Out of Print Book Review: Peter Doyle by John Vernon
On an as-yet uncomposed Nick Hornby-ish All-Time Top Five Favorite Desert Island Books list, I'd probably rank Peter Doyle at number one or number two. It pert' near blew my mind when I first read it in the early 1990's, around the same time that I read Doctorow's Ragtime and was otherwise reading as much William Faulkner as I could get my hands on. These books and authors were tied to an American past, connected to Huckleberry Finn and the Civil War and the particular American problem of promised but undelivered equality that underscores everything from the Declaration of Independence to the presidential election of 2008. Amist some undergraduate writing workshops and advice to "write what you know" in a time where short stories hewed to kitchen table domestic realism and Raymond Carver minimalism, these books held mysteries, loome large, and certainly seemed as "real" (or perhaps "realer") as any "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" or "Cathedral."
Vernon's book opens at the autopsy of Napoleon on St. Helena, and the surruptitious removal of the Mighty Corsican's right thumb and penis. One of these, erm, units appears in the form of a totemic necklace that travels through the hands of Peter Doyle, a bus conductor and/or merchant marine who is believed by some to be the true love and muse of poet Walt Whitman. So Napoleon's penis transfers from Doyle to Whitman, from Whitman to Emily Dickinson, and ultimately follows Horace Greely out west, where it ends the novel with a plunge into the Colorado River. These characters strike you as accurate portrayals and, while a funny book, nothing is played for laughs.
After finishing the book, I was left with a lot of questions about what was real and what wasn't. I called the downtown library's Ready Reference, the precursor to the internet and the godmother of Wikipedia, to see if someone could tell me whether there was an actual, historical, real Peter Doyle. I wanted to ask about the dismemberment of the little Napoleon, too, but modesty held my tongue.
If there's a better novel out there about about a dessicated sexual organ of an imperial European and its effect on the lives of late 19th Century American poets, I'd sure like to know about it.
Vernon's book is currently out of print, but it may well be worth the hunt. I also enjoyed the same author's A Book of Reasons, a non-fiction account about cleaning out his reclusive late brother's house, with diversions into the history of tools and questions about how well we can know each other anyway. Lucky Billy is a new novel/history/ontological puzzle which seems to concern someone called "Billy the Kid," but not this Billy the Kid.