Review: Dr. Brinkley’s Tower by Robert Hough

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It’s the 1930s and the grizzly horrors of the Mexican revolution are at their end. But the country’s battered towns are still populated by bushy-moustached bandidos, doe-eyed putas, and treacherous con men. And one such town, Corazón de la Fuente, is about to fall for the biggest con of them all, one that will bring its residents back into the cycle of destruction from which they’d only just escaped.

‘Town’ is the operative word here. With Garcia Marquez-like inspiration, Hough sets out to transmit the history not so much of a person, but of a community. As such, this is a novel replete with characters spanning generations and as diverse in origin as a Spanish aristocrat and a three-toothed sorceress — not forgetting the wasted drunks, defrocked priests, Texan johns, lovelorn students, and impotent barmen that people this haggard landscape. Corazón de la Fuente is a colourful community full of earnest and larger-than-life characters.

This earnestness makes them both endearing and funny. Dr. Brinkley’s Tower is a book of laughs but also of heartbreak, as you can’t help but empathize with the townspeople as their problems steadily mount. Its loveable leads — youthful beauties, wise shopkeepers, beguiling prostitutes, and loyal Mexicanos — resonate well after the last page has been turned (and the pages turn easily). For how long, I’m not yet sure. In any case, it’s a pleasure to see them through their highs and lows.

The highs come when American ‘doctor’ John Romulus Brinkley — a quack of the pre-Cialis era who offered to implant goat balls into any man suffering from equipment failure — comes to town. He proposes the construction of a massive radio tower to advertise his beastly remedies, which he needs to erect (wink) on the Mexican side of the border because it’s far more powerful than American law permits (this actually happened — see link above).

First greeted as an economic boon, both Dr. Brinkley’s project and character slowly reveal their dark sides as he exploits the town’s people and sets in motion a chain of events that revive the bullet-riddled ways of the revolution. This, in turn, sets up the central challenge of whether Corazón de la Fuente can escape its tragic past. It’s a question that’s asked in Dr. Brinkley’s Tower repeatedly through a hated American radio hit: Will the circle be unbroken by and by, Lord, by and by? 

To answer this question, the townspeople must band together and find the strength to save their beleaguered town which, as usual, is being hammered from both sides: rich Americans on the one hand, gun-toting Mexicanos on the other. It’s a pleasing, bittersweet tale of transformation.

Stylistically, Dr. Brinkley’s Tower is rich and textured, and its prose is inventive. If it has a weakness, it might indeed be a surfeit of literary decoration. Hough is one to always look for a new word, a new way of turning a phrase. And although I appreciated his opulent style, it’s occasionally overpowering — like when rare words such as ‘ersatz’ repeat within the span of a few pages, or when too many meals become ‘repasts.’ But although Hough’s writing is perhaps not for the Hemingway-lover or the adjective-averse, it has real warmth and the reading is easy.

As far as setting goes, Hough’s love of Mexico oozes from every word, and it’s hard not to be infected. I’ve got half a mind to buy a ticket to Chihuahua and drink cervezas till the armadillos come home. I’ve also got an itch to pick up a book on Mexican history, as the epic stakes of the revolution and life at the feet of the United States are made vivid by this novel. I credit Hough with animating a corner of the world I’ve never visited or understood in human terms.

At the same time as he has kindled my interest in the realities of the past, Hough has also satisfied my desire to partake of the magical. As I mentioned earlier, there’s something of the Latin American greats that inspires this work, and the novel’s blending of the real and the fantastical is a major part of that. In Corazón de la Fuente the sky glows green, bandits carry guns the size of rolling pins, women fight with the strength of six men, and the lineup to the whorehouse is always a mile long. Yet somehow it’s all just another day in the life of a struggling Mexican border town. Decidedly, it’s a life worth reading about.

———–

(Thanks to House of Anansi for a review copy of this title.)

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