There is a wealth of knowledge, much of it historical, in "Veracruz," Rosalind Wright's novel of the Mexican Revolution. The book's pivotal event is the 1914 U.S. occupation of the city. (Wright's summary of the precipitating incident -- the Mexicans' arrest of eight American Navy men buying gasoline for their vessel at an off-limits depot -- reminds the reader what a trumped-up affair it all was.) Francisco Madero, Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, Porfirio Diaz -- all the legendary heroes and villains of the revolution make well-glossed cameo appearances in these pages.
Wright has also delved into Mexican folkways -- for example, the nagual phenomenon. One Limbano Cox, an American-born Veracruzano, is a dead ringer for revolutionary President Madero. But more than that, the two men are soul mates in a special way. When Madero thrives, so does Cox; when Madero is assassinated, Cox falls ill and makes an Orphic journey to the realm of death from which he almost doesn't return. Madero, it seems, was Cox's nagual, an embodied "guardian Spirit" that is not only one's "sacred companion but also his keeper."
Or consider the relic trade. Because the provenance and genuineness of an article are so -- how shall we say? -- resistant to scientific inquiry, much depends on the trader's reputation. Cox's cousin, Nicolasa Guedella de Aguillar, has earned such a name for herself as proprietor of a relic shop that she doesn't bother haggling with the seller of a lock of Madero's hair. It doesn't much matter how much she pays for it: Her name associated with the lock ensures that she'll be able to mark it up, pass it off as the real thing and make a tidy profit.
And Wright illuminates the se'ance, that peculiar amalgam of melodrama, showmanship and therapy that flourished in the pre-Freudian, pre-special-effects era. One night Ilene Rabin, the Humble Servant of the Forlorn and Teacher, boasts to gullible guests that ectoplasm will soon be issuing from her body -- "a white, thready material," she predicts, "perhaps mixed in with something which looks more grayish and solid, something which has the consistency of very thinly sliced cheese." Such exactitude does not go unexposed. A few minutes later, La Humble is caught in possession of "a vial filled with ground jellyfish, soap bubbles, and little bits of white feathers."
All these facts serve to flesh out an elaborate, engaging fictional tapestry, in which about 20 main characters traipse from one new and esthetically gratifying combination to the next. The central figures, it turns out, are among the least interesting: Lawrence and Beatrice Ramsey, her sister Lucy, and Lawrence's friend and business partner, Charles Terry. These and other Americans, drawn to Veracruz by their investments in coffee and oil, are fizzless compared with the effervescent Mexicans.
Wright's other shortcoming is verbosity. She writes an oratorical prose that carries the reader along through the countless narrative shifts from character to character. Sometimes, however, it bogs down in repetitiousness. Be thinking of trims you might make as you enter this thicket of words: "There had been no confusion, as there is so often in a seance, with unidentified Spirits appearing, having mistaken one of the sitters for someone they knew and wished to speak to, or simply coming forward without knowing anyone for the purpose of delivering a tirade on a pet project. There had been none of that."
Despite its garrulity, "Veracruz" is a readable success. Rosalind Wright, winner of a PEN citation for her earlier novel, "Rocking," has a flair for involved storytelling in which characters are given time enough to change destinies, grow beards, survive disgraces. She has also managed a difficult feat -- keeping the almost absurdly colorful history of the Mexican Revolution under artistic control.