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“Glasgow was changing.  All the old boys were scrambling about, desperate to get legit.  One minute you’re slicing someone’s nose off with an open razor, next minute your’e in the Knights of St. Columbus, eating Chicken Balmoral at a charity dinner and exchanging chit-chat with the Archbishop.   The stakes were getting raised.”

cover parksMay God Forgive, Alan Parks’s fifth novel in this Tartan noir series featuring Detective Harry McCoy, opens with a riot in response to an arson fire at a hair salon.  Three women and one young child have been killed in the fire, and a second child has been hospitalized for injuries.  Three young men have been apprehended for starting the fire, and the growing mob, many of whom are women, wants them hanged.  Detective Harry McCoy has just returned to work with the Glasgow Police after being hospitalized for a month for a bleeding ulcer, due in part to his drinking, smoking, and hard living.  Even after his release, he is heavily dependent on bottles of Pepto-Bismol for relief.  Suddenly, a speeding truck crashes into the police van which has been transporting the arson suspects jail.  A mysterious “estate car” pulls up, and the suspects are transferred from the police van to the estate car from which they are helped to escape the scene.  Later that day, with hardly a moment to breathe between emergencies, McCoy, still sick, finds himself involved in another new and grisly scene – a “suicide” at a special housing site for “single men with nowhere else to go.”  A man has jumped or been pushed from a third floor roof, and McCoy, talking with some of the locals, learns that this was not an accident.  The following day, McCoy meets with his young partner Wattie and they have a third new case to deal with.  A young girl, between fifteen and seventeen in age, has been found strangled on the outskirts of a cemetery.  No one knows who she is. 

A "panda car," the nickname for police cars.

A “panda car,” the nickname for police cars.

All of this activity – three different death scenes – and twenty or so characters associated with them are packed into the first two days of action and the first fifty pages of this novel, a challenging introduction to an increasingly complex set of mysteries which give no indication, at first, of whether they will overlap or connect.  Set during ten days in May, 1974, the novel includes the convoluted backgrounds of the characters, especially of Harry McCoy, whose life is both sad and fraught with uncertainties.  McCoy is no straight arrow, and though he does believe in justice for all, it may just as often be justice that he defines and negotiates on his own, dispensing it without the knowledge of the police hierarchy.  Rival crime families operate independently of the police, but even within the police department, different groups of free-thinking officers often enforce their own unwritten rules and behaviors.  Harry, given his own difficult upbringing and his own lack of real love and guidance throughout his childhood, is a tough man with a tough background, and he can sometimes make connections with crime bosses which the typical police detective has no chance to achieve.  The result can be effective in eliminating hard criminals, but the level of violence and its description is often repugnant, even stomach-churning.

McCoy meets a criminal at the Botanic Gardens.

McCoy meets a criminal at the Botanic Gardens.

In terms of plot, this is by far the most complex of the four McCoy novels I have read. The list of characters grows exponentially from the opening pages, and relationships among them and with Harry McCoy are filled with intricacies.  By the time the novel ends, nearly fifty characters have played roles in this novel, and their connections with each other have revealed the workings of the underside of Glasgow more vividly, in some cases, than the workings of the legitimate police departments.  Making the mysteries more personal, the author involves the adult or nearly adult children of various characters in parts of the novel. McCoy himself is the adult child of an absent father from whom he has been alienated for years, and his problems as a result are clearly shown.  Another character, Cooper, a man who does not walk the straight and narrow but who sometimes shares information with McCoy, has a young son, Paul, who may have knowledge of the crime involving the dead girl and who is thought to be involved with a gang.  When McCoy, in a bar with Cooper, addresses a young man to ask for information about Paul Cooper,  McCoy finds that “speed from the bomber he’d swallowed in the taxi surged through his bloodstream.” Annoyed by the attitude of the young man, McCoy then “flew at him, kicked him hard in the balls and once more in the stomach as he went down,” announcing that that was the last time he would ask – attitudes that often make it difficult to empathize with McCoy and his problems.

The young son of a successful businessman ends up in Leverndale Gardens, a hospital for the emotionally disturbed.

The young son of a successful businessman ends up in Leverndale Gardens, a hospital for the emotionally disturbed. Photo by Bricheno

Some of these characters have relationships with the church to give them “credibility,” and one crime boss, in particular, Dessie Caine, who runs most of the area’s businesses and who is reputed to have killed five men in one night, is particularly anxious to include the church in his life. He has decided that a new chapel, for which he will raise the money, will give him a positive connection with Father McKenna, drawing in yet another community fixture and setting up some strange alliances.  Here in Glasgow, virtually everyone, regardless of what his official connection is with society, has multiple other connections on the personal level which may or may not conflict with official duties.  Secret phone calls, tapes of conversations, and information gleaned from torture add “truth” to the novel as McCoy and others try to make Glasgow a “better” place.

Author Alan Parks

Author Alan Parks

Despite the almost infinite complexities, author Alan Parks manages to solve all the crimes and make all the connections in this nearly four hundred page novel with a huge cast of characters.  The connections among characters and their varied allegiances are not always immediately clear, however, and I found it essential to keep a character list to prevent confusion. With pages of violence, torture, mutilation, and maiming, the novel – and McCoy himself – often seems to stress the ugliness and the willingness to murder when things get tough.  In many cases, the murderers are unlikely to be punished because others in the community find that the murders have solved problems – except for the blood.  Or as McCoy says as he offers a toast near the end, “To all the people that fell through the cracks. Gone but not forgotten.”

ALSO:  THE APRIL DEAD,     BLOODY JANUARY,      BOBBY MARCH WILL LIVE FOREVER

Pepto BismolPhotos:  The panda car is from  https://www.historics.co.uk

The Botanic Gardens photo appears on https://www.pinterest.com

Leverndale Gardens may be found here:  https://www.flickr.com   Photo by Bricheno

The author photo is from https://www.lavanguardia.com

Pepto-Bismol may be found here:   https://www.nwitimes.com

 

MAY GOD FORGIVE
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Historical, Mystery, Thriller, Noir, Psychological study, Scotland, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Alan Parks
Published by: Europa
Date Published: 05/03/2022
ISBN: 978-1609457532
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

“For as long as the world has had people on it, there has always been a person like me.  Someone who does not care for what is available and, instead, wants only to view the masterpiece that has never been displayed, or to touch the relic that should not be disturbed, and purchase the item that is not for sale.”    from the story “What, Exactly, Do You Think You Are Looking At?”

coverOne of my favorite stories from the story collection, Animal Person, by Canadian author Alexander MacLeod – “What, Exactly, Do You Think You Are Looking At?” – typifies the creativity and the ironies with which MacLeod presents his characters.  His stories feel, at first, as if the characters are ordinary people leading ordinary lives, but the author is so creative and so in control of every aspect of these stories, that he is always able to take them in new directions,  full of surprises.  The main character describes his own life in the review’s opening quotation here, creating the impression that he is a creative and imaginative person looking for excitement. He does, in fact, display some of these independent characteristics, but he is also a loner, a man afraid of real contact with real people, someone who creates a totally false life for himself and those he affects through his behavior.  He quickly admits that “Other people are always trying to show me things and bring me places, but none of it – not one molecule, not a single atom – of what they have to offer has ever interested me.” Following a practiced routine, this character describes getting off a plane at LAX, putting on his sunglasses, and proceeding to the baggage carousel, at which he promptly takes a bag which does not belong to him, and leaves the airport.  He does not plan to rob the bag or keep it, though the amount of time he has it in his possession “all depends on what [he] finds inside.”

luggage (2)If the bag contains a Slinky or an old ViewMaster or other children’s toys, the character gets bored instantly because he has “nothing to work with,” but if it is a bag like “Tanya’s bag,” the one he just stole and opened two days ago, it is akin to finding one of the world’s great treasures. By opening this bag, he “meets” Tanya, discovers her purple-sequined costume, knee-high boots with elevated heels, white gloves, false eyelashes, and plastic tiara, and he is excited by this once-in-a-lifetime experience.  He imagines conversing withTanya, telling her that he took special care of her possessions, and suggesting they fly wherever she wants to go, and he will pay for everything. Later, when he returns the bag to the airport baggage area,  he waits excitedly, enjoying even the light surrounding the whole experience of Tanya and the bag, and wishing for the opportunity to explain himself to her.  “I want her to know that I took special care.”  A dramatic ending shows his limitations.

Albrecht Durer's Lagomorph

Albrecht Durer’s Lagomorph

In “Lagomorph,” the story of a marriage and a rabbit, MacLeod creates the story of an exhausted marriage, one in which husband and wife spend significant amounts of time separated, with husband David often at home taking care of Gunther, an elderly rabbit which had complicated the family’s daily life over the years.  The children have grown up and out of the house and lost interest, David has problems with asthma from the rabbit, and Sarah is away and working much of the time.  David’s attempt to give the rabbit the equivalent of a day off by taking it outside with him while he works in the yard leads to a whole new reality.  “The things it had done and the things I had done.  I did not know what any of them mean.”  

A young piano player gets help at a recital.Anyone who ever dreaded piano recitals and panicked as they approached, will appreciate “The Entertainer,” the tale of Darcy, a young man preparing for a recital of “The Entertainer,” a piece which he knows everyone in the audience also knows.  Presenting all the characters involved in the music school and its presentation at an elderly housing complex, the goals the adults all have, and the pressure felt by the students, especially young Darcy, create a world of music and the responsibilities of those who play it and direct it. Everyone is emotionally involved, and Darcy, in particular, suffers from panic at the difficulty of the music he is going to be playing.  Help from an outsider and a surprising new approach to the music becomes the key to solving his problem as his solo begins.  A shift into a more traditional story, “The Dead Want,” tells of the death of a young woman, Beatrice, who was thrown from a car and killed in a terrible night-time accident.  Her boyfriend, Cory, whom Bea’s family dislikes and refuses to allow at the funeral because they believe him guilty of her death, is understandably devastated.  Joe, a long-time friend who grew up with Bea and always considered her a girlfriend, is asked for a favor by one of Bea’s friends, and his actions, totally contrary to what he might have done under any other circumstances, show him as he really is and will be in the future.

motel image“The Closing Date” involves a murderer with a plumbing business who rents a room in a motel beside the room where a young a man, his pregnant wife, and very young daughter are staying.  The family has had a casual speaking relationship with this man next door and are present in the adjacent unit when two murders take place.  Busy with plans to buy a house, they spend little time thinking of the murder, or as Mark explains later, “We do not know where we are in the arc of our lives – old or young, safe or exposed, closer to the beginning or the end, brushing up against each or far away from it.  We do not know if the decisive moment has arrived or if it is yet to come.  Led only by what we desire, we go out into the world and we make our way. And then we sleep, each of us in temporary bedrooms that will one day be occupied by other people.”  

Author Alexander MacLeod

Author Alexander MacLeod

Author Alexander MacLeod, who is also the son of famed author Alistair MacLeod, winner of the International Dublin Literary Award, has won prizes of his own for his short stories.  The reaction to Alexander MacLeod’s collection, with two shortlisted nominations for the Giller and Commonwealth Book Prizes, suggests more prizes will be coming.  His work is filled with unique and heart-breaking insights, presented with irony and empathy, as his characters realize their limitations and recognize a pathway forward, a pathway often unexpected and individualized, based on decisions and the recognitions they show within these stories.

Photos.  The baggage carousel appears on https://www.businesstraveller.com

The Durer rabbit is from https://en.wikipedia.org

The duet photo may be found at https://www.musicnotes.com/now/tips/11-tips-for-playing-piano-duets

The motel sign appears on https://www.littlehotelier.com

The author photo may be found at http://www.gaspereau.com

 

ANIMAL PERSON
08-2022 Reviews, Canada, Psychological study, Short Stories
Written by: Alexander MacLeod
Published by: FSG
Date Published: 04/05/2022
ISBN: 978-0374602222
Available in: Paperback Hardcover

“Without commands, there was no order.  Without order there was no strength, without strength you did not win.  That’s what they had been told and what he’d taught the new recruits, for better or for worse… And look at you now, he thought bitterly to himself.  Some revolutionary, taking commands from a frog.” 

cover 2Focusing on the life of a man who remains unnamed throughout the book, author Carolina De Robertis describes the tormented inner world of a member of Uruguay’s Marxist Tupamaros, during his fourteen year imprisonment in a hole deep underground during the 1970s and 1980s.  This is a man who has been wounded six times during various escape attempts from confinement, who fears for his own mental health during his torture and imprisonment, but who is ultimately elected Uruguay’s President from 2010 – 2015.  Author Carolina de Robertis’s  intense and involving story, based loosely on the traumatic life and career of the real President, José Mujica, during that period, focuses on this man’s involvement in the political changes in the early twenty-first century. Though it is filled with the horrors of revolutionary warfare and its personal effects on the participants, the resulting fictionalized biography, The President and the Frog, is often very funny, filled with ironies.  As the book opens in 2017, the former President, now eighty-two, is waiting for a visit from two foreign reporters, sitting at the table in his ramshackle farmhouse, which he has always preferred to the Presidential Palace.  Known as “The Poorest President in the World,” he has always donated more than half his salary to charity, has led a simple life, and has been available to reporters from around the world, though there are some aspects of his fraught life which he has never shared with anyone. 

José Mujica, President of Uruguay, 2010 - 2015.

José Mujica, President of Uruguay, 2010 – 2015. Photo by Natasha Pisarenko AP

Intensely realized and filled with the imagined thoughts of the former President, this personal story brings to life the effects of isolation, torture, and pure loneliness as they affect a sensitive man devoted to changing the world for the better, at whatever cost it imposes on himself.  In the first flashback to his imprisonment (1971 – 1985), the prisoner has already been confined to a deep hole underground for four years, with no light, no sanitation, and no company.  Whatever food he gets is lowered by rope into the pit. He is seriously depressed because the country he has fought to make a better place has collapsed and turned to rubble.  For weeks he has been talking to the ants and spiders which live underground, his only companions, though they never answer – “until the day in question, when a voice cuts through the grime.”  Good day,” the voice says.  A frog has heard him thinking and has responded to him.  The prisoner, fearful that he himself may have lost the power to distinguish between thought and speech, suddenly panics, refuses to answer, and dismisses the frog. The frog puts up with no nonsense. “You’re an asshole,” he declares.

Two days later the frog returns, and the novel begins to alternate between thoughts and beliefs of the prisoner and commentary by the frog.  “It wasn’t like receiving directives from higher ranks,” the prisoner says, “but it did feel like listening to the dirt when planting flowers, letting it tell you how much water, where to sink roots.  A justice story.”  

Green Argentine Frog, common to Uruguay. Photo by Harry Lyndon-Skeggs

In contrast to the frog with his relatively simple, imagined scenarios, the novel also fast forwards to the arrival of two reporters from “Norway or Germany,” five years after the former prisoner/President has completed his Presidency.  In addition to broadening the focus of the philosophical ideas introduced by the frog, the time change gives the author the opportunity to raise even more thoughtful questions regarding real governing and the role of freedom, if any.  Affirmative action decisions, also considered, are regarded as “single stops along the road, which will take generations to settle within the country.” The former President then comments on having legalized marijuana, gay marriage, first semester abortions, and equality for all citizens regardless of color. Slipping back and forth between conversations with the frog, while the future president is a prisoner, and updates on governing taking place years after the former prisoner’s rule as President, provide the author with unlimited opportunities to explore the art of governing on many levels, even including his previous offer to “help clean up another country’s mess…the one that had backed the coup in his own nation and trained the very torturers who’d tortured him.” He offers to take in the prisoners who had been imprisoned by that country in Guantanamo.

Yerba Mate, a popular herbal tea, common to Uruguay and Argentina.

Yerba Mate, a popular herbal tea, common to Uruguay and Argentina, served often here in this novel.

As all these issues are raised, the reader will notice how the psychological state of the prisoner in the hole becomes noticeably more tenuous, but at the same time the reader will also be able to rejoice in the life of the former President, years later, when he has served as leader of the country and seized the opportunity to make changes in the existing government. In this the frog has played a key role, as it is the frog acting on the prisoner in the hole who makes him want to live a little longer when his life has been at its darkest point.  At one point, the prisoner believes that antennae have been implanted in his brain, and he constantly counts backward from ten thousand to scramble their frequencies.  He believes that there are frog surveillance teams, and it is only the frog’s insistence that the prisoner change the subject and talk about a woman that the prisoner stays on track to “see his own story, The One Thing” among his “deeper memories.”

author photo Facebook

Author Carolina De Robertis

A unique offering among recent books in translation, The President and the Frog treads that fine line between serious philosophy and exaggeration for the sake of satire. For me it felt, in parts, like one of Plato’s serious Dialogues, lightened by the kind of satire by which Aristophanes kept his audience laughing.  Yes, it does test the reader, on occasion, by feeling a bit too much like a lesson being taught, though this is the frog’s job, and sometimes it becomes absorbed by its own heavy moralizing.  Still, it is a novel with real themes, a sense of direction, and a grounding in real life which former President José Mujica may have experienced when he was, first, a prisoner, and eventually, a President. Its originality in presentation keeps it full of surprises and new approaches to old ideas.  And certainly, having a talking frog in your life can’t be all bad.

Photos.  The photo of José Musica, former President of Uruguay  (2010-2015), appears on https://www.nytimes.com  Photo by Natasha Pisarenko AP.

The Green Argentine Frog, common to Uruguay and Argentina, was the frog in this story.  Photo by Harry Lyndon-Skeggs. https://www.jungledragon.com

Yerba Mate, a popular herbal tea, is served frequently here.  https://www.shutterstock.com

Author Carolina De Robertis is found on https://www.facebook.com/carolinaderobertis

THE PRESIDENT AND THE FROG
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Experimental, Historical, Humor, Satire, Absurdity, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues, Uruguay
Written by: Carolina De Robertis
Published by: Knopf
Date Published: 08/03/2021
ISBN: 978-0593318416
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

“He didn’t see her at first, as he walked out of his house, toward the pool.  Tall and slender, his naked flesh so pale it was as if he’d made it through the entire summer without letting even the smallest bit of sunlight touch him.  Nothing touched him.  Wasn’t that what made Jay Gatsby so great?  He stepped toward the pool, that arrogant walk, that look on his face,  That knowing.  He had it all…And then in an instant, the world exploded, the gun smoked.  Her fingers shook and burned.” – Opening page. 

cover beautiful little fools 2In the first two pages of Jillian Cantor’s retelling of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jay Gatsby is the victim of a frustrated woman who does not “have it all,” someone whose “heat and anger [at him] has been simmering for so long, [that] now it is boiling over….[With one shot], his greatness flickered.  He fell unevenly into the pool, water cascading into the sky like a choreographed dance of swans.  Beautiful, unexpected.”  The attacker turns away from the pool and runs.  Author Cantor leaves most of the detail surrounding this shooting in limbo for the reader to discover as the action leading to the shooting begins in 1917, develops over the course of five years, and leads to this climax in August, 1922.  Two pages later, the scene shifts from West Egg, New York, on Long Island, scene of Gatsby’s shooting, back to Louisville, Kentucky in 1917, as Daisy Fay, a young woman living with her family, is helping her sister, slightly crippled from polio, take home-grown food to the poor at the almshouse.  It is a hot day, and the two girls are offered a ride by a soldier from nearby Camp Taylor.  Unsurprisingly, he is Jay Gatsby, and as the reader quickly discovers, he is on the prowl for attractive women, or in the case of Daisy and her friends, girls still in their teens.

jillian cantor 2

Author Jillian Cantor

Much of this novel follows the narrative pattern of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, but the focus is markedly different.  Here author Cantor focuses primarily on three young women, all of whom appear in the Gatsby book in which they are victims, but who are presented here as more independent and more in control of their own destinies.  While Beautiful Little Fools is certainly not a feminist tract, it does illustrate how different the outcomes might have been in Gatsby if the position of women, their own expectations, the expectations of them by others, and  the culture in which they lived had been significantly different.  Three Gatsby women, all originally from Louisville, Kentucky, are the main focus here:  Daisy, who becomes the wife of the almost impossibly wealthy Tom Buchanan;  Jordan Baker, Daisy’s close friend, a golfer who is on the tour though accused in a major scandal; and Catherine McCoy, a lesser developed character who attends women’s suffrage meetings and who is the sister of Myrtle Wilson, a married woman who is profiting from her role as the secret lover of Tom Buchanan.  Their stories rotate throughout, often overlap, and provide the structure of the novel.  At the same time, a new character, Detective Frank Charles from New York, appears at key points in 1922, after the death of Jay Gatsby, as he investigates that death, the characters associated with Gatsby, and the clues that have developed, including the discovery of a diamond hair pin at the murder scene.

Curchill Downs where Daisy enjoyed watching the "ponies."

Churchill Downs, where Daisy enjoyed watching Tom’s “ponies.”

Cantor takes great pains to place her characters in realistic, if sometimes romanticized scenes, in order to give them lives as women, which is not characteristic of the Gatsby book. Here the deaths of Daisy’s sister Rose and their father in a train accident have made Daisy more vulnerable and she sees marriage to an extremely wealthy man as a way to keep herself and her family safe.  Tom Buchanan, her eventual husband, has more money than he knows what to do with, and Daisy sees that as a way to  ensure a better life for herself and her family.  She enjoys the fact that he “collects ponies” for racing, and she loves moving from elaborate house to elaborate house in Europe and around the country, eventually settling on Long Island.  

1920s golf attire for Jordan.

Jordan Baker, on the women’s golf tour, is sexually uncertain, and falls victim to blackmail until she sorts her life out.  Catherine, sister of Myrtle, who is Tom Buchanan’s lover, is concerned with signs that Myrtle is the victim of physical abuse, and shares her dream, “Do you know what I really want? I want the Nineteenth Amendment to pass the Senate.  I want us to have a voice, a real voice in this country.  Imagine not needing any man.  Imagine if being a woman were enough.”  She sees her strength as a way to protect her sister. She can not imagine the look on Myrtle’s face if she ever learns the enjoyable things she has done with men.  “Why did sex have to mean anything more for a woman than it did for a man?”  As the false lives adopted by some of the women begin to crumble, they start to take responsibility for their mistaken assumptions.  They also begin to make deals with each other and the men they know in order to get what they want.

King's Point Estate on Long Island, used to depict Jay Gatsby's house in the film.

King’s Point Estate on Long Island, used to depict Jay Gatsby’s house in the film.

As the novel becomes increasingly complicated, challenging the reader to keep track of who is sleeping with whom, who is threatening whom, and who is  planning to end a big love relationship in her life, the women’s shallow expectations begin to become tiresome and the lessons they are learning become more selfish than universal.  Violence, which has always been close to the surface for all of them, begins to emerge, especially under the influence of alcohol, and not one, but several murders occur.  Detective Frank Charles, for whom the reader develops great empathy, is still anxious to find out the sources of the separate violent acts, but he believes that whatever he discovers, he will not be able to prove.  Hired as a private investigator, after the police cannot find enough evidence to try and convict the several people who might have committed murders, Frank finally acknowledges that “I tend to think justice finds a way of working itself out.  We all get what’s coming to us.”  Ultimately, time works its will.  As the author points out through Det. Frank Charles, for the many crimes one must ignore, acts of goodness may be able to compensate.

Photos:  The author’s photo appears on https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com

The Churchill Downs photo may be found on https://saratogaliving.com

The women’s golf photo from 1921 shows the typical dress of the times:  https://www.golfmonthly.com

The Kings Point house used as the residence of Gatsby in the film of The Great Gatsby is featured here:  https://www.fancypantshomes.com

BEAUTIFUL LITTLE FOOLS
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Classic Novel, Historical, Literary, Social and Political Issues, United States
Written by: Jillian Cantor
Published by: Harper Perennial
Date Published: 02/01/2022
ISBN: 978-0063051263
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

 

“Dolphins are constant vocal innovators, playful geniuses with unspeakable power, the Maria Callas of the sea, their sounds unworldly and pure.  A gospel group on helium, hitting all the high notes.”

coverIn her latest study of an animal species, Audrey Schulman focuses on dolphins, their intelligence, their verbalization, their relationships with humans and each other, and the possibility that they may be able to initiate communication with humans if they and the humans can evolve a common language.  Using as a model a scientific experiment conducted by marine scientist John C. Lilly from June to August, 1965, at a St. Thomas research center, the author recreates, and fictionalizes, this experiment in which a scientist lives with a dolphin in a special house for several months.  The fictional scientist here, a woman, works directly on a series of experiments to see if the dolphin can be taught human speech, while the male scientists involved in the project are more concerned with recording data and statistics about dolphin/human interaction.  Though this project was controversial when it was concluded in the 1960s, real research into the subject of dolphin communication and speech does continue into the present under the direction of Dr. Denise Herzing, whose foundation, The Wild Dolphin Project, funds the ongoing research.

Cat-eye glasses with electronics in the ear pieces.

Cat’s-eye glasses with electronics in the ear pieces.

The story begins with twenty-one-year-old Cora, a young woman, partly deaf, who works in Tampa as a waitress at a club, lip-reading as she works.  When an episode with an aggressive customer leads her to escape the club one night and decide not return, she moves to St. Thomas, where she hopes life will be less expensive and more fun.  There,  Blum, a scientist associated with Harvard, has been working for eight years on animal research, recently deciding to use surgery on the brains of captive dolphins to obtain more information. His experiment on two captive dolphins is a disaster, however, and he is banned forever from Marine World, which has supplied the dolphins.  In the process, however, Blum has discovered the intelligence of the dolphins and has decided to apply for his own research grant from NASA, which is actively seeking research topics.  Cora meets him at a private beach on St. Thomas, where he is recording dolphin behavior, and she eventually begins to work for him.  Since her hearing is dramatically improved whenever she is underwater, she need not wear her special cat’s-eye glasses to improve her hearing, devices which she uses on land but which must not get wet.

Dolphin playing with squid, perhaps readying to throw it.

Dolphin playing with squid, perhaps getting ready to throw it.

Four dolphins become her subjects – Ernie, Kat, Mother, and Junior – each with his/her own personality and set of behaviors.  While Cora works with the dolphins separately, always in the water, she observes their behavior, often while tossing pieces of butterfish to them.  Blum and her male counterparts stay busy on land, writing notes and collecting data. Cora notices that dolphin Kat particularly enjoys twirling small squid and then hurling them at the faces of other dolphins, and, occasionally, spectators, and she appreciates the fact that Kat is often deliberate about choosing a target.  The men do not participate in the on-site observations in the water that Cora does, and they seem not to have inner feelings or empathy for the animals.  Blum, for example, has corralled dolphins into shallow water in order to beach them so he can cut incisions into the tops of their heads, the experiment which originally got him into trouble years ago because he used too much anesthesia, and she cannot help but notice that all of the dolphins are affected by these traumatic sessions and change their behavior significantly after they are later released into deeper water.  Blum and his assistant have also confined one or more animals to a small tank, then done experiments on them there; denying food to encourage them to do as Blum expects; and setting up tasks which they must perform as he demands in order to be fed.  Cora, by contrast, allows the animals to set the tone and speed, adapting her own behavior to stimulate more contact with them and allow them to behave more “normally.”

Dolphin at Dolphin Research Organizatiion.

Dolphin at Dolphin Research Organizatiion.

A crisis comes in the novel when Harvard’s Timothy Leary, a proponent of LSD and other psychedelic drugs, comes for a visit.  He regards the dolphins as magical “spirit guides” and decides to approach them directly in the water, marching with purpose to them through the water, though they do not know him.  Frightened and upset by his aggressive approach, one of the dolphins aims straight at Leary and makes a rapid move toward him. Leary panics and flees in fear.  This episode further highlights the novel’s subtexts involving dominance – between humans and animals and between men and women in the mid-1960s.  This all comes to a peak when the group decides to build a “homearium,” a place where one dolphin (Junior) and one researcher (Cora) will live together in a specially devised house in which part is dry, and part is under water.  Here Cora works on teaching Junior the alphabet, distinguishing between shapes (square, triangle, circle), recognizing colors and some common children’s songs, learning to say words, and understanding each other and each other’s limits.  Soon Cora realizes that as much as she is teaching and training Junior, he is also training her.  Eventually, Cora will make a decision that will change the whole research project.

Author Audrey Schulman

Author Audrey Schulman

Unfortunately, this “Homearium” section, the final section, becomes increasingly disjointed, with the introduction of a new character, flashforwards to Cora’s life many years later with her own family, and major questions regarding the appropriateness of some of the relationships between researcher and dolphin.  The additional effects of Timothy Leary and his “medicines” on some of the head researchers also peripherally affect Cora and her ongoing project with Junior, raising the issue of “who’s in charge here.” Author Audrey Schulman addresses these issues directly in her note at the end of the novel.  Here she explains that since the reader might not be as fascinated by what she writes about animals as she is, that “I use every trick I can to keep you invested.  My books tend to include a strong plot, charismatic megafauna (polar bears, gorillas, dolphins, etc.), and the threat of violence.  Lately I have figured out that adding a touch of sex might help to keep the attention focused.”  As a reader/reviewer, I was fascinated by the project involving the dolphins and speech, hopeful that Cora would find some major purpose to her life, and energized by the new knowledge I was receiving. In this final “Homearium” section, however, I felt manipulated by the deliberate addition of extraneous and even irrelevant information, in what the author herself regards as a “trick” attempt to “keep [my] attention focused.”

ALSO by Schulman:  THREE WEEKS IN DECEMBER

map st. croixPhotos.  The Cat-s Eye glasses with hearing aids appear on https://www.pinterest.com

A dolphin playing with a squid is found here:  https://www.livescience.com

The happy dolphin is one of many shown at this site:  https://dolphins.org

The author photo is from https://heet.org

The map of the Virgin Islands shows the location of St. Thomas, home of these experiments.  https://www.istockphoto.com

THE DOLPHIN'S HOUSE
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Experimental, Exploration, Historical, Psychological study, Virgin Islands
Written by: Audrey Schulman
Published by: Europa Editions
Date Published: 04/05/2022
ISBN: 978-1609457846
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

 

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