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Analysis of Rolando Hinojosa’s Novels

Beginning in 1970, Rolando Hinojosa (born 1929) published fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, primarily in small Mexican American presses and journals. His major work comprises a series of short novels that he titled The Klail City Death Trip series, after publishing Korean Love Songs from Klail City Death Trip, which he referred to as a novel in verse form. The Klail City Death Trip series is distinguished by Hinojosa’s having published several novels in both Spanish and English. The series as of 1999 constituted nine serial works.

The different language renditions do not always represent the same narrative. Significant differences between the two versions of the same novel exist in the narrative sequence of chapters, with some chapters deleted, others added, and others rearranged. Thus, both language editions should be read for a comprehensive and more accurate understanding of The Klail City Death Trip series. Some novels, moreover, suffer from egregious publishing errors, due to Arte Público Press failing to copyedit texts before going to press, with large passages repeated and other significant passages completely left out.

The works in the series were not published in strict chronological order. Fair Gentlemen of Belken County, for instance, was written prior to Dear Rafe but was published one year after.

The Valley
With The Valley, Hinojosa begins his serial project by introducing a host of characters, some of whom are extensively developed in succeeding novels. This novel is made up of four loosely connected sections of sketches that give readers a wide sense of the character of the Mexican Texan people inhabiting the fictional Belken County in “The Valley,” the area north of the Mexican border in south Texas. Here, the people of various towns are shown at home, in their communities, carrying on with their daily lives. Two cousins, Jehú Malacara and Rafe Buenrostro, are introduced for the first time, characters whose lives are examined in greater detail in later novels. Both characters are orphans, with Jehú being raised by various people unrelated to him, while Rafe and his brothers are raised by their uncle Julian.

Klail City
Klail City continues with the same format and purpose as The Valley, with three sections of sketches. Hinojosa continues to develop his two main characters’ lives, but with this novel, he develops a theme that permeates the entire series: the historical conflict between Anglo-Texans and Mexican Texans over the land and the laws governing their lives. In this novel, readers are informed of the cause of Rafe’s father’s death, murder by a member of a rival Mexican American clan, the Leguizamóns. Although Jesús Buenrostro’s murder is avenged by his brother Julian, the clans’ animosity toward each other remains undiminished as The Klail City Death Trip series progresses. Also introduced in this novel is a greater conflict, the Korean War, which will later affect the main characters’ lives, especially Rafe’s.

The Useless Servants
The Useless Servants, in prose, extensively shows Rafe’s day-today life in the Korean War. The masterfully written realism of the battlefield makes both Korean Love Songs from Klail City Death Trip and The Useless Servants extraordinary testaments to the horror and senselessness of war. One fact that does not escape Rafe and other Mexican Texan soldiers in Korea, however, is that even while defending their country, they are still subjected to racism by their Anglo-American counterparts.

Dear Rafe
Dear Rafe jumps ahead in the serial narrative and portrays Jehú as a principal, though elliptical, character. Incorporating the epistolary and reportage genres, Hinojosa provides multiple perspectives from which readers see the financial, real estate, and political maneuvers enhancing the Anglo-American power structure, as represented by the Klail, Blanchard, Cook (KBC) clan. Employed as a loan officer in a Klail City bank owned by the most powerful Anglo-Texan family in the Valley, Jehú apprentices under bank president Noddy Perkins. Through liaisons Jehú has with three women, he works the system to his clan’s advantage by covertly acquiring lands that would otherwise fall into the hands of the rivaling Leguizamón clan or the KBC clan.

In the first half of the novel, readers gain an understanding of the events by reading a series of letters written by Jehú to Rafe, who is interned in a veterans hospital for problems arising from wounds suffered in Korea. In the second half, readers are shown a series of interviews conducted with more than a dozen primary and secondary characters by P. Galindo, who has access to Jehú’s letters.

The novel’s main action involves Noddy backing a Mexican Texan, Ira Escobar, against an Anglo-Texan for county commissioner, something the Anglo-Amerian power structure had never done before. As the action progresses, Jehú comes to understand that Ira has been backed for political office because he is an easily manipulated puppet. More important, Noddy brings Ira’s Anglo-Texan opponent, Roger Terry, to his knees to control him, through a political ruse, as the Valley’s new U.S. congressman, which was Noddy’s intention all along. Jehú , however, leaves the bank, disgusted with how local politics are run, apparently causing P. Galindo to conduct his interviews. Jehú returns to the bank three years later, as is revealed in Partners in Crime.

Rites and Witnesses
This novel’s action precedes that of Dear Rafe and fills in gaps in the lives of both Rafe and Jehú, incorporating reportage, letters, and sketches, with chapters alternating between action in Korea and events foreshadowing Dear Rafe. Noddy Perkins approaches Jehú to run for county commissioner, but Jehú is wise enough to refuse the offer, causing Noddy to recruit Ira Escobar later.

Partners in Crime
With Partners in Crime Hinojosa changes direction by writing a murder mystery. A lieutenant in Belken County’s homicide squad, Rafe, with his squad, investigates and solves gang-land killings related to drug-running in the Valley. No longer a place where adverse race relations dominate, the Valley’s economy has become corrupted by Mexican drug dealers’ laundered money. The cooperation of law-enforcement agencies on both sides of the border becomes the focus of The Klail City Death Trip series. In this novel the head of the Mexican law-enforcement agency, Lisandro Solís, is responsible for the killings and the drug-running. In the end he escapes persecution but reappears in Ask a Policeman.

Fair Gentlemen of Belken County
Written before Dear Rafe but not published until 1986, this novel of longer sketches continues filling gaps in Rafe and Jehú’s lives after their return from Korea. The texture of the Valley’s Mexican Texan culture is brilliantly shown in this novel. Although the life of the prominent Mexican Texan elder, Esteban Echevarría, ends, his legacy and wisdom are preserved and honored by Rafe and Jehú.

Becky and Her Friends
Using reportage, like the second half of Dear Rafe, Becky and Her Friends provides more than two dozen interviews with various people associated with Becky Escobar, who, by her marriage to Ira, is kin to the rival Leguizamón clan. At the beginning of the novel, Becky throws out her husband Ira and asks him for a divorce. They divorce, and as the interviews progress, readers learn the circumstances surrounding her astounding transformation from an utterly anglicized and naïve Mexican Texan to a Mexicanized and independent woman. She is then employed as a business manager by Viola Barragán, a wealthy and successful Mexican Texan businesswoman who figures prominently in previous novels. Under Viola’s guidance, Becky asserts her independence and marries Jehú, with whom she had an affair during the political campaigns in Dear Rafe. Readers also learn that Rafe has married Noddy Perkins’s daughter Sammie Jo, thus cementing, through these two marriages, a resolution between formerly rivaling clans. More important, lands formerly split by these rivaling clans are reunited.

Ask a Policeman
In Ask a Policeman, another murder mystery, Rafe has been promoted to chief inspector of the Belken County homicide squad. He and his squad again solve drug-related gangland killings, including the murder of Lisandro Solís, who escaped prosecution for his part in the drug-running and killings depicted in Partners in Crime. This time, the chief law-enforcement officer on the Mexican side, María Luisa (Lu) Cetina, contributes to the successful apprehension of the guilty parties, which include Lisandro’s brother and Lisandro’s twin sons, as well as Canadian and Central American assassins.

Major works

Long fiction Estampas del valle, y otras obras/Sketches of the Valley, and Other Works, 1973 (English revision, The Valley, 1983); Klail City y sus alrededores, 1976 (Klail City: A Novel, 1987); Mi querido Rafa, 1981 (Dear Rafe, 1985); Rites and Witnesses, 1982; Partners in Crime: A Rafe Buenrostro Mystery, 1985; Claros varones de Belken, 1986 (Fair Gentlemen of Belken County, 1986); Becky and Her Friends, 1990; The Useless Servants, 1993; Ask a Policeman, 1998; We Happy Few, 2006.
Poetry: Korean Love Songs from Klail City Death Trip, 1978 (printed 1980, includes some prose).
Edited texts: Tomás Rivera, 1935-1984: The Man and His Work, 1988 (with Gary D. Keller and Vernon E. Lattin).
Miscellaneous: Generaciones, Notas, y Brechas/Generations, Notes, and Trails, 1978; Agricultural Workers of the Rio Grande and Rio Bravo Valleys, 1984.

Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.

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Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature

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