by Rolando Hinojosa

Published in April 2017 by Arte Público Press

Reviewed by David Eric Tomlinson

In his collection From Klail City to Korea With Love, legendary Texas author and Austin native Rolando Hinojosa spins a funny, profane, and emotionally affecting tale of small-town Texas lives being moved by – and sometimes moving – the relentless grinding gears of history.

We first meet Rafe Buenrostro, the protagonist around which this collection revolves, in Korean Love Songs, a series of poems about the Korean War. In economical, cinematic imagery, we are presented with snapshots of Rafe’s Korean War experience. As a forward observer in a war that has been labeled “the artillery war” (for the massive amounts of artillery required to fight in the rolling, mountainous terrain of the Korean Peninsula), Rafe is always on the front lines, close enough to see and communicate Chinese troop movements to the Army artillery battalion he supports.

The poems present a kind of chronological emotional history of a war whose violence forever tarnishes its participants: “the violent deaths …/ have diminished not only me,/ but my own sure to come death as well.” The carnage, often expressed in numbers, tends to dull the senses: “I don’t see how people can understand what/ I am saying when I say/ 12,000 rounds of 1OS’s in 24 hours …/ We’re animals,/ but then, so are they.”

In Hinojosa’s poems, survival seems to depend on intense observation. And in order to effectively support the larger group mission, one’s own pain is often ignored. It’s no surprise, then, to see men going AWOL or breaking down – diagnosed with what was then called “battle fatigue.” As we learn in A Matter of Supplies, there are always others ready and waiting to replace them:

“It comes down to this: we’re pieces of equipment

to be counted and signed for:

         On occasion some of us break down,

And those parts which can’t be salvaged

Are replaced with other G.I. parts, that’s all.”

Midway through this collection, Hinojosa’s imagery shifts from the traumatized black-and-whites of war to the more subtle emotional pastels of recovery. In Japan, on leave, Rafe and his friends fall in love, father illegitimate sons, drink themselves to stupor, and in these small, safe, intimate moments, gradually begin to heal: “… when she tickles me, she laughs. I laugh, too …”

We meet Rafe again in Rites and Witnesses, the novella comprising the second half of Hinojosa’s book, which juxtaposes Rafe’s Korean war experiences with chapters set in his fictional hometown of Klail City, in the lower Rio Grande Valley, in Texas. As Rafe daydreams about home alongside the soldiers he is tasked with protecting, a pawn in a geopolitical land dispute, his friends and family and neighbors back home engage in similar disputes on a much smaller, but no less important, scale.

Told largely in dialogue, and with dozens of characters, Rites and Witnesses dramatizes the ongoing power relations between Anglos and Mexicans in Texas, where Hispanics are persecuted simply for persisting: “in Belken County … in the state of Texas, really, it doesn’t matter what you are: if you ain’t Mexican, then you’re an Anglo …”

The Anglos who own the banks and the assets decide who runs for office, who gets a home loan, who is allowed to prosper … and will do anything to keep things that way. But progress can’t be stopped – the nineteen-fifties are coming to a close, the nineteen-sixties are right around the corner – and as the Mexican-Americans in Klail City establish themselves in business and politics, forever forced to scheme and plot for representation and fair treatment, the clash of cultures creates scenarios ripe for satire.

Hinojosa’s Belken County is a place where the arc of history, though often tragic, bends toward humor, community, and personal intimacy. Its residents exhibit a quiet, indomitable strength, a moral true north, and despite all obstacles, refuse to be intimidated. The great men and women here “[don’t] work that way … never [have]. As for pressure … love or some other feeling, perhaps, would move [them]: not pressure.”

David Eric Tomlinson has been a member of the Writers’ League since 2013. He was born and raised in Oklahoma, educated in California, and now lives in Texas. You can learn more about his debut novel THE MIDNIGHT MAN at www.daviderictomlinson.com

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