Book review: ‘The Five Acts of Diego Leon,’ by Alex Espinoza

“If only those who dream about Hollywood would know how difficult it is,” Greta Garbo admonished. But admonitions have never stopped the dream. Especially in Garbo’s day, when Hollywood was inhabited by giants: Rudolph Valentino, Gloria Swanson, Douglas Fairbanks, Marlene Dietrich. Little can match those years, with their “Ben-Hur” splendor, their “King Kong” terror,” their “Flesh and the Devil” thrill. Now imagine, if you will, a starstruck boy in revolutionary Mexico, dreaming of reinventing himself on America’s silver screen.

It’s a twisted picture.

In America of the ’20s and ’30s, Mexicans were sprayed and dusted before they were allowed in. They were barred from lunch counters, turned away from hotels. God forbid they should fall in love: In California, as in many other states, the government had outlawed interracial marriage. If, like Dolores del Rio and Ramon Navarro, a Mexican managed to claw his way to stardom, he worked hard to pass himself off as an “exotic” of indeterminate ancestry, a “Latin” of European extraction. And like del Rio and Navarro, he soon found himself cast from that paradise — out of luck, out of work, culled by the harsh mill of fortune.

That is the story Alex Espinoza sets out to tell in “The Five Acts of Diego Leon,” a novel that takes its hero from the crucible of the Mexican Revolution to Hollywood during a heady transformation — from silents to talkies. It is a story undertaken with gusto, imagined with daring and executed with mixed results.

This is not the first time Espinoza, a Mexican American, has written of cultural displacement. His highly praised first novel, “Still Water Saints,” told of a healing priestess who doled out herbs, candles and cures from a shop on the fringes of contemporary Los Angeles.

”The Five Acts of Diego Leon” by Alex Espinoza. (Random House)

His new story harks back to a more nettled time. Diego Leon is a child of two Mexicos: His mother is from a well-to-do home in the city of Morelia; his father is a full-blooded Indian of the P’urhepecha tribe. So it is that a half-indigenous, half-Creole boy, whose father returns from the revolution a broken man, is sent off to be raised by his uppity Morelian grandparents. In time, they convince him that he is white, special, destined for greatness. An aging actress who takes interest in the boy’s theatrical abilities convinces him that he was meant for a larger stage.

That stage is Hollywood. But when Diego arrives there years later, it is a town full of stipulations. The industry is young; the obstacles, legion. There’s the business itself, which is molting from mute to sound. Then there is the economy, which is heading decidedly toward the Great Depression. Finally, there is America, hardly interested in its southern neighbors, its homosexuals, the unruly, motley side of itself.

Enter the Mexican youth. Sprayed and dusted, Diego begins by doing what he can. He gets a job at a diner, passes himself off as French, checks Central Casting every day. Eventually, answering a call for a bit-part Jewish actor, he is cast as a rabbi. Hard-working and dependable, he gets a number of minor roles: a stand-in as an ancient Roman, an African dancer, a dark-skinned bank robber.

But his good looks eventually draw the attention of a predatory gay producer. Before long and driven by repressed impulses, Diego responds. More problematically, he falls in love. Although he has left a bride at the altar in Mexico, although he has an ongoing romance with an adoring young American makeup artist, he finds himself captivated by the powerful Bill Cage, the producer on whom his success depends. It is a brutal, mutually beneficial and ultimately doomed affair. But, in the course of it, Diego becomes a star.

By venturing this far, Espinoza’s novel prompts a flurry of questions. Is Diego an echo of Navarro, the Mexican star who saw early success in 1920s Hollywood only to find himself at war with his homosexuality, reject Louis B. Mayer’s suggestion that he establish a “lavender marriage” and die decades later, murdered in a sleazy sexual encounter with two young men? Is the presence of Diego’s boyhood friend, a gay, anti-church revolutionary who eventually turns up in Los Angeles, a peek into a different story: that of the red smears so many Hollywood homosexuals endured? Is Diego’s beautiful co-star a pale version of del Rio, who returned to Mexico humiliated before she could reemerge in a more enlightened time?

For all the fiction, in other words, there is much attendant history.

There is also disappointment. If only Espinoza had told us more about Diego’s feelings. About being a homosexual in 1920s Tinseltown. As it is, gay life is delivered with a startling paucity of drama or passion. If only Espinoza had worked to capture a sense of the struggle of immigrant assimilation, which seems too easily won on these pages.

I wish I could find the “elegant, startling vision” that a jacket commentator claims to have seen, or “the grand style” that is supposed to sweep us from page to page. For all its enthralling subject matter, the novel employs a dismayingly helter-skelter delivery. The history feels dropped in. The dialogue stretches credulity: No less than a year after his arrival, our newly minted American is suddenly spouting, “Come again?” “That would be swell.” “How ya doing, doll?” “Let’s skedaddle!” Not to mention the total anachronism “schlub.”

The awkwardness that would have made Diego’s English more credible turns up in the narrator’s prose instead: Americans are “as hateful of Mexicans” as some Mexicans are of Indians; a priest suddenly needs “four boys whom he would teach the steps to.” All the same, “The Five Acts of Diego Leon” does have its virtues. An arid stretch of narrative suddenly yields this vivid passage: “He watched the old woman press her fingers across the white clusters, crushing the insects. They released a bright crimson tint, which she dabbed on her mouth, then leaned in to kiss the back of his hands and arms, leaving faint impressions.”

Or this, more than halfway through the book, when the storyteller hits his stride: “The lights dimmed and they strolled into the theater and took their seats. There, in the darkness, with the film reel beginning, and the opening credits flashing up, he forgot about it all, felt a wild thing stir inside his chest, a pang, a flutter, the first real taste of success.”

To be sure, there are bright gems to be found in the journey. But ultimately it is a vexed and stony crossing. I can’t help wishing this rare glimpse into a little-known America were better lit and more richly observed.

Arana is a former editor in chief of Book World. She is the author of several books, including a new biography of Simon Bolivar.

THE FIVE ACTS OF DIEGO LEON

By Alex Espinoza

Random House. 304 pp. $26

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