By Victor Banis
reviewed by Mykola Mick Dementiuk
There have been books which over the years have become very dear to me, to be read over and over, and always coming upon something new in them. Authors such as Dostoyevsky, Steinbeck, Victor Hugo, I.B. Singer and Henry Miller, just to mention a few, have been able to hold me for days, weeks, months so I could read them and over and over again. Titles such as Brothers Karamazov, Grapes of Wrath, Les Miserables, Family Moskat, Tropic of Cancer/Capricorn etc., have held me repeatedly in my quest and rediscovery of some item I must have already read. In the reading of a book it’s inevitable you will overlook some paragraphs or passages which you will be aware of the next time around, mumbling to yourself, “Aw damn, now how did I miss that?” Books are like close friends we have known over the years, we tend to skim through and overlook them at times.
Lola Dances by Victor Banis is one such book, I’ve read it maybe five times and, of course, each time found in it something new. Another reader might grimace and mutter, “So you’re not as well read as you think…” Well, yes, I know that, or as Henry Miller in The Books In My Life asks, “Who is?”
In Lola Dances we meet Terry Murphy running away through New York’s Lower East Side streets from the bullies after him. “Sissy!” they shout. 18 year old Terry, living alone but having an elder brother, Brian, had been on his way to dancing lessons before he had gotten so rudely interrupted by the bullies. Still, dancing lessons in New York’s 1880s were very expensive, but somehow Terry comes up with the tuition for the dance classes. In his flight from the bullies he meets up with Tom Finnegan who takes him down alleys which the bullies know little of and Tom shows him a few new things, like himself being soft, tender and caring, which they both know very little about. Terry likes Tom a lot, as Tom does him, whereby they both confusedly blush.
But Terry’s brother Brian, wants to leave New York and head out West, where he can get rich fast, this eventually finds them in Alder Gulch, Utah, a mining community with loads of miners digging for wealth but very few showing any sure results. By that time in the story, the two brothers have gotten physically close to each other and nightly Brian would bugger Terry as he just lay there. Brian uses that as an excuse for his brother’s homosexual lusts, saying to himself that he’s doing it to keep that fruit Terry in line and at bay from the other horny miners. Still, Terry enjoys these trysts with his brother and even thinks of himself as a woman. He recalls Tom Finnegan back in New York as the red-headed boy peed, “with his fly hanging open…a glimpse of its bush at its base, like spun gold, gleaming in the dawns yellow light.” (p68) Every time he closes his eyes he imagines Tom as being there.
Alas, happy dreams in life hardly ever exist; still there were other handsome men at the camp. For one Joshua Simmons was there, who Terry gives his first blowjob to but Joshua is in shock from what Terry just did and runs away. Sad tearful Terry awaits his return but it wasn’t meant to be.
Terry tries for a job at the Lucky Dollar when their star singer leaves for San Francisco, leaving behind her dresses and gowns. Belle Blessing recognizes Terry’s femininity, Terry gets the job.
“Something happened that had never happened before at The Lucky Dollar. The room went silent, a thunderous silence. No one spoke. Even the slap, slap, slap of the cards at the poker table went still. A hundred mouths hung open, a hundred pair of eyes were suddenly riveted on the little figure standing before them. Like a rose, suddenly appearing in the filth of that dirty room.” (p89) Lola Valdez comes to life.
Now Terry/Lola refuses Brian’s demands for ass fucking, having becoming a real liberated woman by saying “No!” Certainly, way before her time, that’s for sure.
But that night, Brian gets his revenge on Terry by taking the money that Terry had saved up and leaves for Butte, Montana, taking a confused Joshua with him, still at a loss in trying to understand what Terry’s blowjob really meant.
Lola continues working/singing at The Lucky Dollar until a somewhat neighbor she knows from town, Reverend Davidson, sees her changing from Lola’s clothes back into Terry’s. Of course he wants a blowjob from Terry and comes at her/him. Terry fires her Derringer and stops him cold.
Five years go by and after traveling and singing in the camps, “the rose of the mining camps” she was known, is now living and singing at the Barbary Coast in San Francisco. One night she recognizes Tom Finnegan from New York who has become a gambler, club owner, but who is stunned at seeing her, becoming a total confused mess. It also threw me, until I read the passages a few times over the years and finally did understand what was occurring… I’ll leave that to the reader to find out for himself what was occurring but it certainly brought the novel into better focus and I look forward to reading it many times again. Sometimes life wants you to accept what is, don’t you think?
And Victor Banis certainly knows how to write a good, thoughtful and worthy novel, after all, this classic has been pored over many a time by this reader and will be with me for many more years to come. And I know that many readers have done the same. Lola Dances is simply exquisite!
There she goes, watch her dance…. Ooh la la!