A few years ago I wrote an essay about the early evolution of newspaper advertising (it was for my History of News class, taken in the context of a journalism degree). Anyway, most of the essay looked at formal aspects of advertising, so in the process of researching it I looked at many, many ads from the 19th century, which is why I now know that snake oil was a real thing. Or, rather, that it really was advertised as a miracle cure. For a long time. That kind of early, charlatan medicine is fascinating, as is the way that industry grew, and the 1930s version of it is at the centre of Robert Hough's latest novel Dr. Brinkley's Tower.
Set in 1931, Hough's novel focuses on the (I'm pretty sure fictional) Mexico border town of Corazon de la Fuente. Corazon has suffered greatly since the end of the Mexican revolution, having lost a huge number of its young men to the fighting and its confidence to the fear it endured during those years. It has no industry, no resources, and not much hope – it's only successful business is the House of Gentlemanly Pleasures, a brothel patronized by gringos from across the nearby border. Then very suddenly, this all changes. An American named Dr. John Romulus Brinkley contacts the mayor of Corazon because he wants to put a radio tower in the town. The U.S., it seems, has restrictions on the size and power of radio towers built on its land; Brinkley wants a tower so powerful that it can broadcast to every state all the way to Alaska, so he's going to build it just over the border in Mexico. Why? Well, Brinkley wants to advertise his new "compound operation," a procedure that purports to cure impotence by replacing the prostate with a goat teste – or something (he's quite vague).
The mayor says yes, Brinkley hires local men to build his tower, and suddenly people in Corazon have money and jobs. Even after the tower is built and the jobs are finished, they've made more money than they ever have before, so they're happy and can suddenly buy things. The rumour of jobs travels, though, and soon people from all over Mexico start showing up in Corazon looking for work. When they find out there isn't any, they just set up camp in the street, and soon the once quiet little town is filled with vagrants and drunks, since people now have money to spend on alcohol.
All of this happens in increments, though, and the bulk of Hough's story is about the various townspeople. The chapters move back and forth in perspective, but the most frequent perspective is that of Francisco Ramirez, a teenager who has grown up in Corazon and is now in love with Violeta Cruz, the town's most astonishingly beautiful resident. Hough all takes us through the lives of the Hacendero, a formerly-wealthy Spaniard whose family has had a hacienda in Corazon for generations; the molinero, one of the town's oldest citizens and a former Don Juan who falls in love with a woman in her twenties; Miguel Orozoco, the mayor; Carlos Fernandez, the cantina owner; Madame Félix, who owns the brothel; and Violeta herself, who is not sure about Francisco, then takes a job at Dr. Brinkley's radio station as a spiritual medium and falls for Brinkley. It seems impossible that Hough could keep up with this many people, all of whom have different backgrounds, perspectives, and concerns. That he does, and manages not to let any plot detail slide, is astounding and makes this novel kind of amazing.
Perhaps naturally, the problems caused by the tower only escalate, until Corazon is launched back into the same kind of fear and stress as it suffered during the revolution. There is fighting in the streets, misery in the homes, and it becomes clear to a select few that the tower must go. I won't say more than that, except to add that the slow but steady building of problems, and the way Hough paces the various characters' realizations and reactions, is wonderful to read. There is so much happening in Corazon, and yet, Brinkley's tower is always there in the background, broadcasting his Sunshine Station from Between the Nations (Hough's humour is all in the details).
Dr. Brinkley's Tower is not a book I expected to enjoy so unequivocally, although I'm not sure why. This, of course, is why it's so important to stretch your tastes as a reader – chances are, there's something out there you're missing. Hough is a wonderful writer, in both the sense of the story he is telling and the language he uses to tell it. Concerns about masculinity (and the very phallic symbol of a giant tower) surface throughout the book, yet at no time does this read as a book about masculinity; similarly, details about what people are eating and drinking are constant, but never do these feel tacked on or in any way irrelevant. For a novel whose action pivots on dishonesty, Dr. Brinkley's Tower is really a very honest novel, with just enough suspense woven through to keep you guessing right up to the very end.
Dr. Brinkley's Tower
by Robert Hough
First published 2012 (cover image shown from House of Anansi Press edition)