Review: Lola Dances by Victor J Banis

Sometimes funny, sometimes tragic and often bawdy, Lola Dances ranges from the 1850 slums of the Bowery to the mining camps of California and Montana, to the Barbary Coast of San Francisco. Little Terry Murphy, pretty and effeminate, dreams of becoming a dancer. Raped by a drunken profligate and threatened with prison, Terry flees the Bowery and finds himself in the rugged settlement of Alder Gulch, where he stands out like a sore thumb among the camp’s macho inhabitants–until the day he puts on a dress and dances for the unsuspecting miners as beautiful Lola Valdez–and wins fame, fortune and, ultimately, love.

Review by Vashtan

I was looking forward to reading “Lola Dances” by Victor J. Banis – Banis has made an enormous impact on the genre and I’m always curious if I can subscribe to the hype surrounding an author or not. Full disclosure: I received the ebook for free from Erastes for the purpose of this review.

To come right to the point: I completely enjoyed “Lola Dances” and will check out Banis’ other works. It’s the story of Terry Murphy, an effeminate youngster, who, in the 1850ies, dreams of being a dancer. One day, Terry is raped by a powerful man and refuses to become the man’s ‘toy boy’ on the side. Instead he confronts his assailant, running the risk of imprisonment (because homosexuality is punishable and a socialite’s word counts for more than those of a street orphan).

To save Terry’s neck, his street tough brother Brian takes him away from the Bowery and joins the masses of people hoping to get rich in the Gold Rush. However, Brian turns from saviour into suppressor. Abused and exploited, Terry finds his calling when he dresses up as Lola Valdez, replacing the former entertainer in the mining camp saloon. “Lola” is a huge success, which leads Terry on a journey of fame, fortune, and, finally, love.

I was impressed with the way the setting was effortlessly fused into the story. Homosexuality, and, in Terry’s case, cross-dressing, is not something that the ultra-macho miners would have looked kindly upon, and Lola is in danger of being unmasked and possibly killed as a ‘sissy boy’. Banis portrays well the tension between Lola, whom everybody is in love with, and Terry, whose best hope is to stay under the radar and who still, due to being very very pretty and ‘feminine’, causes especially male tempers to flare.

A special emphasis is on the relationship between Terry and Lola. His female alter ego has all the qualities that Terry is lacking (or feels he lacks). She is proud, confident, mistress of her own fate, and has the inner strength to follow her way and her calling. Lola is, in Jungian terms, Terry’s anima, and together, they are whole and strong.

There are beautiful passages in the book, such as Terry’s first transformation and dance:

Something happened that had never before happened 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 tables 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,” one of them would put it later, a description that would be long remembered by many.

It lasted half a minute, that eerie silence—a full minute, longer yet. You could almost hear the seconds tick by until Lola took the satin skirt between her fingers and lifted it ever so slowly, ever so slightly, offering more flashes of scarlet petticoat and one slender ankle—even an inch or two, but no more than that, of net-clad calf.

She gave the fan a quick, sudden snap, revealing her face in full for the first time, and smiled, brightly—and there was not a man in the room who wouldn’t have sworn afterward that the smile was aimed directly and personally at him.

Pandemonium erupted. Male voices bawled like cattle in lightning, boots stomped, fists pounded on tables—so much noise that the very rafters shook and you half feared the roof might collapse, the building fall in on itself from all the noise and commotion.

Lola took a single step, rolled her shoulders. The silence fell again, as completely as before, as quickly as the noise had exploded.

I found myself eating up the pages, even though Terry isn’t really the type of character I enjoy reading about. But the blushing boy did worm his way into my heart eventually. While many of the details were well-observed, there was a definite feel that this is a pulp novel – painted in often stark colours with a wide brush and energetic strokes. I liked the passages best when Banis showed that he masters the finer lines and takes the time developing his characters.

Overall, I enjoyed this sometimes pulp-ish coming-of-age story of a crossdressing character who bounces back from adversity and finds a hidden strength that nobody thought he/she possessed. I’m catching myself thinking this could actually make a pretty good film, too.

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4 Responses

  1. Great review. I loved this one. 🙂

  2. Thanks. It totally won me over, and that’s not easy to do. 🙂

  3. I haven’t read Lola Dances yet, but I will. It’s in my pile. Very well written review.

    I hope you will read Victor’s memoirs, Spine Intact, Some Creases. Talk about LGBT history — he helped make it. I wish everybody who’s interested in LGBT literature and/or history–or just a fascinating life — would read it.

    • Dear Ruth,

      thank you very much for the comment – I checked out your reviews and enjoyed them very much (thanks for cross-posting them to your LJ , too).

      I just ordered both “Spine Intact” and, while I was at it, “The Phoenix”. Look forward to reading them. 🙂

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