Writers Tennessee Williams and Lucia Berlin both had Mexico in and on their minds, this enchanting land threaded through their psyches as they wrote of sex, desires, disappointments, freedom and the search for redemption.
I thought of these themes of humanity after tracking down and reading Williams’ 1948 short story, “The Night of the Iguana,” and Berlin’s title tale from a collection of short stories, “Evening in Paradise.”
It’s fun to read literature that’s connected to our terreno propio, home turf. It’s a way of sharing our learned experiences, and at the same time, being surprised by the lived knowledge of others for places we thought we knew.
Williams and his story are well known. One of the most acclaimed authors and Pulitzer-winning playwrights of the American 20th century, his titles roll off the tongue – “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and “The Glass Menagerie” quickly come to mind.
Williams’ 1948 iguana short story carries the same themes as the play and movie – yearning, sexual desire, sexual repression, loss, alienation, and desperation for redemption and freedom.
But it takes place not in Puerto Vallarta, or the nearby reaches of Mismaloya, as in the 1964 movie, but in Acapulco.
There is no defrocked priest seeking solace and redemption, a role instead laced through two writers, one young, the other middle-aged. And there is no illicit Lolita, but instead, a confused, yearning and frenetic woman barreling toward middle age. But in all iterations – the short story, the play, and the movie – the captured and then tied-up iguana represents suffering and the desperation to “get away.”
“The Night of the Iguana,” is, of course, vital to the Vallarta we know today, as it is through a set of fortuitous circumstances involving a cast of characters, Mexican and American, that came to put it on the map.
Much lesser known is the literary mark of Lucia (pronounced Lu-see-a) Berlin.
Unlike Williams’, who was both celebrated and derided much of his life, Berlin seems to have achieved acclaim only in death.
But she had a lived understanding of Mexico and Vallarta and nearby reaches, including Yelapa, where she also lived at one time. (See “La Barca de la Ilusión.”)
The title tale of the collection takes place over one night in Vallarta during the filming of John Houston’s “The Night of the Iguana.”
The story is told through Hernán, who at the start of the story is 12, a street urchin raking beaches and shining shoes but who catches a break when a rich man starts construction on the Oceano hotel and hires him to run errands.
Hernán’s memories quickly take the reader to the present – he graduates from errand boy to kitchen worker to apprentice barkeep to the regular bartender to bar owner.
The story then slows, and Hernán recounts the surreal scene unfolding in his bar as a townie’s attempt at seducing Ava Gardner, who in the movie plays the sexpot owner of Costa Verde Hotel, goes horribly awry.
Tony, the townie, laments: “And there she is. Ava, warm in the flesh, looking into my eyes with those green ones I KNOW. My dick disappeared. It went to Tijuana, my balls took off for Ohio.”
Meanwhile, as this drama unfolds, Hernán playfully flirts with Elizabeth Taylor: “Liz blew a kiss to Hernán…She was cussing away. Hernán liked her; she was warm and bawdy.”
Warm and bawdy. A good way to describe both La Liz and Vallarta. Berlin and Williams both knew of what – and where — they wrote.