A reissue of the 1965 cult classic by Metcalf (1917-1999) that weaves together stories by Herman Melville, Christopher Columbus, and an emotionally rattled narrator.
We meet that narrator, Michael, in the attic of his Indianapolis home, trying to tell his own story about growing up and losing his brother, Carl, who was executed in prison for reasons not disclosed till the novel’s end. But Michael can’t write more than a paragraph or so without other stories elbowing in: the novel quotes heavily from Melville’s and Columbus’ writings, as well as the medical texts Michael has stored away (he’s a nonpracticing physician). This conceit is initially disorienting and orthographically busy, with the disparate quotations set off in italics, boldface, and indentations. But as the quotations begin to cohere around particular themes—fatherhood, exploration, loss, madness, health, faith—the novel becomes an affecting cubist portrait, acquiring its psychological depth by including the multiple ways writers have considered these ideas across the centuries. Metcalf, who was Melville’s great-grandson, once said he wrote this novel in part to escape the long shadow of his literary antecedent. Mission accomplished: this work is itself pioneering, anticipating metafictional experiments by Robert Coover, Jonathan Lethem, Margaret Atwood, David Shields, and others in the decades since. Unlike many experiments by those writers, though, Metcalf’s has a strong narrative arc and (most surprisingly) rhetorical warmth. That’s partly thanks to the copious quotations from Melville, which any Moby-Dick admirer will be thrilled to revisit. But once the story gives way to the news stories about Carl that reveal his tragedy, all that quotation takes on a deeper layer of meaning—Michael clings to those old stories not just as a reminder of enduring sensibilities, but as a shield against the horrors of the present.
A welcome reappearance of an influential sui generis story.