Jane Hurwitz, 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.
BOOK REVIEW: ALSO RISING
by W. Joe Innis.
Eaking Press, Austin, Texas, 1997
Reviewed by: Mario Carrión
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
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.
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