Keith Donohue’s most recent novel is a chain of interlinking stories in the tradition of The Canterbury Tales, The Decameron, or, closer to our time, Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, with a dash of Flann O’Brien, Groucho Marx, and Tristram Shandy. It’s very funny, raucous, erotic, tender, tragic, and—gasp—entertaining.
On a June evening in the Washington, D.C. area, the narrator, Jack, stark naked, walks to the bathroom, and gets (he thinks) clobbered at the base of the neck. He then falls to the floor of the bathroom, his own blood “spreading across the cool ceramic tiles like an oil slick, too bright and theatrical to be real.” Just as he thinks he is dying, an old man who looks like Samuel Beckett shows up sitting on the edge of the bathtub. This man, who Jack initially thinks is his father, saves him from the seven women who seek to kill him throughout the rest of the book. You can see that the story immediately enters the surreal and marvelous.
What follows is the story of eight women, all connected to the narrator through the centuries of his existence. The stories are of women who have been wronged by him.
The first story is based on a Native American folktale about a woman who marries a bear, which seems to have similarities to the Cupid and Psyche legend. The second story is about a girl who disguises herself as a boy to serve on an English merchant vessel and for a gob of ambergris is clobbered by one of her lovers with an oar. There’s a story set in the midst of the Salem witch trials, and another in late eighteenth-century New Orleans. One follows the fortunes of a couple who make a fortune in gold only to lose it in silver during the earthquakes in San Francisco. The love of baseball is the theme of yet another, and the penultimate story is a film noir story, one in which the moral high ground for the woman is not quite so high as in the others. The final story is Jack’s own story. I won’t give away the ending, but it is the best story of the bunch and rises to heights of emotion and fine writing, meanwhile tying up the loose ends in a sublime manner.
The most impressive feature of the novel is how the style and tone of the stories change with the narrators of the tales. Donohue does a splendid job of assuming the vocabularies, tone, and slang of the women and their worlds. He is not only a very skillful ventriloquist but also a very funny writer.
However, sometimes the humor backfires. All of these women that Jack has wronged through the ages gather in the bathroom of the old colonial house Jack lives in—hence the epigram from Groucho Marx, “Is it my imagination or is it getting crowded in here?”—and in between their stories, various escapades occur during which the ladies speak in twentieth-century slang. I would laugh at these moments, but it seemed that they should have stayed in character. And yet, overall, the humor, reminiscent of the Marx Brothers and other vaudeville type performers, works well enough.
The novel is also a sustained meditation on houses and homes, with Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space as the underlying ur-text, a book Jack was given by his Indian girlfriend, Sita. As Jack tries to figure out the meaning of the stories he is being told, with the help of the Samuel Beckett character, he is sent on various errands through his house. As he explores the house, Jack, an architect who has never fulfilled his aspirations (he is a man low on his firm’s totem pole) remembers what a house is, especially a house that becomes a home.
One of my favorite passages involves this theme. Sita is speaking, telling her story, the last of the women’s stories, which Jack has never heard till now:
Jack would tell me his dreams. Everything he wished to design and see built, of course, but beyond that. What he hoped to create out of empty space, how to give people the places they needed for work or to study or just live. How to make a home out of a house. He was always reading the Poetics, trying to find some key to making it all happen, but I think he truly despaired of ever making it so. Too many hurdles. The bureaucracy of the firm. The conspiracy of other people.
Donohue’s Centuries of June is a rich, multi-layered book. It has its flaws, but there are none that jar the reader out of the world of the story. His book is most of all about how much we need stories, how the world is a story, and how inside each person in that story, as the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer has written, “vault opens behind vault endlessly.”
Franklin Freeman is a freelance writer living with his wife and four children in Saco, Maine.
Keith Donohue, Centuries of June