by W. Joe Innis
Eaking Press, Austin, Texas, 1997
Reviewed by: Mario Carrión
the excellent editor of this publication, sent me the novel ALSO RISING to
read and to react to its content. Upon opening the package, the first thing which drew my
attention was the eye-catching impressionist illustration of a young man, in flamenco
costume, performing a chicuelina printed on the jacket. Immediately, on the jacket
I read the appealing brief comments of well-known Anglo aficionados, who praise the
interesting taurine content of the novel, as well as its literary quality. Their opinions
coincided with similar comments from other aficionados that I had previously read before
about the novel.
All the indications for me were that this book was a novel primarily about bullfighting, and when this happens I always start reading that type of book with apprehension, since most of the authors of bullfighting themes often, searching for an easy dramatic effect, perpetuate the romantic cliches that surround bullfighting and its world. Also, since I was a professional matador I am always afraid that my thorough knowledge of the real world of bullfighting will rob me of the pleasure of enjoying reading taurine fiction that is not realistic.
I should not have been apprehensive because ALSO RISING, is not a novel about bullfighting per se, and what Mr. Innis writes about bullfighting, is done in such an original way that is everything but a cliche. It is a novel that deals with human nature, with the conflict between good and bad personified by an honest painter and a fake one, respectively, with the concept of plastic art, including bullfighting, and with the clash of American and Mexican cultures. The characters created by the author discuss the theme of bullfighting in an abstract and cultural context. In the novel there are no narrations of corridas, or of deeds of fictional or real matadors, or the explanation of particular passes, but there is an emphasis on the description of the bravery of the bulls and their realistic behavior in the ring. Nevertheless the theme of bullfighting is the literary tool with which the author brings the conflict existing between the protagonists into the open, increases the dramatic tension between them, and provides the conditions for climax, the turning point, and the unknotting of the plot of the narrative.
Let's summarize and comment about the plot, some of the characters and some of the themes which appear in this excellent, interesting, and engaging novel. I will try not to reveal too much, to avoid spoiling the fun for those who plan to read the book.
Isaac Sherdoval, the protagonist, a struggling painter who is running away from a failed marriage. He arrives in San Miguel de Allende to make a living as an art teacher in an American art school, while he tries to find himself as an artist as well as a person.
San Miguel de Allende, a beautiful colonial Mexican city, has many foreign language and art schools that attract many American artists and students, and in the 70's, when the action of this novel takes place, some hippies and war dodgers. For years the Anglo and Mexican peoples have coexisted benefiting from each other, the first enjoying an easy and inexpensive way of life in a very nice environment, and the latter having an infusion of dollars into its economy. As a bonus San Miguel has developed a very active cultural life in which the artist colony and the middle class Mexicans intermingle.
The reader gets to know the picturesque city, its surroundings, and the culture of its people through the perceptive eyes of the artist Isaac. His descriptions do not consist of long paragraphs including infinite details. On the contrary, his pen works like the brush of an impressionist painter, describing selected details with short powerful sentences that allow the reader to capture the whole picture.
By means of Isaac's dialogues with the director, art teachers, students of the school and with other minor characters, Mr. Innes involves the readers in an intriguing and fascinating artistic world. It is a milieu where artistic concepts are discussed. Were we witness bad artists wasting time while pursuing unreachable dreams, or teachers reinforcing their troubled self-esteem by showing off with their students. We also find dedicated teachers, like Isaac, giving everything they have to their students. We observe men on their best and worst behavior, while trying to achieve recognition as artists.
After a certain time in San Miguel Isaac has done well. He is liked by his peers, students and the local people; he has recovered his artistic inspiration, and some of his works are being exhibited in the local galleries... but then his nemesis shows up at a party.
From what we have learned about Isaac, he is the kind of guy one would like to have as a friend. We cannot say the same about his antagonist, Heinrich Guerber, a rich German, who had become an acclaimed and trendy artist. He is the temporary darling of the artistic crowd of New York. He comes to San Miguel to be honored by the art school where he used to be a student and were Isaac now teaches. He is petulant, egotistical, cruel, and selfish, among others things. It is easy to dislike him, especially upon learning that his claim to fame is a result of his painting over valuable impressionist pictures that he buys. In other words, he destroys art rather than creating it. Heinrich is accompanied by his beautiful girl friend, Memori, whom he humiliates and displays as a decorative object. She was a ballerina who was lured from her profession by his fame and money.
The party is given in the home of Mexicans Rafael and Maria Sanchez. Here the first confrontation between Isaac and Heinrich occurs, when Maria introduces both to the group attending the party, as 'famous painters' which hurts Heinrich's ego. The German does not waste time in humiliating Isaac. Then, he insults everyone else by criticizing the bullfight and its followers. Then, he engages Isaac in a futile and unwanted argument about it. Memori sides with Isaac who is already appreciatively ogling her. Bull breeder Señor Sanchez, the father of Fernando, who was at the party, politely avoids the discussion, but he invites both to a tienta, that later will turn out to be a trap where the arguing 'gringos' would have to face the danger of the bulls.
Here the theme of bullfighting is analyzed under two different cultural points of view, and the argument in pro of the fiesta is very logically and forcefully defended by Isaac. I bet that most aficionados in America have found themselves engaged in a similar discussion as the one so cleverly written by Mr. Innis.
For several chapters the theme of the novel turns back to the artistic world, and to the relationship developing between Isaac and Memori. Isaac is now boarding with Sturgeon Boswell, a likable expatriated bohemian painter who would later play principal role in the unfolding of the story. The dialogues between Isaac and his new friends provide us with more information about the characters, and their environment. The taurine theme is in the mind of Isaac who suspects that something unexpected in going to happen at Señor Sanchez' ranch. He is afraid, and with reason, since as an aficionado, he is well aware of the extreme danger that a cow or a bull presents, regardless of its size.
The day of the tienta arrives, and instead of young cows, Señor Sanchez has selected two young bulls, one not so young, to be fought in a mano-a-mano by the American and the German, who have never had any practical experience in the ring. All the relevant characters and a group of friends of the Sanchez family are in attendance at the small bullring. Then, events unfold, which I will not repeat here, since I want you to be surprised with the outcome of the book. The only things I will disclose are that in this episode the good guy wins, and that Mr Innis conveys a realistic feeling in his description of the attacks of the bulls. The readers can feel the bull breath as if they would be bullfighting. But the scene at the Sanchez ranch is only the beginning of the end, since the story still continues for a few more chapters until the unexpected happens to the protagonists at the end of the book.
I have to note what seems to be a flaw in the plot of this extraordinary novel. It has to do with plausibility of the actions which take place in the ring. Señor Sanchez comes across by his actions, prior to and after the tienta, as a Spanish gentleman of the old school, a kind and honorable man. Exposing men to be hurt or killed did not seem to be the Spaniard's intention in the novel. He seemed to have wanted only 'to teach a lesson' to the 'gringos'; but as a bull breeder, even a fictional one, he should have known that such a novillo as the second one, which from the description might have been over two years old, could not be safely fought by a person without practical experience, even with the assistance of a matador and his banderilleros, without the probability of being gored or killed. The chances for this to happen are overwhelming, and a ganadero allowing such an encounter to take place in real life, could be accused of manslaughter or murder in the case of a fatality. But fiction is fiction, and maybe Mr. Innis needed a sizeable bull to convey the panic that Isaac felt when he was attacked by the second novillo.
To conclude let me say that ALSO RISING is a well written novel which is difficult to put down once it has been started. Mr Innis has created two interesting and divergent characters, in conflict in the artistic world of the colonial city of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where they would never have suspected that their destinies would be changed by an unexpected discussion about bullfighting. The best praise that I can find for this novel is that at the end of the narration I still cared for the characters, and I would have liked to know more about their future. With respect to the taurine content I reiterate that the discussion in pro and con of bullfighting at the Sanchez home contains the best arguments that I have read, or heard, to defend the fiesta de toros without apologizing for any negative aspects, and that the description of the bull's behavior at the Sanchez bullring is very realistic.