The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread. ~Mother Teresa
Have you ever read a story that, as you progressed into it, you grew deeply attached to a character because your recognized yourself in them? The character could not surprise you because you knew them so intimately that you could predict every move, every tear, every smile, every pain. Some kinetic connection endeared the character to you, making it impossible to separate the fictional soul from reality.
I’m struggling to describe the impact made by my newest—and by far most unconventional—favorite hero. Little Terry Murphy from Victor J. Banis’ Lola Dances. Or, as readers will also come to know and love him—his other persona, dancer Lola Valdez.
I first met Terry Murphy in an area that’s iconic in American history—the brawling, sprawling, gritty bowels of early New York’s Bowery.
He’s a small, feminine, timid, spectacles-wearing aspiring dancer. And he’s beautiful with a dancer’s figure, longer than fashionable dark curls, big does’ eyes.
Young Terry attracts a good deal of unwelcome attention from other men with his dark, fragile appearance, and his commute by foot from his dwelling to the dance studio where he practices is much like Red Riding Hood traversing through a forest of leering wolves.
Terry befriends a charismatic red-headed, emerald-eyed young Irishman named Tom Finnegan. An ‘almost’ encounter with Finnegan stirs mixed feelings in Terry’s gut. Attraction—or is it simply the warmth and beauty of his new friend’s protectiveness? Is it merely the craving of a gentle touch, someone who truly SEES the little hero as a human, as a friend? Terry senses there is an attraction from Tom as well, but doesn’t act on the bewildering feelings—both emotional and physical—that stir inside him.
Terry’s delicate beauty does prove irresistible to a rich admirer who forms an obsession with young dancer and who rapes the shy boy. As always, I won’t go into the story much, only enough to say that this atrocity against our hero causes his brother Brian to pick up roots and move out west with Terry to a mining settlement—to seek anonymity as well as a fortune in gold dust.
Here, in Alder Gulch, little Terry Murphy’s life takes an interesting turn—a turn that brings him full circle, right into the big fat middle of himself.
First of all—and I would not dare to spoil the story by divulging the character’s identity—Terry finds himself, snowed in during the bitter winter snows—giving himself sexually to an extremely unlikely bed partner. The partner, a virile, rugged, extreme homophobic, rationalizes that the unavoidable circumstances—and the fact that women are a scarcity in Alder Gulch—
naturally make it necessary to use little Terry sexually to satisfy a very lusty libido.
The shocker, though? All right, I already identified with Terry Murphy from the beginning of the book. Shy. Outsider. Dreamer. Wanting something unattainable, but never really knowing WHAT that something was.
But what touched me was Terry’s willingness—his almost pitiful willingness—to succumb to his unusual bed partner, somehow finding in bits and pieces through this arrangement that the ‘missing’ thing was nothing more than to be needed.
Beautiful little Terry even began to convince himself that this odd sexual situation was a sort of love. If he gave himself unselfishly to this person who needed him so, somehow this was love in one of its forms. He was content with this, and—even at this point in the story—he began to draw confidence from this, from this illusion of intimacy that came with this partnering.
During this most unusual relationship, Terry meets a young miner, Josh Simmons, who is the most handsome man our hero has ever seen. Terry is immediately in love. Head over heels. Infatuated. Obsessed?
Driven by this powerful attraction, by some overwhelming need, Terry stalks Simmons and one night, in the privacy of the dark, surprises the gorgeous miner with a sexual offering.
Again, during this encounter, we get a deep glimpse into Terry’s eagerness to show love the only way he knows how—with his body. And the odd beauty of it all is that we SEE this sacrifice through Terry’s affection-starved vision. We UNDERSTAND his hunger for love and it seems so very logical.
And we, or this reader anyway, saw with raw clarity that Terry is not so different from most of us. It’s a painful revelation to recognize the neediness, but it’s also liberating to realize that this craving for affection is normal.
Through a set of circumstances, Terry is thrown into a situation which ultimately turns out to be his human, emotional breakthrough. He replaces a female dancer in saloon—makeup, dress, the whole nine yards—and is transformed into the stunning, sensual, spicy dancer Lola Valdez. He is an instant success.
And this, his transformation, is where I fall hopelessly, madly in love with—oh, damn, yes, I have to admit it—the woman, Lola, right along with every miner in Alder Gulch.
That’s all I’ll tell you about the story details.
The story IS Lola. It IS Terry Murphy. I love them both equally. I’m attracted to them both equally. I relate to them both equally. They are me. They are every man, every woman.
My heart soared, my heart ached—but in a delirious, happy way—when Lola danced on the stage, when love-drunk miners threw money at her feet. My gut wrenched with beautiful spasms when Lola Valdez—or Terry Murphy?—realized how it felt to be loved, to be wanted, to be needed.
If you’re one who’s never felt, even for a moment, the need to be accepted, to be loved, you will not ‘get’ this story. If you ARE, you will close its pages at ‘the end’ and you’ll sigh, and you’ll cry, and you’ll feel comfort knowing that it is all right to WANT to be needed. That it’s not selfish to want that attention, that it’s just a basic part of our human make-up and is, in fact, essential.
If you ever thought there was no such thing at love at first sight, you’ll know through Terry Murphy’s eyes that you are wrong. Whether that love lasts is another matter, but you will believe it does happen.
The most important BEAUTY that I gleaned from this book was that—and it’s admitting what most think is a human frailty, but I wonder now—that maybe it’s not so wrong to offer ourselves emotionally and sexually without asking anything in return. In this modern age, the philosophy for our own empowerment seems to be that we must NOT submit ourselves so, that it is demeaning, that sex must always be equal. Sometimes, in that need to fulfill our own emptiness, we do just that—we do NOT ask for reciprocation. We just take what we are offered and make do. While it may not be the best for our self-esteem, it may not be the best at all…it still doesn’t make us WRONG to do so. I learned that from Terry Murphy.
I learned a lot from Terry and Lola. But one thing, for sure, was that what our hearts dictate can’t really be compartmentalized into right or wrong. It just is what it is.
Victor Banis said: Yes, I've always loved little Terry. When I wrote the transformation scene, when he first danced for the miners, I was bawling like a baby, and I still can't read it without tearing up. That longing for love - don't we all know how that feels?
His beautiful words conveyed his emotions vividly, maybe almost too vividly. Because what he felt, the power of the feelings HE felt while creating these memorable characters were universal. The sadness, joy, love and beauty he felt are the core of life that we all have in common…as he said, the longing for love.
While a painful though intriguing journey Terry endured, I still closed the book with a smile. Because his pain was NOT in vain. He found love.
The book can be purchased through MLR Press:
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