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review: fiction

Robert Hough in his Toronto home on Feb. 20, 2012.

Medical quack, millionaire, gubernatorial candidate, radio pioneer – John Romulus Brinkley led the kind of life that, if you were to encounter it in a novel, you might be inclined to condemn as an improbable fiction.

Which, of course, it isn't. Born 1885 into a poor Appalachian family, Brinkley bought a certificate from a diploma mill and went on to make a fortune by claiming to cure impotence through the dubious means of implanting goat glands into men. By the 1930s, both the Internal Revenue Service and the American Medical Association were cracking down on him, and Brinkley relocated to Del Rio, Tex., not far from the Mexican border. Soon afterward, the Mexican government granted him a licence to build a 50,000-watt "border blaster" that would transmit word of his goat-gland cure across the United States.

The construction of Brinkley's massive radio transmitter provides the backdrop for Robert Hough's hilarious and penetrating fourth novel, Doctor Brinkley's Tower. Hough picks up the thread of the story just as the inhabitants of Corazon de la Fuente – the Mexican town where the tower will be built – are readying themselves for the arrival of the construction crews. They are ravaged by poverty and revolution, and the prospect of Brinkley's tower seems, at least initially, like salvation. "The people need something like this," the town's mayor declares, "something to stop them from brooding over the value of the peso and the loved ones they've lost."

Though Brinkley himself figures as a character in the novel, the bulk of Hough's attention is focused on the town's inhabitants, the ordinary people on whom the construction of the tower has the most direct impact. There is young Francisco, whose courtship of the beautiful Violeta is impeded by her Brinkley-engineered ascension into radio superstardom; there is Madam Felix, whose civilized brothel struggles to cope with an unprecedented influx of clients; and there is Carlos Hernandez, owner of the local saloon, who becomes so wealthy that he crosses the border to have Doctor Brinkley's goat-gland operation, with mixed results.

The tower – an unapologetic phallic symbol constructed to broadcast Brinkley's mastery of all things phallic – eventually casts its shadow over all. The result is a kind of social history, a perspective from below on a notorious episode from the annals of quackery.

Hough is a master storyteller, and he works here with a practised hand to avoid stereotype and at the same time give a clear sense of the general problems engendered by the new influx of wealth into the impoverished town. "This was the problem," the narrator declares. "You didn't save whatever potatoes weren't consumed by your family: they turned mushy and gave off a sweet alcoholic scent that attracted wasps. Likewise you did not save money. … There could be yet another coup and then all of the pesos spilling out of your pockets, mattresses, and furniture would be as worthless as Coahuilian dust."

If the historical novel continues to exert a particular fascination on our imagination, it surely has to do with its curious ability to reclaim the past, to use it as a tool for shattering the sameness – the inevitability – of the present. Perhaps the most striking example of this in the novel is Hough's description of the American-Mexican border in the 1930s, a mere "rickety wood-planked bridge" that separates the two countries, each with a single guard. This image of peaceful co-existence is crucial to recall today, when the Mexican border is a massively fortified, heavily armed barrier between the countries.

As historian Douglas Monroy puts it in his seminal study, The Borders Within: Encounters Between Mexico and the United States, "America has always understood itself to be very separate from Mexico." A similar insight lies at the heart of Doctor Brinkley's Tower and its shrewd rendering of the multiple ambivalences at play in the cultural clash and the interwoven histories of what Hough's narrator calls "the bridge separating an obscenely rich nation from an incorrigibly poor one."

Steven Hayward teaches in the English department at Colorado College. His most recent novel is Don't Be Afraid.