In Eliza Factor’s novel The Mercury Fountain, Owen Scraperton founds a utopian society in West Texas at the very beginning of the 20th century, to be supported by mercury mining and the ideals of reason and enlightenment. Unfortunately, events and the resulting family conflict overtake and consume the lofty ideals as well as the solvency of the mercury operation. The eponymous fountain refers not only to a display in the town to commemorate the all-important mercury mine, but also to the creeping madness of prejudice and totalitarianism the town suffers from.
All goes swimmingly for a time, as the Scrapertons bring forth their precocious daughter Victoria and the price of mercury ratchets upward. But problems creep in to this idyll: soldiers occupy the town because of a perceived Mexican threat in the wake of the Spanish-American War, and unrest grows between Mexican peons with their superstitions, and the “forward-looking” Anglo counterparts. A young and upstanding Mexican man is nearly beaten to death, but is held for the death of an Anglo whom he clearly killed in self defense. Into this injustice Victoria the young woman insinuates herself as rescuer and foil to her father.
The daughter Victoria is the most perplexing conundrum in this unusual and arresting book. She suffers a ghastly injury as a young child when a couple of privileged toughs use a scalpel to cut her tongue nearly in two longitudinally. Her tongue is repaired, but not completely, so that it is forever forked. In one of the principal events of the book, she trains a snake to take a key to the Mexican man being wrongfully held in prison, so that he can free himself.
After this, madness progresses on center stage. Scraperton suffers from it, as does the town’s doctor, and various others. This madness has a parallel in the societal madness whereby riches are taken from the earth by the most polluting methods possible, whites can persecute brown-skinned and natives with impunity, and all factions profess the superstitions of their choice.
Characters spring into prominence a little haphazardly here, most notably Ysidro, the young Mexican folk hero. The progress of individuals, with the possible exception of Owen’s wife Delores, lurches along in fits and starts. I could wish for something a little more cohesive than this, with maybe more focus on Victoria, leading with her forked tongue the downtrodden in pitched battle against her father and his perceived abandonment of his ideals. We glimpse influences of the outside world – industrial strife, with goons and strike breakers – and World War I, in a very oblique way too. Ms. Factor has an undeniable force and passion, and her focus on the international and intellectual milieu of the time gives the story some depth, but overall I was struck by the herky-jerky nature of the narrative, and the oddly unfulfilling final disposition of the story’s chief protagonist, the idealistic but inconsistent Scraperton. We are left with only the most discouraging answers to some exceedingly important questions.