The hotel-balcony striptease is a not uncommon occurrence along San Antonio’s fabled Riverwalk. Friends with lofts overlooking the seductive tree-lined waterway report disrobed amblings out into the upper-story sun and passionate embraces leading to the rapid shedding of clothes and inhibitions in full (frontal) view of observers below. I myself, tilting back a cold one at a riverside café, have looked up and been transfixed by a couple turning sex into a performance, their steamy movements perfectly framed in the plate-glass before which they writhed.
Such San Antonio secrets earn their fictional debut in Milagro Lane, Jay Brandon’s telenovelaesque tell-all and sly riff on the Alamo City at large.
Protagonist Gabe Grohman has drifted through life, cosseted by his family’s robust wealth and lofty status. He walks through the world, but sees little of it. So he’s startled one night to watch as a bare-chested young man steps out on a Marriott Hotel balcony. A “woman joined [him] and leaned on his shoulder. The two laughed. One could say with confidence that the woman wore nothing but a towel, when it dropped to the balcony floor.” Observing Gabe’s bafflement, a nearby dog-walker asks archly: “Surely you knew this is the best spot for seeing naked people? How long have you lived downtown?” Gabe was left “with a sudden sense of his own self-absorption.” This 24-year-old, we understand, is about to come of age.
Crucial to Gabe’s maturation will be his efforts to unravel his father’s mysterious death in an automobile accident. Jerry Grohman had been a “reckless youth” before settling down as “a civic leader with certain wayward tendencies—a sort of leaning pillar of the community.”
Was this vital man’s death accidental? Central to Gabe’s inquiry is the alluring Estela Valenzuela. Her precise relationship to the now-dead elder Grohman, and her potential love match with the increasingly alert younger Grohman, drives the novel’s narrative from the first page, when Estela shows up at Jerry’s funeral in an eye-popping maroon dress. “She could have been taken for an apparition, a spirit of meditation.” That’s when the book takes off.
Milagro Lane did not begin life between two covers. It was the inspired idea of Bob Rivard, editor of the San Antonio Express-News, who proposed publishing a weekly serial that would weave current events and local lore into a good yarn. Rivard found a willing accomplice in Jay Brandon. By day, Brandon has practiced law in the Bexar County district attorney’s office and before the Fourth Court of Appeals. By night, he’s written a baker’s dozen of legal thrillers all set in San Antonio. He knows where the bodies are buried, and he knows how to bring them to life.
Among those resurrected in Milagro Lane is Jerry Grohman, who “found being dead deadly boring.” He flits in and out of scenes commenting on their import, a ghostly presence and Greek chorus of one. This clever bit of magical realism both orients and disorients readers. Caveat lector: red herrings abound!
Another spectral force is a missing cache of documents that may prove the Grohmans’ deep pockets depended on an ancient fraud. How had the clan’s progenitors laid claim to the land they have been quarrying since the mid-19th century? As Gabe and Estela search for the truth of the matter and that truth’s relationship to Jerry’s unresolved demise, they’re thrown first together and then for a loop. Sparks fly and are quickly banked when—spoiler alert!—they begin to suspect they may be brother and sister (Jerry, it seems, got around).
The couple’s investigation of the family tree and its moneyed roots is fraught with less genetic risks as well. Most potent are those posed by a couple of shakedown artists, one of whom is helpfully named Diablo. These shady characters calculate that the Grohmans’ fear of exposure (over the possible ancestral con) will force them to sell their business operations for a fraction of their worth. Digging into the rocky past and exposing the fault lines of a family that “preferred to have no public life at all,” Estela and Gabe discover, can be a deadly business.
Oh, but for those of us just along for the ride, the quest is such good fun. Nicely plotted and smartly paced, Milagro Lane is presented as a series of quick, inter-cutting episodes, a happy consequence of the story’s newspaper origins. Brandon’s wry commentary on the community’s civic affairs is equally deft. The lackadaisical style of a certain San Antonio mayor (call him Howard Peak) gets roasted when his (fictional) successor, on the job for only a week, is found to be “already breathing more fire than her predecessor had in four years.”
The nonfunctioning city council is satirized through the triumphant election of a member later shown to be a figment dreamed up by “his” fully functioning and well-paid staff. Need a how-to guide for corrupting down-home politicians? Check out Chapter Three, which lays out the process step-by-step, based on a true-life incident that former Express-News columnist Rick Casey unearthed but could not report at the time. (“Only the names were changed, to protect the guilty,” Casey, now at the Houston Chronicle, winks in his foreword.)
More innocent cameos are turned in by award-winning architect Ted Flato, Father David Garcia (who expresses good-natured exasperation whenever Estela seeks absolution for sins she’s yet to commit) and genial long-serving City Manager Alex Briseño.
Local landmark edifices and eateries thicken the narrative texture, as do barbs hurled at the state’s bumptious metroplexes to the city’s north and east. One character utters the word Dallas “the way all San Antonians do, like an unpleasant chore that has to be endured periodically, such as a prostate exam.” Another sneers “there are more lawyers in Houston than cockroaches.” I can hear my neighbors howling with delighted self-regard.
Will outsiders get the inside jokes and coy asides? Probably not. Regardless, Brandon has written a beguiling story of loss and recovery. People die; history is unearthed. Love evaporates then reappears in other forms. What fades away can be reclaimed through a remembrance of things lost. All you need is an animated imagination. So the once-blind Gabe confides to Estela at novel’s end: “There’s magic in disappeared places. I think I could plan a whole evening for you and me in some of those places that aren’t there anymore. I can see them so clearly.”
Contributing Writer Char Miller is the author of Deep in the Heart of San Antonio: Land and Life in South Texas. This summer he’ll be whistling Bob Wills’ “San Antonio Rose” as he leaves town after a 27-year embrace to become director of the environmental analysis program at Pomona College in Claremont, California.