To report that Toronto writer Robert Hough shaped his latest novel partly in response to news reports from the war in Iraq would be accurate but misleading, suggesting the book is an action-packed, "ripped from the headlines" thriller of the kind that the female majority of the novel-buying public would just as soon leave to the boys.
In fact, Dr. Brinkley's Tower is a sweet-tempered pastoral set in a dusty, pre-modern Mexican village where the combat is often more farcical than deadly, involving such irregular forces as a glamorous senorita masquerading as a gypsy clairvoyant, a pragmatic old witch, a silver-tongued con man and the many denizens of a prosperous bordello, all named Maria.
"I don't have Shias and Sunnis fighting it out in my book," admits Hough, 48, relaxing on a holiday morning in his non-exotic personal habitat, a mid-Toronto brick semi, while his two teenaged daughters indulge in the ritual of the endless shower upstairs. "It turns out to be Madam and the Marias fighting against everyone else."
Rather than the U.S. Marines, the imperial force that stirs their enmity is a radio transmitter so powerful it makes the night sky glow green and wire fences sing with gringo hillbilly music for miles around. Under its malign influence, the local populace experiences a fate not unlike the "liberation" imposed almost a century later on the unsuspecting people of Iraq.
With its setting in rural Latin America, its abundance of colourful characters and its consistent tone of gentle irony, Dr. Brinkley's Tower reads a lot more like magic realism than its hard-edged "social" cousin – a comparison Hough anticipated and then deflected by ensuring nothing "impossible" happens in his novel. "I did not want people to think I was trying to ape Gabriel Garcia Marquez," he says. His made-in-Canada hybrid is more absurd than magic.
But no less real for that. Basing his story on the colourful history of a bloodless border war in the 1930s, when the Mexican government encouraged U.S. entrepreneurs to establish massively powerful AM stations along the Rio Grande to saturate airwaves as far away as Alaska, Hough stuck close enough to known facts that he abandoned his original plan to change the names of the historical figures who appear in his book. The real J. Romulus Brinkley, founder of legendary million-watt station XER, which he used to advertise phony cures for impotence – including an operation that involved stitching slices of goat testicle into men's scrotums – is even more outlandish on Wikipedia than he is in the pages of Hough's novel.
Long entranced by Mexico and its culture, Hough knew nothing of Dr. Brinkley when he first toyed with the idea of setting a novel in the absurdist world of Mexican radio. But con men were also a long-standing interest, occupying their own place on the mental list of subjects Hough meant to explore.
"I find con men interesting because they don't by definition experience guilt," Hough says, marvelling at the gift. "Wouldn't you like to be that just for a week – to take a little vacation from guilt?"
When he finally discovered the sociopathic origins of Mexican radio in the story of the goat-gland scam, Hough was hooked. Con men are "exotic creatures," he says, and the novel he fashioned for his own specimen to inhabit is an appropriately exotic vessel – "the most fun to write of my books," he adds. "The whole idea was so up my alley."
Hough's alley is now sufficiently well populated – Dr. Brinkley's Tower is his fourth novel – that its character is clear. Although carefully and stylishly written, his books are first and foremost meant to amuse.
"I have no patience with literary foppery," Hough declares grandly, criticizing high-concept novels for their often "infuriating" inattention to story design. "I like stories that really move and that are well written as well," he adds. "I am trying to entertain – to structure the book in a way that's going to keep you turning the pages, keep you amused and, toward the end, pull at your heartstrings a little bit hopefully."
The hard work with this fun novel was making it seem real, according to Hough, who redoubled the challenge by choosing the most exotic, otherworldly setting imaginable by a contemporary Canadian writer. "That's the trick of it," he says. "That's the name of the game."
That's the magic, in other words. And it works.