Dr. John Romulus Brinkley, the inspiration for this folksy, ingratiating novel, was a real person, although his life was tailor-made for fiction. In the 1920s, he invented a concoction that he claimed could cure impotence, and he eventually amassed a large fortune. (His magic ingredient: goat glands.) To better hawk his wares, he erected a shattering 1 million-watt radio tower in Mexico, just across the U.S. border.Until his operation was shut down in the late ’30s, Brinkley used XER to pitch his proto-
Viagra and to spin country tunes across a large chunk of the globe.
There are plenty of obvious ways a 21st-century novelist could allegorize a story like Brinkley’s. Robert Hough might have made the doctor a symbol of infomercial profiteering, masculine narcissism or contemporary U.S.-Mexico border troubles. Instead, “Dr. Brinkley’s Tower” is deliberately oblivious to all but the most obvious symbolism. (Behold, the tower’s “mammoth tip throbbing red.”) And the plot is as elemental as it gets: A stranger comes to town, and trouble ensues.
Hough is less concerned with Brinkley’s enterprise than with the residents of Corazon de la Fuente, the small Mexican town where the tower is built in 1931. Worn down by years of revolts and violence, the locals initially cheer the tower’s arrival: They’re sure “Brinkley wouldn’t have built it were another war even a remote possibility.”
The novel shifts focus among a host of the town’s residents, including the mayor, the cantina owner and the proprietor of Madam Felix’s House of Gentlemanly Pleasures. But a young man named Francisco emerges as the book’s lead. He’s so eager to win the affections of Violeta, the town beauty, that he promises to search the country for her long-missing brother. What appears to be the making of a quest tale turns into a truncated parody of “Don Quixote,” with Francisco atop an aged, incontinent horse that dies when he’s barely out of town.
Hough’s tone recalls Mark Twain in tall-tale mode, but the story is also shot through with threats and portents. Violeta’s gig as XER’s on-air prophet seems satirical until Brinkley invites her upstairs to see his Diego Rivera painting. And the callow bandits hired to protect the brothel turn Talibanesque in short order.
That’s all B-movie stuff: Nobody will confuse “Dr. Brinkley’s Tower” with a sober study of cultural imperialism. But as Quentin Tarantino has spent a career trying to prove, a well-made B-movie can be a worthy achievement in and of itself. So as Francisco and other locals conspire to shut down the tower, it becomes easier to accept Hough’s more melodramatic tics: They’re the product of a writer striving for the clarity of a fable.
But if it’s a fable, what’s the lesson? Beware strangers’ promises? Put community and family first? Don’t pretend to skills you don’t have, up to and including impotence-repair? Amid the lighter messages, Hough introduces a more substantive one, about not letting the past become your destiny. The cantina owner recalls how the residents of Corazon de la Fuente have long been history’s punching bag, first for the revolution, then for the good doctor. In its own smart, seriocomic way, Hough’s novel preaches the virtues of refusing to get screwed again.
Athitakis is a reviewer in Washington.
DR. BRINKLEY’S TOWER
By Robert Hough
420 pp. Paperback, $16.99