Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Adventure classics -- When the devil gets unchained

The Brave Bulls

by Tom Lea


Our parents took their kids to bullfights. It was during the few years our family lived in El Paso while my sister and I were children. And although we’d been back and forth across the Rio Grande into El Paso’s sister city, Cuidad Juarez, more times than I can remember in the days before Juarez was something resembling a battle zone, we’d only been to a bullfight once. My sister and I were aged about eight and ten and had never met an animal we didn’t like. We spent most of the afternoon at the corrida de toros crying and probably embarrassing our parents nearly to death.

So when I found El Paso author/illustrator Tom Lea’s 1949 bestselling novel about bullfighting, The Brave Bulls, I wavered. Would I even be able to stand reading about this strange practice? A few pages in, and I was fascinated.

Not fascinated at first by Lea’s writing style, which like that of all too many mid-century writers reads like Hemingway on an off day. Not even by the main character, Luis Bello, whose rise from poverty to wealth and fame has been copied in a slew of other sports books and movies. But fascinated by the bulls.

The book opens with the preparation for a bullfight, full of the details Lea drew on from his experience at the same arena in Juarez where my sister and I were introduced to the bulls. “Over to the left there’s a big-bolted red door marked TORILES. Bullfighters call it the Gate of the Fright. It’s where the bulls come out.”

And out of that gate, Luis Bello and an ugly bobtailed bull named Brujo will meet.

The shadow of death has already fallen over Bello. He returns home between fights for
the funeral of the uncle who cared for the orphaned Bello and his brothers and sisters. Soon Bello’s friend, canny old bullfighter Juan “Skinny” Salazar, will meet death as he works the last bull of an otherwise uneventful afternoon. on an otherwise uneventful afternoon has just died. The deaths of Bello’s agent and his beautiful lover soon follow, the last two made still more horrifying by the revelation that these people Bello trusted most were betraying him. Is it any wonder his nerve is slipping?

But even more than a novel about a bullfighter, The Brave Bulls is about the bulls themselves--their history, their psychology, their breeding and testing--and the people who revere them, live by them, kill them and sometimes die by them.

Is this ancient game between human beings and bulls art? Is it sport? “It is a form of drama as certainly as the works of Sophocles,” one member of Lea’s Greek chorus of barroom pundits intones, while another (and perhaps more truthful) voice declares, “I like to see a freight train come out of the door and scare the Sainted Jesus out of those frilling dolls waving their pretty rags! I like to whistle when the devil gets unchained.”

A couple of weeks ago I complained that Texans seldom revere those from their own state. Lea might have been the exception. Born in El Paso, Lea spent part of his early life under guard from threats against his father (then mayor of El Paso) by Mexican bandit and revolutionary Pancho Villa. (In a chapter in The Brave Bulls, the owner of a fighting bull ranch details his own skirmishes with the revolutionaries and how he saved his bulls.)

Lea became a well-known muralist in the 1930’s, painting, among other commissions, murals at the Hall of State in Dallas Fair Park. He later worked as an illustrator, then as an embedded reporter with the U.S. Marine Corps in World War II. Along the way, he became fascinated with bullfighting.

“I went back to El Paso,” he said in an interview, “and the first thing I did was to go across the river and make myself known to Roberto Gonzalez, who was the impresario there in the bullring in Juarez. . . I got to meet some of these young, want-to-be bullfighters and it just enchanted me, the whole thing.” A thing he describes with an artist’s precision.

For more about Lea’s work and life, see I’d hoped to use some of his drawings for The Brave Bulls to illustrate this post, but because he lived until 2001, they’re still copyrighted. So I’ll show you my father’s picture of the Juarez bullring instead.

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics begins a July of science fiction with Lois McMaster Bujold’s Shards of Honor.)

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