First, a bit of background on Hough. He is one of those mid-list Canadian authors — Dr. Brinkley’s Tower is his fourth novel — who has attracted some attention in the form of year-end lists and longlist placing on awards such as the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize (in 2007 for The Culprits, his best-known work to date). I’ve heard of him but never read him so this seemed an appropriate time to make acquaintance.
The Leone-like setting of Hough’s novel is Corazón de la Fuente, located in north-east Mexico just across the Rio Grande from Del Rio, Texas. The year is 1931; teenager Francisco Ramirez, with helpful advice from the legendary local Casanova, 88-year-old Roberto Pantelas, has screwed up his courage and called on the much-desired Violeta Cruz: “I was just heading to the plaza, and I was wondering if you’d come with me.” Much to his surprise, she agrees.
Corazón has been badly damaged by both sides in the revolutionary wars, but this Saturday night repesents a breakthrough, not just for Francisco but the town itself. Saturday fiestas were long a regular part of the municipal routine but abandoned during the conflict — this event represents a revival of the old practice and, perhaps, a halting recognition of peace.
Yet there was another, more germane reason why those walking towards the plaza exhibited a certain spryness in their step. About six months earlier, a wealthy American businessperson had contacted both the town’s mayor and, apparently, the governor of the state of Coahuila. The gringo’s name was Dr. John Romulus Brinkley, and he was planning to start his own radio station just over the border, in the town of Del Rio, Texas. To achieve his broadcasting aims he intended to build an immense radio tower in a field just outside Corazón de la Fuente, so that the strength of his signal would not be compromised by what he felt were limiting, small-minded American broadcast regulations. (Here is where the information strayed into the territory of rumour, rumour so juicy and salacious that the old women of the town couldn’t repeat it without girlishly tittering: it seemed that Dr. Brinkley had grown rich performing some sort of operation that treated the most humiliating problem a red-blooded Mexican hombre could experience.)
That’s explanation enough for the tower — and surprisingly timely in current day terms where the Internet information explosion is being met with contentious proposals in Congress to apply restrictions. Before going further, though, let’s allow Hough to establish more of the scene:
Ten minutes later, Francisco and Violeta entered the central plaza, the site of so many roving gun battles during the throes of the revolution. Many of the houses ringing the plaza were still marred by the bullet holes, and the remaining trees in the square all had a grey, denuded quality, their trunks perforated with shrapnel. The town hall, which occupied an entire block along the north of the plaza, was still aerated by the cannon fire directed towards it during a battle between government forces and a splinter group composed of Villistas, anarchists and American-born mercenaries. But worst off was the town’s church, lovingly erected by the Spanish in the mid-1600s. During that same skirmish, a grenade had landed in an open window of the spire, causing the tall conical structure to fall away from the rest of the building and land in ruined, tamale-sized fragments.
The prospect of further conflict is one reason the spire has not been repaired but there is another, more powerful one: “Nobody had any money for bricks.”
The first row of seats in front of the bandstand at the fiesta is occupied by the town’s most important persons: the mayor, the village priest, the town’s wealthiest man and “it goes without saying, the owner of the local cantina”. The occupants of the next row are perhaps more germane to the plot of the novel:
On the next row of decorative benches sat the town madam and her working girls, a privilege honouring their status as the town’s most significant businesspersons. While every member of Madam’s infamous stable was named Maria, each had a different surname, selected by Madam Felix herself. These included Maria del Sol, Maria de las Rosas, Maria des Flores, Maria de los Sueňos, Maria del Mampo (who happened to be a transvestite from the state of Oaxaca), Maria de las Montaňas (a name earned because she was blonde and angelic, as though descended from the most altitudinous tips of the Sierra Madres), and last but not least, Maria de la Noche (who, due to the suggestiveness of her name and the sinful burst of her hips, was a favourite amongst Madam’s gringo clients).
That supplies enough flavor for the story. Dr. Brinkley’s tower does get built, bringing a brief boom to the local economy. His “hospital” in Del Rio (the promotion of which is the main business of the radio station) also thrives, which brings a corresponding boom for Madam Felix’s House of Gentlemanly Pleasures as those treated for erectile disfunction (I have no idea what the 1930s term was) head across the Rio Grande to celebrate their “cure”. Needless to say, the sole local cantina also prospers in the new world.
But, of course, progress brings its own problems — and it is not long until Corazón de la Fuente is back into the kinds of conflict that characterized the revolution. The people must, and eventually do, respond.
An Author’s Note says that the novel is based on real history. John Romulus Brinkley did set up a radio station on Mexican soil which led to the passing of the Brinkley Act in 1939, making it illegal for an American-owned radio station to broadcast from Mexico without U.S. permission. According to the note, his mansion still stands in Del Rio and the ruins of his broadcast facility are still to be seen near Villa Acuna, although both are in disrepair.
The result of all this is an entertaining read, but not much more. It has pace, the story is fun (if predictable) and the characters worthy (if even more predictable). All in all, a worthwhile diversion, but not one that motivates me to search out Hough’s back catalogue.