The Morley Mythology
In each of these bright and technically lively new novels, a clerkly but ambitious person—in one case a college dean, in the other a chess master—encounters a tricky tempter who offers, among other things, money and sexual delight. In both cases loss of occupation and derangement of values follow close on, and the Faustian experience brings—if nothing worse—a sense of personal history that can be neither renounced nor adequately understood.
Austin Wright’s The Morley Mythology considers the case of Michael Morley, fifty, a geologist recently become dean of his college, happily married with two grown children, doing well and feeling pretty good about it. But “Michael Morley” is not one person but a throng of interior selves, each with a special sense of what Morley should be and do. When the dean starts getting anonymous phone calls from someone who seems to know his secrets shockingly well, the delicate equilibrium of his inner community, which serves the purposes of the tyrannical and anxious adult superego known as “the boss,” is thrown into turmoil and panic:
The only problem to worry about, repeated the manager, is the question what to do. What, if anything. You could scare him, suggested the boy—bluff, fake him out…. The mother said you should be gentle: a madman like that must be suffering, she said. Can you even begin to imagine how much?… The sister said madmen don’t yield to persuasion or sympathy. The only way is to be practical, take the measures that will force him to stop. Call the police, she said, and arrange a trap. Or get an unlisted number. The sheriff said that this would be a surrender to the outlaw. The father agreed. Why should you let a mad stranger cut you off from the unknown, from forgotten friends, geologists from other universities, cousins passing through town?
These and the other inhabitants of Morley’s consciousness feel especially threatened because the phone calls, by reviving the long-suppressed interests of his childhood, threaten to wake up the dreaded “boy king,” the imaginative, impractical, irresponsible childhood self whom they deposed so many years ago. The “Mythology” of Wright’s title consists of those interests, the devotion of a bright and rather privileged child in the early 1930s to objects and names that hold deep and private value: Diomedes in the Iliad, the boy king Richard II, George Pipgras of the Yankees, a singer at the Met named Dorothee Manski, the steamer Priscilla on the Fall River Line, a pleasant cow encountered on a tour of Poland, and the like. Later, recognizing that these accidental attachments were mostly second-rate, the aging boy king adds a new series of certified winners, including Kirsten Flagstad, Wagner’s Tristan, Louis Armstrong, and Ted Williams.
The best thing in the book is Wright’s playful and loving exploration of this Mythology, which (he explains in a note) is made up of his own youthful enthusiasms. He has composed a rich and …