I can read, say, Philip Roth or Chaim Potok novels about Newark and Brooklyn and enjoy the literary qualities and the cultural sense of Jewish life in the New York region. I can hear the people talking, sense the family dynamics. But in reading Klail City, one of the short novels in the Klail City Death Trip series by Texas writer and academic Rolando Hinojosa, I’m reading about something more visceral and evocative — the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, where I grew up, in Mission. Even if, as Thomas Wolfe wrote, you can’t go home again, Hinojosa gets me close enough to feel the Gulf winds blowing across the fields.
Set in fictional Belken County, Klail City’s short, kaleidoscopic chapters recount the Hispanic experience in deep South Texas from the 1940s on, with historical glances even further back. Hinojosa grew up in Mercedes, Texas, about 25 miles east of my home town, Mission, both in Hidalgo County (I associate Mercedes with its annual Livestock Show and Rodeo, held every March for going on 75 years). Hinojosa describes a world that surrounded me every day but unfolded at a distance from mine. He writes
The number of Texas Anglos to be seen here is scant, but perhaps, understandably so. These fellow Texans of ours are out of place here; out of their element, so to speak. So to speak. The Belken County Texas Mexicans, on the other hand, are the majority, but this doesn’t mean they ignore the other population; they can ill afford to do so. For their part, the mexicano are usually ignored, although not always, true, and not forever either. (After all, what physical pain is there that lasts a hundred years?)
The geography hit me, with the Missouri-Pacific railroad tracks dividing towns into the Anglo and Mexican sides (I’ll use the terminology found in the book), with their own elementary schools. As in Mission in the 1960s, those schools’ pupils came together in junior high and high school, years of tensions and explorations.
Hinojosa carefully delineated the gradations of religion that are essential to Valley life. Catholics predominate, but Mexican Protestants are fully recognized as a culture of their own. Masses, revivals, Bibles, scriptural references weave in and out of the stories, as common as the carnal side of life seen through beer joints, pool halls, shotgun weddings of teenagers in the family way, the soldiers killed in Europe, the Pacific and Korea, war veterans gunned down by unrestrained and unpunished police, crooked politicians, curanderas (healers), the old men selling things on the street, seasonal migrations Up North. Hinojosa packs an enormous number of familiar touchpoints into the short book.
And I reflected on the names he summons from the depths of memory. Rafe Buenrostro, Bruno Cano, don Celso Villalon, Manuel Guzman, de Anda, Viola Barragan, Horacio Navarro, Maria Lara, Dorothea Cavazos, and the dead-accurate Anglo names like Liz Ann Moore, Lulu Gottlieb, high school librarian Miss Mary Jane McClarity, Choche Markham, the kind and good Tom Purdy of Michigan, and Sheriff Big Foot Parkinson. And, in an amazing bit of prophecy, Sofia Vergara — exactly like the actress. These just sample the roster of names. Many of them resonate with memories of friends and classmates and their parents, local characters from my version of the Valley. Dorothea, Maria, Elizabeth Ann, Horacio, Navarro — they’re all mental bursts of associations going back a half-century now.
I’ll see if I can find other books in the series to find out what else goes on with the characters simmering and stewing under the South Texas sun. My Klail City Death Trip is just hitting the road.