When I began writing my last novel — about a young woman playing trumpet in the male-dominated world of jazz — I wondered whether I, a man, could create an authentic and memorable female protagonist. For inspiration I read James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk and Nick Hornby’s How to Be Good. I wish I’d also been able to read Damian McNicholl’s The Moment of Truth.
This tale of Kathleen Boyd daring to become a bullfighter in Mexico in the 1950s delivers many moments of truth — the emotional truth of Kathleen’s coming of age against her narrow options, the political truth about the price she pays for challenging convention, and the literary truth of a character who transcends the time and place and circumstances of her story.
From the novel’s opening scene Kathleen demands more — from the provincial chauvinism of her native Texas and from the entrenched machismo of her adopted home south of the border. Ultimately she demands still more from the misogynistic culture of matadors which she manages, ultimately — remarkably — to join.
Damian McNicholl takes us inside the fascinating world of bullfighting and renders it with remarkable sensitivity and insight. He shows us the rituals and idiosyncrasies, grotesque and beautiful, empowering and terrifying; the distended pride of insecure men but also their passion and courage and hidden vulnerabilities. And we learn it all through the keen eyes of Kathleen—including the almost fetishistic relationship between bullfighter and bull. It is, as she eventually puts it, precisely because she loves the animal that she must kill it in order to give it an honorable death.
Of course, Kathleen takes great risks. She gives up the safe life guaranteed to her by a steady banker who proposes marriage and then puts her life on the line against the charging bulls. She loses her innocence and nearly loses her life—and witnesses others paying that ultimate price. For Kathleen the risk gives meaning to her life. For Fermin, her Maestro, Kathleen’s success gives meaning to his life and obscures his failures as a bullfighter, a husband, and a man. He’s as stubborn as the bulls he’s training her to fight. He’s strong and smart and his mercurial nature, his selfishness and self-centeredness and all his other weaknesses and imperfections help Kathleen come to terms with the disappointing revelations about the father she lost as a girl.
The Moment of Truth is a love story — on many levels. Kathleen and her maestro, Kathleen and her lover, Kathleen and the bulls, Kathleen and herself — a naïve art student who traded in paint brushes for the artistry of the cape. These intersecting love stories are, at once, larger than life and hauntingly intimate.
Truth is a coming of age story, not only for Kathleen but for any 20th Century woman who ever had to prove herself over and over again just to get an opportunity that a man might have as his birthright — and then still have to stay one step ahead of disaster.
Above all, The Moment of Truth is just a really good story — fast-paced, suspenseful, authentic and inspiring, beautifully told and full of memorable characters. As I neared the final page, I kept wondering where McNicholl was going to take things and leave them. I actually worried — what could he possibly do to bring this to a satisfying end? It is the same feeling I had reading The Grapes of Wrath for the first time. All the flooding and misery — and then what? How could it be about anything more than their misery? And, of course, Steinbeck makes it about so much more; he executes one of the great endings — the perfect ending, really. So, I think, does Damian McNicholl. Simple and powerful. Kathleen becomes the bull. She hasn’t just loved and respected and fought and killed them. She’s internalized their beauty and power and as such has become the woman she was always meant to be.