paso.
One boy, Turi, is an orphan whose home life is so unsettled that he is being threatened with forced relocation to a village in Mexico. Turi wants nothing more than to live in Connecticut. The other boy, Arnulfo, is an undocumented son of poor and aging parents. Arnulfo wants to work and live free of the fear of deportation. He hopes to send money to his parents. When an older worker, Juanito, offers Arnulfo a free ride north, Turi invites himself to join them, and soon the boys see hints of the high price of the free ride.
By the time Turi and Arnulfo reach Missouri, they are on the run for reasons that still aren’t fully clear to them. They only know that they and the stolen truck that they are driving are being hunted. When they meet Molly, an orphaned teenager who lives in a rural community with her brother but dreams of more, she arranges to travel with them. The “fellowship” is complete.
Rather than braving monsters and lethal landscapes in a quest to return home, Troncoso’s protagonists risk life and freedom (and encounter different sorts of monsters) to achieve a home that they have never known and must create for themselves. The two orphans and the undocumented son of aging parents seeking work and life away from the barrenness of their existence is a powerful premise, but nothing in the early narrative prepares the reader for the unnerving and nuanced drama that follows.
The plot alone promises a substantial work of fiction, but in Troncoso’s hands it is primarily a testing ground for nearly 20 finely drawn characters. From drug lords to tradesmen, thugs to members of the Northeastern gentry to immigrants who are already well established in the north, Troncoso expertly reveals the humanity of the most and least humane among them.
Manny is a good example. Manny is an expert tradesman. He remodels homes. Manny takes pride in his work and has earned the complete trust of his employer. His is the story of a dream achieved. He patiently mentors a young white worker (Molly’s brother, Jim) who is resentful of taking orders from a Mexican.
In spite of Jim’s resistance, Manny continues teaching, primarily by meticulous example, and eventually begins to win over his apprentice. When Jim is attacked in a parking lot by the assassin (El Hijo de Huerta) in search of the Pilgrims, Manny rams El Hijo with his truck, launching him into the air and possibly saving Jim’s life.
The prime mover of the plot that sweeps up Turi, Arnulfo, and Molly is a Mexican cartel boss named Don Ilan. El Jefe, as he is called, has green eyes, a fist that looks like iron, and a face that no one is allowed to see. He is bald. He wears a luchador’s mask in public. The mask hides his mundane identity while proclaiming his mythic persona. He also has mythic aspirations:
“We are images of God. Some soil that image with their pretending … others make the real choices to live life openly as a journey of danger, unpredictability, and consequence … and they pay for that journey with their blood. Wild beasts, my friend. The world is nothing without them.”
The difference between Wild Beasts and Pretenders is, according to Don Ilan, that the latter have never “faced the emptiness of their souls. They don’t see that the only struggle that matters is the one within them.”
As the story unfolds, Turi, Arnulfo and Molly effectively challenge a critical element of Don Ilan’s worldview. Like his “wild beasts,” they make “real choices to live life openly as a journey of danger.” But in searching their souls, facing their fears, and playing out their life chances, they discover not emptiness, but hope and love.
Those who have already read “Nobody’s Pilgrims” will recognize that there are many significant features of the book that are not mentioned here. I have only skipped a stone across the surface and hope that it reveals something inviting to those who have not yet had a chance to experience it for themselves.
Bob Dunton of El Paso is a retired teacher.
El Paso Matters Book Club discussion
Available at Literarity Book Shop, 5411 N. Mesa. Profits from sale of the books at Literarity go to El Paso Matters.
Copies of the book are also available for checkout at El Paso Public Library branches.
Learn more about the book in a discussion with Troncoso at 4 p.m. July 29 at El Paso Public Library Sergio Troncoso Branch, 9321 Alameda Ave, El Paso, TX 79907. Sign up here.