Robert Julyan's debut novel is a fast-paced look at the kooky lengths that the inhabitants of one small New Mexico town will go to in order to avert the town's seemingly inevitable death.
Julyan—the author of a number of New Mexico-centered books, and the inhabitant of a small town like his fictional Sweeney—shows a great amount of empathy in his portrayal of the tribulations facing citizens in their attempts to continue making the only living they've known. Julyan's technique to get at the truths of living in a small town—humor—is what propels the plot forward and makes some of the characters feel original.
The small town of Sweeney is dying. Slowly. As the town's Rotary Club comes to this conclusion, a rogue subcommittee is secretly formed with the purpose of doing something dramatic to avoid this fate. Once the scandalous plan is put into place, Sweeney's stock indeed rises, and things begin to look up, with the town drawing ever-stranger visitors into the vast expanse of eastern New Mexico. But will Sweeney's new fame be lasting—or for a limited time only?
One of the pleasures in reading Sweeney involves the landscapes and scenery painted and detailed by Julyan throughout the novel. From descriptions of the local rock formations to the interior of Sweeney's one diner, the imagery is clearly rendered by someone intimately familiar with Southwestern small towns. Here's Julyan's loving and localized picture of a budding monsoon storm:
On the High Plains in August, one often told time by the height of the cumulus clouds that piled up in the sky most afternoons. It was monsoon season, when moist air from the Gulf of Mexico flowed northward, to be caught by hot air rising from the surface and driven upward, where condensation created massive cotton-candy formation, towering a mile high or more.
Not only does the description immediately appear to the reader—through imagination for people outside of the Southwest, and through memory for locals—but the sheer music of the passage propels the reader's vision of the scene. It's a winning lyrical sleight of hand that Julyan uses more than once.
One can also tell that Julyan spent time carefully observing a small-town atmosphere, and he captures it with a cast of richly drawn characters. While some of these characters at first seem to be familiar templates—the big-city wife dragged unwillingly by marriage to the small town, sullen teenagers, etc.—many of the characters are given the opportunity to step out of these stock roles and develop into fleshed-out, relatable people. Julyan takes the opportunity to discuss difficult topics such as the perception of homosexuality in a small town, issues of racism and nativism, and acceptance in all forms, all while finding time to inject a healthy dose of absurdity and humor. The strangeness that Sweeney's newly devised attraction brings to the town forces its inhabitants out of their feigned normalcy and encourages them to explore their own talents and weirdness. Though all of the characters aren't given equal depth, those not given depth serve as humorous foils to those who are.
Despite Julyan's talent for vivid scene-setting and character development, in the end, the plot feels predictable: The book seems to go exactly where one would expect it to go. This is unfortunate, given the obvious care Julyan takes in crafting characters that go beyond the stereotypical hicks found in other books and films. It's indeed these fresh characters that set the reader up to expect the book to surprise him or her in the end—thus it's Julyan's success that leads to the most disappointment. This predictability is due in part to an unnecessary epilogue that, like most epilogues, ties up all the loose ends, instead of leaving the reader with a sense of mystery and wonderment as to all the possible fates of both the town and its curious inhabitants.
Overall, the book is an enjoyable read, and its predictability doesn't wholly diminish the fun Julyan conjures up with his motley cast of characters, and the complex lives he's dreamed up for them. In some ways, its predictability is even comforting—like an afternoon monsoon.