La Mollie and the King of Tears
by Arturo Islas
Published by University of New Mexico Press
Published June 1, 1996
208 pgs. • Find on Amazon.com
Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray
May 1, 2004
I really wish that I liked La Mollie and the King of Tears more and could recommend it much more fervently than I can. I admire the two Angel-family novels, Rain God and Migrant Souls that gay Chicano Stanford professor Arturo Islas (1938–1991) finished before being cut down by AIDS, and I know that he was enchanted by the voice of the narrator of La Mollie and the King of Tears, a jazz saxophonist by the name of Louie Mendoza, born and raised in a border city called El Chuco that bears considerable resemblance to the El Paso in which Islas was born and raised (as was Miguel Chico, Islas’ stand-in in the Angel family sagas) and living in San Francisco Anno Domini 1973 (a significant year in the tumultuous life of the author, who also lived in San Francisco).
The novel is a stream of consciousness, but one that is allegedly being voiced—into a tape-recorder, as Louie waits in San Francisco General Hospital to hear the fate of the woman he loves and lives with, La Mollie, an Angla would-be-intellectual from a very privileged background who is supposedly doing dissertation research for a Berkeley Ph.D. She has been in a freak accident directly following upon his own misadventures that had Louie in the same hospital earlier in a long night that had included a shooting in the Mission-district jazz club where he played and a very difficult journey home from the hospital. To a stranger recording him for no reason specified in the novel, Louie recounts the events of the previous day, intermingled with memories of his relationship with La Mollie and of growing up in El Chuco, particularly of an English teacher with whom he sparred interpreting Shakespeare. A barrio boy’s take on Shakespeare plays, particularly Romeo and Juliet, and even more particularly on Juliet’s line from Act II, scene 2: “Yet I wish but for the thing I have.” (The focus on this line is all the more poignant knowing that the novel was written by a terminally ill author, but that’s an extra-textual resonance.)
Islas began to write the novel in mid-September 1986. He was a visiting professor back in his hometown of El Paso and gave his students an assignment to write a story in a voice as unlike their own as they could imagine. He undertook the assignment himself, and, as Paul Skenazy puts it in his afterword, once Louie started talking, he wouldn’t stop. Islas titled the burgeoning manuscript The Lame (Louie has his leg broken in the scramble after the bar shooting; Islas limped from childhood polio; despite Louie’s jazz milieu, there is no indication Islas knew the black vernacular sense of “lame”), and he worked on the draft into the first month of 1987 (still in El Paso) and worked on revising the novel that summer. A portion of it was published as “Chakespeare Louie” in 1988 in ZYZZYVA, and several book publishers rejected a manuscript of the book (as even more had what became Rain God, which was kicked around for a decade and then became a surprise success). Increasingly debilitated, and unhappy with the somewhat tepid reception of Migrant Souls, “Arturo remained devoted to La Mollie and surprised that others did not share his enthusiasm,” Skenazy writes. Being one of those not sharing Islas’s enthusiasm makes me feel sad, but I am glad the Skenazy shepherded the manuscript into print—in 1996 from the University of New Mexico Press. (El Paso is practically in New Mexico and more culturally connected to New Mexico than to the rest of Texas)
My problem is not with the structure, which is appropriately diffuse, befitting the ramblings of someone in shock. It is a little annoying that the reader does not find whether La Mollie survives. Though I can take open-ended non-closures in stride, it is the voice that is supposed to be maximally differentiated from Islas’s own that I cannot fully accept. The recurrent focus on Shakespeare strikes me more as a professor of English trying to make The Bard relevant in street-wise lingo than what the Chicano saxophonist would be likely to focus upon. The references to old—already old in the 1973 in which the novel’s one day is set—strikes me as reflecting the recesses of a gay professor more than that of our Chicano saxophonist.
I am quick to see the objection that Islas shared Louie’s ethnicity, based the character to some extent on someone he observed in a stint working at the Menlo Park Veterans’ Administration Hospital (the same one psychiatric ward that inspired One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and on the pachuco ethos of classmates in El Paso, and that I have no standing to second-guess how a Chicano—any Chicano—thinks and what majority culture baggage is at the front of his brain (and what protective attitudes a straight Chicano man has for a gay brother). Nonetheless, the voice often does not ring true to me. In 1986–87, 1973 was also more readily available to memory than it is now, and perhaps there is or was someone with Louie’s attitudes and take on Anglo literature and Hollywood productions. Readers who can suspend disbelief in that would/will find the novel more enjoyable.
I do not mean to imply that I found La Mollie and the King of Tears or devoid of insights or pleasures. What Louie says about Shakespeare and/or his own past is frequently funny, and the recounting of the night in the club and hospital emergency room contain some forceful dark humor. The secondary male characters, especially Big Eddie and Tito, are sly creations, even if the love of Louie’s life, La Mollie, is a vague character even aside from having a vague fate. The only credible female character is the spinster English teacher, Miss Harris.
As I’ve said at least twice, I wish I could accept Louie’s voice and was as enchanted by it as Islas was. The attempt to reach beyond autobiographical fiction is laudable and I certainly wish Islas had survived to see his cherished project into print, perhaps in a form I’d have liked more, though Islas was having trouble deciding how to end the book back in 1987, before he knew he was infected with HIV, and added and then discarded a frame parodying an academic recording a low-life in distress in a public hospital. That is, the problems are not entirely that Islas was cut down as he was still developing as a (late-blooming) writer.
Note: I wrote about Islas’s first two novels in my 1995 book Latin American Male Homosexualities (University of New Mexico Press, 1995)
First published by epinions, 1 May 2004
©2004, 2017, Stephen O. Murray