Thursday, September 04, 2014

Chicanonautica: Flying Across the Border, 1928-Style

by Ernest Hogan

In this era of the vanishing bookstore, I find a lot of books in antique stores. That’s where the title Rex Lee On the Border Patrol snagged my eyeballs. I yanked it off the shelf, eager to check out the cover, and was surprised. Instead of the six-guns and somberos pulp art there was a twisted view of a smoking World War One biplane and a guy falling to certain death.

Confused, I turned to the front flap of dust jacket:

“Framed” by Dave Fitzpatrick, the powerful and notorious Texas border criminal, Rex Lee faces disgrace. A quantity of opium, “planted” by Fitzpatrick, has been found in the ship of the intrepid young flyer, and he is accused of being a smuggler. But, Rex’s father is a power in Texas politics and soon strong influence are at work to bear Fitzpatrick and prove the air hero’s innocence.

The book's hooks dug into my curiosity. Copyright date was 1928. And the frontispiece was more like I was expecting: a scene of stiff figures and awkward perspective in which a sombrero was sent flying by the impact of an all-Americano fist.

On the back cover, the publisher, Grosset & Dunlap, touted the author, Thomson Burtis as a real life version of the rootin’-tootin’, rip-roarin’ hero:
All the air lore and thrilling exploits of the author’s own experiences as an army flyer have gone into this red-blooded series of a daredevil young American who became one of the country’s greatest heroes of the sky.

Like a lot of writers, Burtis has a variety of other jobs:  postal clerk, hobo, actor, writer, mutton-chop salesman, preacher, roughneck in the oil fields, newspaperman, flyer, scenario writer in Hollywood and synthetic clown with the Sells Floto circus!

Rex Lee is literally a cowboy with a plane instead of horse, back from the GreatWar, ready to take on the world. The western genre updated for the new century. He was like a lot of other pulp heroes of the time, a brother to the two-fisted heroes in Amazing Stories, that included Buck (called Anthony in the magazine stories) Rogers.

Though essential to the plot, drugs aren’t a big part of the story. The opium planted in Rex’s plane isn’t described. The effects of drugs on people or society aren’t mentioned. It’s like the film La Banda De Carro Rojo, based on Paulino Vargas’ pioneering narcorrido, with Los Tigres del Norte acting as a musical Greek chorus, where the drugs don’t make it on screen. Also like Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly, where Robert Aldrich had no trouble changing Mike Hammer’s adversaries into dealers of radioactive materials rather than heroin.

Drugs are just an excuse for daring-do.

And even though the book has the expected 1928 racism, Mexicans turn out not to be the brains behind the drug smuggling. There’s a stereotypical bandido from whom the hero rescues a pretty white girl -- she's also from a "good" family -- but the illegal operation is run by an Anglo American corrupt business/gangster (is there a difference between the two?) who takes over a border town, and brings in Mexicans to do the heavy lifting and thug-work

As it’s explained to Rex: “It’s a teeny little place, as you can see, but there’s something funny about it. Awful lot o’ spigs here, and hardly a single negro. Pretty rough sort of gang o’ whites and about half of ‘em don’t seem to be doing a thing to justify living.”

Like some folks here in Arizona have explained to me: “We won’t have crime if we just keep the Mexicans out.”

We still have Mexican bad guys, and all these years later, they aren’t evil geniuses. Maybe what 21st century pop culture needs is a Mexican supervillain, like Fu Manchu, who can take on the likes of James Bond and Sherlock Holmes. It would be nice if we could be feared for our diabolical brains for a change.

Ernest Hogan is back from a vacation in New Mexico. He’ll now be blogging about it, and working on the new editions of his novels, and his first short fiction collection.

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