- Robert L. Giron
Updated: Feb 11
In this issue features
artwork by Bette Ridgeway,
nonfiction by Colin Dodds,
an interview with John Domini, and
fiction by Gerald Lynch
Copyright © 2021 by Bette Ridgeway.
About the Artist
In her four decade career, Bette Ridgeway has exhibited her work globally with over 80 museums, universities and galleries, including: Palais Royale, Paris, Embassy of Madagascar, Kobiashi Gallery, Tokyo and London Art Biennale.
Prestigious awards include Top 60 Contemporary Masters, Leonardo DaVinci Prize, Rome, Sandro Botticelli Prize, Museum of Florence, Italy and the Oxford University Alumni Prize at the Chianciano Art Museum, Tuscany, Italy.
Storm Over the Valley
Copyright © 2021 by Bette Ridgeway.
In addition to countless important private collections, Mayo Clinic, University of Northwestern and Federal Reserve Bank are amongst Ridgeway’s permanent public placements.
Her work has been highlighted in many books and publications, among them: International Contemporary Masters 2010, 100 Artists of the Southwest, Masters of Today and 100 Famous Contemporary Artists. Ridgeway has penned several publications about art and process including Talent is Just the Beginning – An Artist’s Guide to Marketing in the 21st Century, Layering Light and Layering Light on Metal.
Copyright © 2021 by Bette Ridgeway.
About the Author
Colin Dodds is a writer with several books to his name, including the Kirkus-starred Ms. Never. He’s made his living as a copywriter, editor and video producer, working with some of the biggest financial, media and technology companies on the planet, including Time Inc., The New York Times, Facebook, and The New York Stock Exchange. Dodds’ essays, fiction and poetry have appeared in The Washington Post and more than three hundred other publications, and been praised by luminaries such as David Berman and Norman Mailer. His poetry collection Spokes of an Uneven Wheel was published by Main Street Rag Publishing Company in 2018, and his short films have screened at festivals around the globe. Dodds also co-created a first-of-its-kind literary and philosophical experience called Forget This Good Thing I Just Said, which is featured here and available on iPhone and iPad by accessing it via the above QR Reader code. He lives in New York City, with his wife and children. You can find more of his work at thecolindodds.com.
Interview with John Domini [JD] author of The Archeology of a Good Ragù: Discovering Naples, My Father, & Myself ( Guernica World Editions, 2021) and Robert L. Giron (RLG).
John, with 10 previous books under your belt, what drove you to write a memoir? The Archeology of a Good Ragù: Discovering Naples, My Father, & Myself— that’s a clever title, but can we get into its impetus?
You know better than most how long Naples has been on my mind. More than a decade ago, Gival Press published the second novel in my Neapolitan trilogy, A Tomb on the Periphery. Now, having such fiction in gestation set me gathering all sorts of facts, naturally, learning what I could about the ancient Mediterranean seaport. It’s a fascinating urban hive, the more so for its many challenges, and whatever I was researching, my first resource was always my family. My father grew to manhood in the city, emigrating just after World War II. He had a good handful of reasons for leaving, in particular the war itself, the horrors of which remained with him—and went largely unspoken for the rest of his life. Uncovering his secrets, his hardships, looks to me now like what most prompted me to work up a memoir.
Was it more difficult or easier to write than fiction, if so why or why not? What made it more difficult or easier?
More or less difficult, hm, I’m not sure I can say. Doing this Archeology, the greatest challenge lay in what I suggested above, the need to create a story shape for this amorphous heap of rich Neapolitan material. I was forever struggling to find the right placement for some fascinating detail, some revealing conversation. In the epilog, in fact, I list a couple of things for which I never found room, like the city’s astonishing trove of popular songs. Still, I’m at a loss when it comes to gauging which was harder work, composing my non-fiction or my fiction. Writing always taxes the brain and spirit—even answering interview questions.
What process did you use to organize the book?
Now, here’s a subject on which I can be more articulate. Ultimately the memoir settled into a dialog between my father’s leaving town and my repeated returns, a conversation itself divided into three arenas of a person’s spiritual growth. The running comparison between my father as a young man and me in middle age provides a kind of plot, twinned stories of attaining selfhood or wholeness, and then within those stories I could create chapters, separate meditations on intimacy, morality, and mortality. Those three labels are only shorthand, to be sure; each of the subjects demanded a complex thinking-through that took me, oh, 80 pages or more. Indeed, my whole arrangement can seem like a stopgap solution, slapped into place by a writer at wit’s end. Still, it gave me a handle on both the problems I’ve mentioned: both uncovering family secrets and containing the sprawl of Naples.
Did you start with an idea or scene? What chapter or event would you say nails the focus of your memoir?
As I say, my Neapolitan fact-finding and deep dreaming went on for years, decades, and yet early in the process, perhaps back in the ‘90s, I had the opening chapter. A good deal of it, at least, though at that point I didn’t even know I had a book. The structure I outlined above was still no more than a gleam in my eye. Nevertheless, I knew I ought to begin in media urbs, in the middle of the city, and on foot. I had to capture the sensory pandemonium of Spaccanapoli, a steep challenge, an embodiment of what Italo Calvino called, in his Six Memos…, the essential “multiplicity” of literature. So I gave it a go, and my opening walkabout took me eventually to the city’s building blocks, the Greek stones three thousand years old, the same ending I have now for my Part One. An early draft even saw print, in the generous quarterly Zone 3—not that I was fooled by seeing the thing on the page. I couldn’t kid myself about the shapelessness of whatever might follow my brooding over those time-greened stones. Many times, many, I found myself once again pounding those city-center streets, until I’d finally located all the nooks and crannies at which I could pause and point out the direction in which our entire larger hike was headed.
Did you consult with family members? Were they supportive? Memoir writing can be tricky.
JD: My very title suggests the family, doesn’t it? A family recipe? That said, there’s no denying that some of my information came via other sources. Visit after visit, I read the papers, conducted interviews, and otherwise worked through the curriculum for Journalism 101. Certainly that curriculum proved essential in order to comprehend the situation for thousands (and thousands) of refugees out of Africa and the Middle East. Nonetheless, just as you say, a lot of my digging was tricky, an archeology conducted with teaspoons and tweezers. My father’s relationship to his city made for a volatile mix, part pride and part disgust, and though he introduced all three of his kids to Naples when we were young, my real learning came decades later and on my own, as part of my own weird way out of mid-life collapse. That’s the core narrative again, my voyage in illuminated by coming to know my father’s flight out, and in many cases the only way to know the truth, or most of it, was by talking with family—carefully. Issues like the Camorra and its pressures, or the traumas of fighting the Nazis, these required the tweezers. Even now, I feel I can’t allow the book to appear in Italian except anonymously, and even then I’d have to invent some substitute for my Italian family name. I don’t want anyone to get hurt.
Did you find that you needed to leave certain events/characters out of the book?
The answer in this case stands out plainly, I’d say. My story addresses the turmoil of middle age, and intrinsic to the discombobulation is a divorce, and yet the text offers few details of the breakup. One partner punching a wall, another spitting insults… there’s none of that. Hardly a hint about our intimate life, either. I do make clear I never had “a whore in a hotel room,” but I don’t speculate about my former partner. She spends most of the book offstage, though she’s one of my quandary’s principal drivers. Could you call that a flaw? Okay, sure—but I’d argue otherwise. I’d point out, in the first place, that I put the marriage’s central defect in plain English. I admit that we were fundamentally wrong for each other, with very different notions of the good life, and I spell out an example or two. In the second place, the book’s whole purpose lies elsewhere. Its defining events either long predate the marriage or come years after. My ex got to Naples just once, for just a couple of days, and she never had a hand in the serious archeology. Even the way I dismiss the question of cheating in the marriage, the line about the hotel room, is an expression that echoes, deliberately, the experience of my father, back in his younger days, in his native city.
Some say that creative non-fiction depends on doctoring the truth. Does your memoir? Would you characterize it as “creative nonfiction,” at all?
Man, these are excellent questions, going to the essential nature of my project. Fact is, they’re the sort of questions for which any answer must be partial. That said, I’d again point to the highest hurdle I needed to clear, in creating my Archeology, namely, the problem of carving a shape out of this vast and spreading lava flow, bubbling up out of the unstable tectonics of Southern Italy. Regarding that raw material, I strove for accuracy. I described what I experienced, down to the gestures and expletives. As for larger issues, the history and sociology and such, those facts can all be checked. My task, however, remained a storyteller’s. I had a whole universe of sheer stuff, but finally, funny enough, the story in it was my own, my revival and renewal. Seen that way, the twenty-year process of pulling the book together suggests a fable. Our picaro sets out after glory or grace, and he encounters monsters and thrills, yet at journey’s end he finds that glory and grace lie within, in the betterment his adventures have wrought. A lovely fable, if so, and the kind of thing you hear in Naples, some going back to the days of Ovid. Now, in Ovid’s case, I’d say the “truth” of the story depends in part on how you view his uproarious universe, his changeable creatures; in his time, after all, they were all figures in the ruling religion. But the story that Ovid works up with those creatures, and that religion—that’s creative.
Was it difficult to find a publisher for your book? What advice would you have for someone who is contemplating writing a memoir?
The memoir is bankable, they say, but myself, I’ve never managed to open an account. This book proved as rugged a wrangle, getting to print, as any of the fiction. I had an agent for an earlier go at the material, and frankly, I’m glad that MS never got anywhere. Later, after the story had reached something close to its final shape, I found representation again, but this round of submissions too came up empty, and in the rare case when the publisher offered any reason, it had to do with the market. They couldn’t see a readership. This when my Archeology gets into the guerrilla war against the Nazis, the brute logic of the Camorra, the desperation of African refugees, and on top of that sketches a spiritual journey that anyone can understand. I mean, I’ve even got Elena Ferrante in there. There’s no explaining the publishers’ reluctance, honestly, but then I don’t much like whining, either. Suffice to say that I wound up selling the book on my own and that the response has been gratifying—I’ve loved this interview, I must say. With that in mind, my primary advice for anyone trying a memoir would be a timeless old saw: stay true to yourself. Find titles that seem to share your impulses, the books that move you most, and then strive to add your own construct to that library. In the end, that’s the “bank” that matters.
Thank you, John, for giving us an intriguing look into your life and the interwoven complexity of Naples and its laminae of people.
Excerpt from: The Archeology of a Good Ragù
I did experience a cross-generational synchronicity with my father’s war experience. My own can’t begin to match his, it left no such deep scars, but given my family’s receptivity to the Spirit, the Divine—it’s even in the name, Vicedomini, “helper to the Lord”—but nonetheless there’s an overlap between us, one in which my relatives might see God’s hand. I did learn of the 9/11 attacks in a Naples convent.
September, again. One of the sisters pulled me into her office. On a pint-sized black-&-white, the antenna began to suggest the Twin Towers. Didn’t they look likewise easy to snap, those Towers? The devastation unfolded before us, gathering in the small room, now three, now eight. Often the only sound, with the TV on mute during work hours, was a woman praying the rosary. This was in Santa Chiara, Clarisse, still staffed by members of the order if no longer a convent. The church stands along Spaccanapoli, a landmark really, in its way as prominent as the Towers. Out back, you might almost be in Camaldoli. The gar- den cloister, bordered by cooling galleries, startles a newcomer with how it subdues the roar and hustle of downtown. All at once you’re in the Peaceable Kingdom, the greenery almost bonsai, the majolica everywhere and painted with bucolic 18th-century scenes. I never tire of playing the tour guide, and on that after-noon in ’01, I was speaking American English with some visitor. The nun who took my arm may even have heard me say “New York.” Together we spent, I don’t know, almost an hour with the news. When I had to back away, I did manage to thank the Chiara sister, but only the power of her look, commiserating, penetrating, brought me out of my shock enough to notice she was dark, perhaps Egyptian, perhaps Syrian. She might have been a refugee. And my friends in lower Manhattan, friends and relatives and, for that matter, the whole city? I wound up in the sanctuary, in a pew. Between prayers, I’d lift my eyes to the 14th-century vaults, barren and gray. At one time the church’s tall interior had been a show-case, smothered with painted majolica of its own, here Gothic and there Baroque. The ornamentation couldn’t survive summer ’43, when a blockbuster hit left fires burning out of control for days. Many died, including clergy.
Myself, in ’01, I remained lucky. Lucky or blessed, I lost no one in Bin Laden’s attacks. Still, that afternoon in a Naples church, in shocked communion with other, older killing rains—it takes me to rest of my father’s story….
Copyright © 2021 by John Domini. Reprinted by permission by the publisher Guernica World Editions and the author.
About the Author
John Domini's exploration of the place—little known to North Americans, yet rich in culture and challenge—draws on decades of research, living with local friends and family. His work has appeared previously in the New York Times and elsewhere, and he's published award-winning Neapolitan novels.
Chapter One: Leave Taken
From the novel-in-progress/looking for a publisher
“Excuse me, sir, but can you direct me to the Faculty of Arts, please?”
She’d known her mistake as it was spoken, didn’t need his scrunched face like he’d whiffed a dump of sheep shit. It was her father’s fault! … No, she didn’t need any of it. She was dead tired already, from leaving home, which had been way more brutal than her worst imagining, then from the too-short train ride from Leitrim Falls to Ottawa which, though in an empty car, had crowded her still with its sweaty-sock smell, and then from the light-rail to the uBytown campus, and then from the long-haul walk in what was probably the wrong direction.
The campus had felt ghost-town abandoned—a tumble weed could tumble by unremarked, a zombie could stagger from the shadows—no suggestion of the bustling kids her own age she’d envisioned, mature and studiously playful young adults, unlike the jackasses she’d suffered for the past year (not Jimmy, not Naomi). She’d felt cowed galumphing among the big buildings, which were all greenish glass and steel, already cold-shouldering her. Or it felt as if she were inside a bottle, displayed for alien eyes, exposed, like waiting for the dreaded examination in Dr. McKenzie’s swank new office. At least here there was no medicinal smell to sicken at. In fact—she’d sniffed twice—no smell at all. … Loss of smell had been an early symptom of the first Covid! Could the evergreens be fake?
She had finally spotted some kids. They were doing the same old thing as the stoner crowd at high school: here a Black boy and a white girl sitting in lotus and facing each other closely under a cedar tree’s protective branches, passing a joint, which she could smell, strong even in the open air. There was only one Black family in Leitrim Falls. The guy leaned in and picked something off the girl’s lip. Cute. She missed Jimmy something awful. She’d never liked the odour of marijuana, hadn’t enjoyed the times she’d smoked with Naomi; stoned she was even more self-conscious, overly sensitive to remarks, then just too anxious. And it made her think of the Canopy Growth operation, and so of Dad having to work there. Only oldsters carried on about how they just loved the smell of weed, puffing up their ’60s cred against old age (never Dad). Who could really like the smell of that skunky shit? Forget what it did to your head. Who’d ever have thought she’d miss the chicken coop?
And now to confront this tight-suited doofus with the gelled-up do. Mistake. But he carried nothing, so he might know something. Was he checking her out? Hey, buddy, I’m up here. She turned sideways. Felt her cheeks prickle warmly, blushing, damn. So she looked at her feet and ordered them to walk past him giving wide berth.
Time was still close enough to Plague that Dean Jacques LaRoque could dismiss as habit a female student’s distancing swerve past him. Although she did have the look of a girl wanting to hurry away and hide herself. Whatevs (as the kids say … or did they still?). He wasn’t offended, because Dean LaRoque could connect with most any student when he chose to. He’d personally had a hand in bringing Nickleback to Frosh Week five years before and had introduced them to a mostly cheering crowd under uBytown’s new Big Top (a fortune that high-tech tent had cost the Faculty’s depleted budget, an amount equal to twenty part-timers’ salaries. Yes, an expensive initial purchase, the Big Top, and costly to put up and take down every September—but the bigger bread-and-circus had been paying off in recruitment p-r! … Sort of). With this obvious freshman (is that correct for a female student? He would have to investigate, or get Martine to do so), the glimpse of her face he’d caught was enough to encourage him. He was briefly worried about the snap of his “the what?” response to her ignorant question. But they had been the Faculty of Digital Humanities for years now (the updating his doing).
She’d also jolted him out of pondering the fate of the Department of Music’s old building (some forty years old already), where he’d paused. He’d not been musing again on whether Music should be incorporated into Communications, or even terminated (did it have a place in the twenty-first-century university?), but wondering when he could safely begin a campaign to have the old girl demolished and replaced. And not because he didn’t appreciate antique architectures either (he believed he did), but because the brown brick clashed in his mission to make uBytown’s buildings uniform in an impressive steel-and-glass (silver and aquamarine). Clashed? It crashed, aesthetically speaking, like some Titanic berg, with those buildings whose erection he’d been overseeing for a good decade now. Still, he continued worried that there’d been a sharpness in his voice that might account for the lovely young lady’s controlled scampering, so he called after her:
“I’m sorry, young lady! Yes, but you startled me out of a reverie.”
She halted, still with face down as though regretting the shoes she’d worn: pink and white runners, ankle-high, with bottom of jean legs tucked under the fat tongues like they’d casually got stuck there. The shoes would have cost her dad a fortune, but he’d found out about the retro-fashion for high-tops (from Jimmy of all people!) and paid her protests no mind, her weakening insistence that the shoes be returned to the pricey Graham’s Footwear. She’d had her eye on a low-cut black pair at the new WalMart out on highway fifteen. Dad had smiled as her resistance to the shoes weakened, and she smiled back because of his proud pleasure in finding them, and for their connection to Jimmy. Now she continued staring down as if seeking direction from Dad and Jimmy via the pricey runners. Where do I go? What am I doing here?
Dean LaRoque coughed into his right fist. “You wrong-footed me with your perfectly reasonable question. But we’ve not called our Digital Humanities sector the Faculty of Arts in over five years now, which was five years after I arrived here from Waterloo U, in fact. Are you an international student by any chance? Let me venture a guess: Wales? New Zealand? … I reference them only because we’ve had a welcome influx from there, perfectly lovely countries with a deep appreciation for tradition.”
She seemed to address her own body: “I’m from Leitrim Falls. I’m not from anywhere else.”
What an odd answer! But a small-town girl, if one got up like an ad aimed at “today’s youth”; maybe even a farm girl, certainly rural. All right then. Should he casually mention his relationship with Nickleback?
He closed the distance between them in two steps. She flinched and slid away half a stride. With his right arm extended and ending in slightly splayed fingers as if weakly pleading, he said, “You have no cause for anxiety on this campus, young lady, thanks to a campaign I myself initiated against sexual harassment in any form, if I may say so in all humility.” He brought the right hand to his breastbone and tipped his head. “Are you registered for a residence?”
What did he say? She darted her eyes at him and returned to looking down at herself. Should she be worried? Dad had schooled her in the sorts of approaches she might encounter. (Cute, Dad.) How could she be missing him so badly already? Anyway, this guy did sound like he’d know something, and her collarbone was hurting. She unslung the bulging backpack and set it beside her pale-blue suitcase. She massaged her left shoulder (books were like bricks) and, still without looking at him, answered:
“Joseph Brant Residence, my dad read that it was highest rated for safety and cleanliness.” Idiot, you. Control your nervousness. Thank him and walk away.
He couldn’t make out her face, which in profile was curtained by mid-length black hair, blue-black as a crow’s wet wing, if unkempt, likely intentionally tousled, which was a new style he’d noticed … “Bed head” it’s called, yes, though more likely it’s already a year past that coif’s fashion peak. She was thin as a child if nearly as tall as himself, perhaps as tall (unlikely), and her clothing was either the wrong size or she’d shrunk in it; but the baggy yellow-and-blue plaid shirt looked new, maybe even being worn for the first time for this momentous occasion. (Is baggy the latest thing?) The blue jeans also looked new, no fading, but hard-clad, so spacious about the thighs that they were folding, looking like they were straining to reclaim a sharp seam, stiff new blue jeans that in his day they’d called cast-iron, before a good stone-washing, intentional fading, careful tearing. He could almost smell the newness of her old-fashioned silver-grey sneakers, which excited him, the sort of runners that rose to the ankles, as likely dated as—
She’d pivoted to face him and he was knocked back. Her smile was likely put-on, if no less lovely for that, but that face would have been lovely had she snarled and spat at him: not too wedge-shaped, high forehead, large navy-blue eyes, cheek-bones like inverted commas distinguishing a perfect perky female nose, skin so pale it was radiant (so not a weather-beaten farm girl?), and again those eyes as blue as … as blue as blue to the power of two could be, like dark azure sea reflecting … well, an untroubled azure sky. Whatever, a breathtaking beauty that fairly took his breath away. So he took an extra moment, he had to. His next move could prove determinant.
She nodded, “Thank you” (for nothing). She picked up the black backpack, slung it, then extended the handle of her suitcase like a lady popping her parasol. “I’m sorry to have startled you and taken up your valuable time.”
He patted the air with both hands: “Not at all, not at all, my dear. Coincidentally—your luck—I am Dean Jacques LaRoque of the Faculty of Digital Humanities. I was just out for a pre-lunch stroll and,” he winked (which made her jig her head backward), “to see what the start of a new term is bringing by way of fresh undergraduates who’ve chosen the in-person option over our perfected distance-learning. Not much, I see—present company excepted of course!”
He held his arms up beside his face, palms-facing, like somebody challenged to put ’em up, then steepled the hands at his chin and again bowed slightly like some monk wannabe. “I remind you that we’re still not to touch, though I’d risk shaking your hand in a uBytown welcome!” He gestured ironically with his right arm, if awkward body language can express irony. “I must say that your enthusiastic presence is an argument for the old-fashioned in-person lecturing if ever I saw one!”
She’d been enthusiastic? But she didn’t respond to any of that. He really was a doofus, and a flatterer, old guy (Dad: No one flatters but he wants something; don’t ever think that your hidden value has finally been recognized … by anyone but me, and maybe by Jimmy). “Do I need to check into the Faculty office before going to my residence? My father didn’t know.”
“No, my dear. And in my role in locus parentis, I will personally escort you to Brant Rez, as that will give my pre-lunch constitutional an even more worthwhile purpose.”
She knew some Latin, the only student in Leitrim Falls to have any. Her father had begun home-schooling her not long after her mother died three years before, and madly added Latin to the set grade-ten curriculum. And this self-important fool, more loco than fit to replace anybody other than an interior designer, could never replace Dad, never mind Mom, not in a million billion years of evolution.
“Your father also attended uBytown then?” He swept her ahead with a stagy flourish.
She knew why: he wanted to check out her ass—her bony bum! He hadn’t offered to carry either of her cases. She needed more muscle (Jimmy had promised some weight training: back in August, August twenty-third it was, the first day of all-hands-on-deck for baling). Her father never abbreviated “university” to U. She smiled at him and saw his weak chin tremble. Then saw the reason for his refusal to help with the suitcase: without a word he drew a phone from the side pocket of his suit coat, like some futuristic gunslinger, and settled over it. She’d disappeared, so she may as well.
Obliging him she moved forward the way he had signalled with his stupid ushering hands, moving at a fast pace back the way she’d come, self-consciously not wiggling, though it hardly mattered.
She fairly called back: “Dad had wanted to go to university—and he’d won scholarships—but his father made him stay on the farm.”
He hustled after. “Ah,” in that distracted way of texting addicts, “so you are a farm girl then.”
Oh shit, here it comes. “We farm near Leitrim Falls. All my life. All my father’s too. His parents immigrated from Ireland, off a small farm near a place called Oughterard in County Galway.”
“And a noble way of life it is. Backbone of the country, salt of the earth.”
She badly wanted to say Fuck you but never would out loud or publicly (except that one time to Fred Faucher at school, which was worth it, and then some). Instead she beamed up her smile, ashamed of herself: “That’s a mixed metaphor, isn’t it, Professor, something we farmers learn to avoid?” She laughed falsely in apology.
Catching up, he blinked a few times like he’d been cuffed near the crown. “Why, uh, yes it is … but intentional, I must add.” What was that? “Uh, if I may inquire, what made you choose uBytown and the in-person option? I mean, other than your obvious intelligence and good taste.” He snickered. There, that was fairly suave, returning compliment for too-cute criticism. He knew the disguised insecurities of these freshman bitches. Or is that another mixed fucking metaphor, Daisy Mae?
What on earth was he going on about now? She took a moment to comprehend his meaning, a habit (on their last night together, eight days ago, among much else memorable, Jimmy had said he loved her conversational quirk of hesitancy). “As I said, my father had always wanted to come here, even after Granda died and the responsibility of the whole farm was his. Or ours, he always insists, his and mine … after Mom died too … though the work was mostly his ’cause I was still pretty young and in regular school. He’d always wanted to attend university part-time through the winters, but we could never afford it, even after he got the life-insurance money … for Mom. He said those funds were set aside for me, untouchable.” Why oh why did she say that? Blurting private matters. Stupid. Fool. Idiot. Born eejit. “My father has a collection of Bytown University program calendars going way back; every year he’d written away for a new one. But he gave up years ago, at least for himself, when it was still called the Faculty of Arts, I guess. He used to write to your professors, and other universities’ too, and some would send him the … the syllabi for their courses, and he’d do all the reading in, like, nothing flat. He’s read everything and he, well we, have a library in our house that fills, like, two whole bedrooms.” Like like like my ass!
“Ah, you’re father’s an autodidact.”
“What? I mean, pardon? I guess so. I don’t know. He can fix just about anything.”
Not so smartee as our pants, are we, Little Ms. Mixed Metaphor? “So, in effect you are fulfilling your father’s lifelong dream for post-secondary education.”
Of, not for. Shut up, Mary. “My own dream too. I wanted out of Leitrim Falls. I didn’t want to leave the farm. Dad wouldn’t let me commute. But as far as I was concerned it came down to a toss-up among Carleton University, University of Ottawa, and Bytown University. We’re Catholics.” Stop it, Mary. Stop it right this very instant or you’re eating Kraft for lunch and dinner, every day, all week!
More discombobulated he groped: “As said, farm labour is ennobling. Did you by any chance see the recent PBS documentary on farming post-Plague? It was titled something like—he cleared his throat—Agribusiness Post-Covid. A bit dated but still well worth it.”
Such townie interest and questions always embarrassed and irritated her, and finally because she didn’t know why she had to be embarrassed and pissed off. Was it going to be the same here?
“My father would never allow a TV in the house, or hardly ever.” Shoot yourself, McGahern, right here and now! Here comes a bus—run in front of it!
Her father hated that word, agribusiness, said it wasn’t a word at all, always spat out his witty play on it: “Aggravation would be more like it.” More and more he’d become quick to anger. He’d be alone now. If he’d sold to Canopy Growth, they’d have been rich and living in town long ago, like the Collins. Quick to drink too, again, Dad, she worried.
Dean LaRoque blinked frustration. “I expect the doc is online for streaming by now, or on YouTube. Its conclusion is that in future we’d best be prepared to pay much more for our agricultural produce—”
“Or a computer, not for my father. But good point, Professor, uh, Dean: food is important.”
She glanced to see if her shot had scored. He was hopeless, full of himself and bullshit clichés. (Jimmy would have twigged to her irony; they’d learned each other’s styles which, extraordinarily, turned out to be pretty much the same). And he was checking his phone again. She relented: “And increasingly challenging to produce on a family farm, economically speaking, without sufficient acreage. Though Dad says it’s more the bigger operations are actually going bust—”
“Here we are!” He’d almost walked into one of the garnet-coloured lamp posts, which were faux Victorian street lamps and went with nothing on the campus.
Where was she? Here she’d missed her first walk through the interior campus, which she’d been imagining would be like something out of an old novel, Hardy, Welty, or someone like that. Lucky Jim? No, but she’d laughed her head off at it. Lucky Jimmy, off at Western University.
The building before her, her home for the next three months, looked like a greenhouse stood on end, more like Canopy Growth’s incongruous Leitrim Falls office than a university residence. One of its inside walls was actually covered with plant growth like some post-apocalyptic building where moss had found purchase. She forgot the word for such eco-crap architecture, but it had one … “Living Wall” or something equally stupid. She could ask Dean Doofus, who’d likely skitter his tight pants in an hour-long lecture. Or no, he now looked finished with her. … Why this anger, Mary? Control yourself (Mom).
“I’ll leave you to our competent resident administrators, then. You tell them Dean Jacques LaRoque of Digital Humanities—Dean Jay—orders them to give you the very best room available. And tell them I’ll personally be checking up on that! Though I expect there are lots of fine rooms to choose from these dire days of post-Plague absence and surplus … so to speak paradoxically!”
She could visualize the exclamation marks at the cresting end of everything he said. He turned on his considerable black heels (for a man) and, with left hand supporting right arm at the elbow, with thumb and fingers pinching tilted chin and right forefinger tap-tapping his lips like he was entertaining thoughts that would stump Northrop Frye, he stutter-stepped away, blindly, toes repeatedly catching on nothing (perhaps the forward pitch of the heels?), the shoes as shiny as a little girl’s patent-leather. The awkward walking made him wiggle a bit. He had a fat ass for such a skinny-legged geek.
He swung back as though a great thought had indeed struck him. “I know: why don’t you drop by my office for a brown-bag lunch one day later this frosh week? I’d very much appreciate your first-hand reportage on proceedings, which, I must forewarn, are yet much reduced.”
She smiled small to herself. She’d had to endure this sort of come-on since turning thirteen—when her breasts had grown rapidly, her hair darkened to jet, and her lips gotten all puffy—deal with it from boys and men from twelve to seventy. And hairy legs and armpits too. How lovely to be a woman. “Thank you, Dean LaRoque. May I bring my boy—”
“Call my Administrative Assistant Ms. Martine Marois, extension one-eight-one, and we’ll find a day of mutual convenience for us both. This week of course, Thursday preferably, ideally thirteen-hundred-hours. Martine will be present the entire time just beyond the ajar office door. But just the two of us, which is the most promisingly productive arrangement, selfishly speaking, for now. I think of it as a wormhole into knowing what our best and brightest have to give back! Till then, then!”
He spun again and was off, sashaying a touch and gawking about like he was the rubbernecking hick from Leitrim Falls. Everything about that man was an act. Then he was bowed and tickling his phone again. She’d known the moment he spoke that he hadn’t a true thought in his head, at least not what her dad considered real thought: a received idea that had been tested, discarded or personalized. Dad schooling. Comforting to recall: true literature, literary art, challenges what you think you know, most often makes you feel uncomfortable at first, makes you work hard thinking; literary crap, popular shit, confirms your prejudices, whatever their stripe, makes you feel good about yourself. This Dean LaRoque, this academic leader, saw only what he wanted to see, would be blind and deaf to all that threatened his complacency, heard only what confirmed what he already believed and needed to maintain his comfort.
Yes, Mary McGahern said angrily to herself, I know all that already, after all of fifteen minutes, I’m such a fucking genius! Seriously, Mary, if you’re so smart, why are you standing here like this, feeling more lost than a spindly newborn calf? (She flashed on Aoife, she and the cow had fairly matured together, and the reflection sank her: Aoife, pregnant finally, also had no one now to look after her.) Why was she here alone and Jimmy elsewhere, if she’s such a fucking genius!
She followed Dean LaRoque with her eyes as he grinned and nodded his way past the sparse number of students who were out and about. His odd-coloured blue suit, neither the deep blue of a late-afternoon sky or even the changeable blue of Big Pond, or the colour of anything natural in between—she had seen metal ashtrays something like—shone in the late-summer sun. The pants were far too tight—a couple of times she’d had to tell herself to look away—the jacket as tight, and too short, its tail riding up like a duck’s ass … or maybe undersize for men was still the style? Her father sometimes used a word … infantilizing, yes, something about sexism in the way women were now controlling men’s style. Nonsense, of course, a drinker’s conspiracy theory, that downside of Dad. But this self-important Dean was like a gawky boy decked out for his first day of school. To think, she thought, some poor woman had to kiss that prissy mouth regularly. Maybe some woman—don’t be like that, Mary.
Look at her! Seriously. Here less than half an hour and already criticizing the Dean of … the Dean’s digital arse!
She had to stand five minutes outside the residence entrance till noticed, though she’d rung the buzzer twice and waved big continually. She was being pointedly ignored. She had to knock on the glass and wave her hand like a mad windshield wiper and grin like an eejit (the all-purpose Granny McGahern word). Then wait another five till served. She flexed backwards when the door buzzed and clacked open, then had to get out of the way of the swinging glass-and-metal monstrosity. It had stalled, then returned glacially—accelerated so that she had to lunge with her baggage and nearly fell over when the case wheeled up quickly and the door whooshed shut behind her, more smacking than ushering her in. Advancing gingerly, already she was feeling greater disappointment descend, unbelievably, like a lowering sky on a hay day. Could things get worse?
Her mother had taught her to get out front of depression. So Mary self-examined as she stood waiting for her welcome package—the rules—and key card. Because getting out front meant confronting sources. Certainly she had cause for anxiety and the sinking sensation. She was still missing her father unbearably, though she’d seen him just a few hours ago! And pregnant Aoife with the infected udder, her teats fairly untouchable, yet she had to be milked, and spared the machine, and Dad was just no good with her. She will call him right away and insist that Dr. North be brought in. And Big Al! Don’t forget Big Al. Who would cook Dad’s supper today? Who knew that he needed protein and had to be forced to eat more than eggs and raw vegetables? Who else but she knew how he loathed himself working at Canopy Growth when there was always his own farmwork to do? Who would keep him from turning to drink? Who? And Jimmy, of course. Jimmy.
He was probably already popular as all hell at Western, where he’d gone the week before (eight days ago). Where he would meet someone else. Jimmy could mix, Jimmy would have conquered his frosh week and been crowned king of some stupid thing or other, if he wanted, which he wouldn’t, she hoped. She also sincerely hoped for his sake that there were more live bodies at Western than at Bytown (but male bodies). Why he had paid such surprising attention to her over their final year in high school she would never know. Well, she did actually: he’d told her that last evening. Not to be all coy about it: she looked okay now, she guessed, but she was no mixer, always only awkward, gawky. Didn’t drink, didn’t smoke weed, didn’t … Well, they might have, the way they were going, and maybe even in as little as another week or so, and she’d be rid of that, and in as romantic a way as any girl could dream. Not like Naomi and Rick Maclean—in the graveyard of all fucking places! So to speak. Naomi had testified that it was great, that once you’d done it it was all you could think about all day. Jimmy’d promised to visit her in Ottawa. She knew he was still a virgin too. The two of them holdout freaks (now that the last known holdout, Naomi, had gone over to the dark side, the fun side). She just knew it, from the way he kissed at first (banging teeth), from the clumsy way he touched her, at first (ten weeks ago, at the beginning of the summer), from … oh, from the way she felt for fuck’s sake! So to etc. Don’t be such a goddamned brainiac about everything!
She should have fought harder to go to Western. Her father’s obsession with Bytown was his obsession not hers. In just about everything else he let her follow her inclinations. Jimmy couldn’t hack the idea of his going away only as far as Ottawa (his alcoholic old man, his hopeless mother), but had considered Bytown still, until she’d insisted he follow his own best inclination. “Not my heart?” he’d joked in the way they joked, though by that late point it was a joke that choked them both for an awkward minute. He said, then they promised, that they would visit each other every other weekend. But she’d known even as they were lying together hugging on late-August’s cooling earth out by Big Rock that she would need to go home to her dad when she could, for lots of complex reasons. Maybe she could convince Jimmy to go home too those times? Though London was a lot farther away. And he hated home.
In the small stuffy residence room, she again felt like she wasn’t breathing normally, as she’d been feeling since boarding the smelly train at Leitrim Falls. The first thing she noticed was the computer, big like the kind they’d used in art class, a Mac. She would set up her university email and write to Jimmy (she had the idiot-proof instructions, a good thing). First though she slid open the narrow slot at the bottom of the window, then unpacked and, with no good reason to be tired that early in the day, lay on the soft narrow bed, exhausted, not having satisfied what she knew was a nagging nesting instinct. She crossed her forearms on her chest and disciplined her breathing as Mom had taught her.
The room itself was so narrow she could reach to the desk chair and retrieve from the backpack the dated catalogue of English literature course offerings, very old, as she now knew, way out of date, in what had once been the Faculty of Arts. Flat on her back she held it above her, but before she could read, her mind drifted to the day before, lying all by herself beside Big Rock and looking up at a mackerel sky that was fast changing, even at spooky speed. She remembered telling herself to remember: This is heaven. I will always be here for you, me and Mom watching over us.
Big Pond was hers, and the rock against which she and Jimmy had sat all summer, Big Rock, was her beach. “Ponder’s Beach,” she’d smirked that last day of summer holidays, for the first time sharing the name with anyone, not even Dad. “Singular possessive,” she’d laughed poorly. Jimmy immediately had another name for it: “Lovers’ Lane.” It made no sense, of course—there was no lane—and it was unoriginal, a cliché; they were death on clichés, the two of them. But she’d held her tongue for once. Until she couldn’t and ironically did her damsel voice, batting lashes and touching her chest with fingertips: “More like Lois Lane, my Superman!” Which failed so miserably she dropped her face in a scowl.
Expectantly, a bit worriedly, Jimmy had watched her in profile. When at last she’d faced him with those eyes like blue pools, the rock seemed to soften behind them and in no time they’d slid along the ground and were making out like mad. By then, they were getting too soon to the point where they had to stop; and had to or not, they would cease the rubbing and dry humping mutually; control their breathing. Then have to deal perilously with shared frustration. Early on she had startled herself by climaxing, first time with another. She’d known what it was, of course, having pleasured herself to that point—too often? she often worried; could she hurt herself?—but was startled when it surprised her in make-out. Only afterwards had she not liked it happening out of her control like that. And then it felt unfair to Jimmy to carry on as they were. But in the moment, as it came closer and closer, she’d thought less and less about Jimmy, which was partly why they were now stopping earlier, to head-off the unfairness and ensuing irritation. … It was complex. What was worse, she knew he’d once come in his shorts, from the way he suddenly froze wide-eyed, then settled, at first with a puzzled look on his big handsome face. He’d continued to look away and gone home early. In her room later she’d surprised herself, like restraining a sneeze; then frowning she’d giggled, then laughed and laughed so that she had to smother her face in the pillow lest her dad come wondering. She settled in some forced shame. Poor Jimmy, guys were fucked when they weren’t, I guess. She felt so bad about his, uh, indiscretion (and her laughing at him) that next time they hooked up she had to keep herself from apologizing.
In her residence room she wished again they’d done it that last evening, gone all the way, on the far side of Big Rock where the sun had warmed all day. All the sloppy kissing and rubbing and starting and stopping was maddening and exhausting, and afterwards it did hurt, being rubbed raw like that. What was wrong with them? They would do it next time they met, for sure, wherever. … It seemed that already everything in her life was like that, remembered regretfully, like the way her father had begun talking after her mother died: wishing that things had been different, almost everything done differently, that he had been different. Do we really get only one shot at the most important things in life? Dad said so. She’d say, “It isn’t fair.” And he would see where he’d steered them, poor Dad, and laugh falsely: “Fairs are for pigs!”
On her back she focused the course catalogue held hovering above her. Dad and she had never thought other than that she would major in English, with a minor in Music, and maybe in History, depending. She’d have no piano with her of course, and neither of them believed she could live contentedly without one; as a registered student she should be able to play one in the Music Department, they figured.
With two intersecting triangles like some satanic symbol her father had starred the (as she now knew) obsolete English course offerings with such titles as “The Bible in Literature,” which asked students to purchase a King James Bible and a book by Northrop Frye (Dad had said he was the best). She had a bible in her suitcase, which would soon be hidden in the desk’s middle drawer, not that she was expecting company. Another starred course was titled “Great Books of the Great Tradition I,” followed by “Beyond the Great Tradition II” (which made no sense). Starred also were a Fall term’s “Canadian Literature of the Colonial Period” and Winter’s “Canadian Literature of the Confederation Period” (her father had been high on those every year, and she had selected the current versions of both). And there were other courses titled Shakespeare, Milton, The Neo-Classical Period, The Romantics, The Victorians, The Modern Period, where dad’s starring always stopped. After that, even going back through some twenty years of catalogues, the contemporary-period courses that followed The Modern Period had such titles as “The Woman’s Page” (her father had written “possible”), “Post-Postmodern Postcolonial Possibilities” (“here we go!”), and a raft of offerings prefixed with “digi,” so that there was “DigiPastoralisms” (he’d scrawled “Hot-diggedy, this could mean us!”), “DigiEcoFems” (“yuck”), “DigiAlterities in a Post-Human World” (“what the …?”), and “Systemic Cyber-Racism in a Post-Human Digitalized World” (“Duh, I dunno, a video game from NASCAR?”).
At the end of the dated calendar she held, his most recent, on the blank inside of its cover he’d carefully written up his own course:
ENG XXXX: Didger-Redoos
Course Description: In this course we will study, and so be privileged to associate with, three thousand years of the orature of the Aboriginal Peoples of Australia (unceded territory of Oceania continent) in an attempt to undo some minuscule portion of the colonial and techno violence of at least the past three hundred years.
Grading: To be determined
Attendance: Voluntary Online Distance-Learning
Required texts: None. Familiarity with the didgeridoo is assumed (available YouTube instruction variously)
Learning Outcomes: Dealing productively with guilt. Restitution (not materially but of cultural value and pride, theirs).
She didn’t understand all that he was getting at or know where he, who’d still seemed to think that there was a Faculty of Arts, had learned such lingo. But then he read and talked and complained of much she had no interest in, if also much that she gradually had. On most charged matters he could be as stubbornly incorrect as a goat lining up a goat-whisperer’s bum. She’d occasionally worried that he really might be racist and not just pretending for a joke. (Or is that racism too?) So she’d tentatively broached the accusation, if mistakenly coming from her high-school English teacher’s, Ms. Stottlemeyer’s, defence—contra Mary’s saying she liked the Canadian novel better—of replacing Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz with Richard Wright’s Black Boy.
“Racist? Me?” He was still joking, but her face said No. “… Okay, serious time. But first things first: Honey, don’t ever let anyone scare you from thinking honestly about anything. Anything. Or of speaking your mind by your best lights, respectfully.
“But okay, racism. Especially as slavery it’s been a blight on humankind since forever, and it’s not going anywhere any time soon. Just look at America, or China. Same for sexism, the Arab cultures—for all forms of prejudice. We should call them out whenever we smell them, as you’re doing here with me, admirable girl. Apart from the stink and the butt-ugliness, racism and prejudice are an affront to human reason and logic—faulty generalization for self-serving ends. Duh, I knew a Jew once and he cheated me. Two Jews in fact. Ergo, all Jews are money-grubbing shysters, so we have a right to confiscate their property and drive them out. That’s the logic of anti-Semitism, of all racism. Or I once saw some drunken Irishmen fighting … well, maybe my sweet reasoning doesn’t work for all prejudices.”
“That’s what I should say to Stottlemeyer? That racism is illogical?”
“Good point. You probably shouldn’t say any of this. But there’s lots of great fiction dealing with racism, Huck Finn, Black Boy yes, lots. If racism is the subject of the book, or even just a part of the story, or even only an implication—fine, then that’s what should be studied. If doing so lessens racism and prejudice by as much as one hurt boy or girl—great.”
“Then what’s your problem?”
“My problem? It’s not my problem, it’s yours, or it will be. Reading and studying can and should change the ways we think and act … which sounds stupid to have to say. But here’s my point, my problem: righting the wrongs of the world should not be the main purpose of studying literature or of choosing the literature we read and study. There’s more and more machinery for trying to right the wrongs of the world, thank you Jesus and Marx. There is only one discipline that studies great literature in its own right: in high-school English courses and university English Departments. Or there was one, because going from what I’ve read in English Department course calendars of recent years makes me despair, and makes me make fun for the sake of my sanity. And I agree: Duddy Kravitz, which also deals with anti-Semitism and class prejudice, is a better novel than Black Boy.”
“Glad I asked.”
“Ah, irony, there is thy sting. Class dismissed.”
As at her meeting with Dean LaRoque, Dad was the cause of her wrong-footing herself badly that first week in grade twelve just out of home-schooling when she freely used his and Granny McGahern’s favourite term of aspersion: eejit. Even early on, Jimmy had taken up using it, only with her of course, as a complex kind of private flirting and solace for her public blunders. First time, he’d come across her staring out the library window at Fred Faucher’s crowd teasing Big Al and said, “What eejits, eh?” And waited patiently for her anger and shock and confusion to subside into a knowing smile. She’d said, “It takes one to know one,” intentionally sneering like a dumb slut. And he’d countered, “I know you are but what am I?”
Dad had seen what Jimmy was the day he’d first visited the farm, and hired him cheaply if at yet unaffordable expense to help out that summer. Or maybe it was to keep an eye on him, on them? Their friendship of like-to-like had slowly strengthened, their ironies become like a shared code of filaments and webbing beginning to bind them imperceptibly. When Dad conked out in his chair after supper, they would walk to Big Pond, which was skimmed by dragon flies and sparkling in beams of setting sunlight, sit against Big Rock as it released its heat, and soon fallen in love (or Jimmy had at last, she’d been there for a while already). When he’d leave for home, the August evening would be dark and a lot cooler, even inside.
She lowered the catalogue to her chest, still open like a fallen bird … Big Al … and fell asleep in her clothes. Her fading waking thoughts were that she’d wasted an hour that morning giving her hair the dishevelled look, when she could have been comforting Aoife and trying again painstakingly, patiently, to milk her (the lowing—bellowing—was unbearable the whole night before the morning departure, like she’d known, continuing even as they drove off to the train). She had to be milked, and by hand only, yet wouldn’t let herself be touched for the infection … she must be pregnant … she saw her father carrying Aoife as a newborn calf to her, telling her the name was pronounced Ee-fa, making her learn to spell it correctly, what it meant, Beauty, and that Aoife was hers specially … what could Dad do … the way she moaned, even when so favoured to be hand-milked, still always kicking … spoiled … he’d turned old after Mom … mad at the world … never mean … not Jimmy …
She snorted like a throttling horse and bolted herself awake.
She’s going home.
Dad should have let her continue home-schooling through grade twelve, but no, nothing easy for Mary McGahern where poor widower Dad was concerned! … Though without the final year done formally in the official school system, her application to the University of Bytown would have been difficult, if not impossible, as Dad had known.
She couldn’t go home. What was she thinking? And continuing home-schooled through twelve she’d never have met Jimmy.
Where was she? … Oh yeah.
She rolled onto her left side and the catalogue fell to the floor where it tried to close up but failed to and so sat like a tent over a germinating seedling. She draped her eyes with her right forearm and cried.
What was Jimmy doing? And with who? With whom?
To whom …
Copyright © 2021 by Gerald Lynch.
Synopsis of novel
In a post-pandemic world, Mary McGahern goes off to university from the small town of
Leitrim Falls. Few others still choose to be present physically on campus. Mary was
mostly schooled at home by a self-taught, highly literate, widower farmer father, which
has always made her an oddity. In her final year she attended regular high school, where
she and Jim Collins fell in love. Jim has gone off to a different university. At Mary's
university, uBytown in Ottawa, professor Jake Flynn, nearing retirement, despairs of
contemporary higher education in English Literature, which has moved away from
reading and studying the best that has been thought and written to viewing literature as
valuable only to the extent that it contributes to improving the world. Mary becomes
Professor Flynn's student in two courses. The English Department's rare, author-signed
first edition of James Joyce's Ulysses is stolen from a display case, and Detective Kiran
Gurmeet is introduced. At Western U in London Ontario, Jim Collins develops a serious
drinking problem, and he and Mary break up. Detective Gurmeet finds that Jake Flynn
stole the rare edition of Ulysses, all unaware, as he suffers from kleptomania (and much
else as the story unfolds). While being examined for mental competency in the Princess
Diana Mental Health Center, plagued and plaguing Jake commits suicide. Jim Collins'
father, drunk, causes an auto accident back in Leitrim Falls, one that entails three deaths:
Mary’s father, Jim’s father and mother. Mary and Jim return to Leitrim Falls in an
attempt to save themselves and the McGahern family farm.
About the Author
Gerald Lynch was born in Monaghan Ireland and grew up in Canada. The Dying Detective, the stand-alone concluding novel of a trilogy, was published in Fall 2020 by Signature Editions. In 2017 Signature published Omphalos and in 2015 Missing Children. These novels were preceded by Troutstream, Exotic Dancers, and two books of short stories, Kisbey and One’s Company. A Professor of Canadian and contemporary Irish fiction at the University of Ottawa, in 2017 Gerald co-edited Alice Munro's Miraculous Art: Critical Essays. He has edited a number of other books and published many short stories, essays, and reviews, and had his work translated into a number of languages. He has also authored two books of non-fiction, Stephen Leacock: Humour and Humanity and The One and the Many: Canadian Short Story Cycles. He has been the recipient of a few awards, including the gold award for short fiction in Canada’s National Magazine Awards. Visit his website: https://geraldlynch.weebly.com/