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Monday, 28 June 2010

The Butterfly Collector


The subconscious is a child, and like an angry child must be kept locked in its room. — Fred McGavran

After a quick search through Google there are two things I can tell you about Fred McGavran: he writes a lot of stories (and gets published) and he enters (and makes money from) lots of competitions. After reading a few of his stories I can also tell you, although after reading the above this will come as no great surprise, the man knows how to tell a story. He ought to; at 67 he’s no youngster, and he’s clearly been honing his craft for many years.

Fifteen of his stories are to be found in his first collection, The Butterfly Collector, which is published by Black Lawrence Press. All of the stories bar one take place in the New York Tri-State Region which, roughly speaking, encompasses the populated areas in the states of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut that are within a typical commuting distance of Manhattan. ‘The Deer’ takes place in Hyde Park which is a town located in the northwest part of Dutchess County, New York.

Butterfly1 Most of the stories have a peculiarly American feel to them and I don’t simply mean he uses ‘lawyer’ when I would use ‘solicitor’. If I changed Hyde Park to Hyndland, Glasgow I couldn’t see the action transferring neatly. You might see the odd fox in Hyndland but I’ve only ever seen deer from my living room window. I live on the very edge of the Glasgow City Region and when you look out of my living room window you see the countryside. That said I still can’t envisage deer wandering through the streets here munching on the neighbours’ daffodils. But that’s what happens in ‘The Deer’ and the locals have had enough:

"I have a client in the suburbs who uses a crossbow," the lawyer said. "From up in the trees. It's perfectly legal."

"How horrible!" exclaimed Dawn Martin, a frazzled platinum blond with a flair for Jaguars and bathrobes during car pool. "What if the children saw?"

Derek smirked; he would love to watch someone shoot a deer with a crossbow.

"Then they've won," George Harancourt concluded, slapping another steak on the grill. Tall, hard eyed and brutally fit, the biggest developer in the city didn't like to lose. "The laws protect animals, not us."

I caught the edge in his voice, the driving, inconsiderate power that had shoved his wife aside and driven his son to drugs. Lacking his father's cunning and cruelty, Derek could only escape through cocaine.

"What about spears?" I said to turn it all into a joke.

Only Derek takes it seriously and sometime later reports:

"They're here!" he exclaimed. "Dad and Eddie are waiting. Come on!"

"What are you talking about, dear?" Louise asked.

"The spears, Mrs. Elliot. Come on!"

This story, and ‘Breaking Cover’, are the only two stories in the collection that concern hunting. I can’t say I enjoy reading much about hunting but hunting is only the arena in which the real stories play out. In ‘The Deer’ the arrival of the spears, and their subsequent use (and inevitable misuse), could easily have been something reckless like drag racing or a poker night that gets out of hand. The preposterousness of these urbanites running around like the kids out of Lord of the Flies is what makes this such an effective story. You can read the whole story online here and see what you think.

Butterfly2 If the two hunting stories were the hardest reads for me then the two most pleasurable ones (and the one I imagine would have the most universal appeal) would have to be ‘The Butterfly Collector’ and ‘Lillian’ both of which deal with senile dementia, which you might imagine would be also a hard read, and they are in their own way, but they are also very touching and have a gentle humour. Both — wisely I have to say — are written in the first person from the perspective of Walter who is quite a character. In the first Lillian, his wife, is still around but in the story that bears her name he’s in a home and it’s only his daughter that visits him during the course of the story.

How many butterflies do you need to become a collector? Walter has one. But it’s a start. Albeit a late one. He ‘collects’ it on a trip to “the butterfly exhibition at the conservatory”:

After thirty-seven years of marriage, we spent Sunday afternoons seeking some diversion that Lillian and Mother’s feet and nerves and bladders could endure. While they were distracted by the orchids, I slipped away on a concrete path through the imitation rain forest, steamy with drizzle from overhead pipes. We had been there so often that I recognised the overfed goldfish in the jungle pool and many of the family groups pretending to share grandma’s interests in exotic flowers. Just another three hours, I thought, and Lillian will think of dinner, I can open a bottle of wine, and the evening will merge with all the others in the soft gauze of forgetfulness and boredom.

So Walter is reasonably compos mentis at the start of this story. Six pages in he’s had an epiphany and they've called in Dr. Morris and a couple of pages after that he’s stopped talking completely and is being put into care.

In ‘Lillian’ Walter has obviously been in the residential home for some time and he’s living quite happily in his own head:

Her name, I think, is Lillian. At least that's what I call to her in dreams. She is not so much a person as a presence, a warmth that awakens me when I try to touch her. How strange to feel such longing for someone who may never have existed. She is like a name that you recognise but cannot place, a thought detached from words.

The rest of my life is very organized. A young man in a puffy blue gown and large white gym shoes awakens me at seven. It is more like a game we play. I am always awake wondering what has happened to Lillian and just pretend to be asleep when he opens my door. There are always such loud noises in the hall, carts and trays and funny smells, and large, happy people in puffy blue gowns calling greetings to one another.

If I have had a good night, he helps me out of my plastic wrappings and to the toilet and then the shower, where he sprays me with warm water. If I have had a bad night, well, we do the same things, but he sprays me first and talks to himself about why he gets all the nasty ones. When I tell him about my dreams, he says, "At your age? No way!"

Butterfly3 The story works perfectly well without having read ‘The Butterfly Collector’ but seeing where Walter has come from does add an edge to the piece. He’s not forgotten Lillian, of course, but she slips in and out of his memory. I don’t think Fred presents an unrealistic view of senility. Take this scene when his daughter visits:

The days now pass quickly, like waking moments in dreams. A middle-aged woman came to see me, but she could hardly speak. She just sat beside my bed, sobbing quietly. She looks like someone I might have known once. Why has she ventured into the Sibyl's cave?

"Have you seen Lillian?" I finally asked to break the dismal spell.

"Oh, Daddy, you know she's gone."

Of course I know she's gone, but where? Outside? Is there still an outside? If I can find a tear in the screen, I will slip away and find her. But then what? Will one of the people in puffy blue gowns catch us in a net, dip us in chloroform and pin us in a glass case? No, I shall never go outside again.

The middle-aged woman showed me pictures of a young man in a black cap and gown. So they still have graduations. I wonder from what. Perhaps he is skilled in medicine, or law, or Slavic languages, or how to align the burial chamber in a pyramid with the North Star.

"You really must behave, Daddy. This is the last place in town we could find for you. Please don't cause any more trouble."

To show her how passive I am I stop breathing. When I turn blue, she runs to the nursing station, and a large woman stalks in with an injection.

So, all the horrible things that one associates with dementia are there; the only difference is that Walter is nothing if not philosophical about them all. Anyway, you can read the whole story online here.

About halfway through the collection comes ‘Memories of a Family Vacation’ which is another Walter and Lillian story, a flashback to their younger days, when, during a holiday by the sea in the early 2000s (we know this because of a reference to the Iraq War), what appears to be a German submarine appears mysteriously in the harbour, sixty years late, and Walter has an encounter with what he assumes is a German spy followed by a meeting with a couple of FBI agents – or it might have just been the drink. A Lillian also appears as the proprietor of Lillian’s Wine Bar in ‘Embracing the Inner Child’ but the narrator there is a Mel so maybe ‘Lillian’ is just a name Fred’s fond of.

In a short interview Fred had this to say about his attitude towards his readers:

You have to respect the reader. If someone is going to spend even five minutes with this you have to make it worth their while.

Butterfly4 So did I come away from The Butterfly Collection feeling respected? Pretty much, yes. I never felt talked down to, I didn’t feel I was reading by-the-numbers plots and I felt that everything he said to me was considered, in that Jane Austin way, perfectly pitched. I’m not a big fan of descriptions but if you’re going to have ’em then do ’em right:

La Ron removed her sunglasses, which had frosted up in the elevator, and wiped them on a silver rayon blouse that extruded from her stole. Her orange-blond wig was slightly askew, contributing to her dishabille. (from ‘The Forgiveness of Edwin Watkins’)

Some men can’t write women to save themselves and some women can’t write men. There’s only one story where a woman is the lead and that’s the delightful second story in the collection, ‘The Beautician’, one worthy of O. Henry himself. Cookie is called to the hospital to do the makeup for Marion in Room 3221. The nurse asks if he can help her:

“Sometimes they have a picture I can use,” I replied.

“Over here, dear,” the patient said.

If trees could talk, they would whisper to each other in voices like that.

Marion is in a sorry state when Cookie gets to her with her soft, “Let’s sees” and “Let’s try.” It’s a simple story, just a beautician reassuring her client as she does her best to make her client look her best:

“[L]et’s start with your hair.”

It was thin and broken and glued to her scalp with dried sweat. She started to cry.

“You don’t know how awful it is to be like this,” she sobbed.

“Let’s just see what we can do.”

I always try to be positive. It works pretty well with everybody except men.

But Marion is not all she seems and when the priest arrives Cookie gets the surprise of her life.

When Fred McGavran isn’t writing stories he earns a crust as a lawyer. He writes:

Fred_McGavran_web I was an English major at Kenyon College, served as an officer in the United States Navy, graduated from Harvard Law School, and have practiced with Frost Brown Todd LLC in Cincinnati for most of my career. I concentrate my practice on business cases and defending psychiatric malpractice claims.

My practice gave me the background to write about lawyers reacting, often poorly, to financial and personal pressures, plus the vocabulary to reflect sardonically about psychiatry, sometimes through demented characters. My wife, Liz, is a decorator, our older daughter Sarah is working on a Ph.D in Art History at Washington University in St. Louis, and our younger daughter Marian is a realtor in San Diego.

Although I have always been driven to write fiction, it took a long time to find the right voice and tone. I started writing Vietnam stories, then lawyer stories, then satires, then more whimsical stories like ‘A Descant for St. Simeon,’ where grace occasionally intervenes.

‘A Descant for St. Simeon’ isn’t a part of this collection but it’s available online here.

Butterfly5 Lawyers and judges appear in ‘The Resurrection of Nelson Campbell’ which deals with the consequences, both legal and ontological, of a husband’s miraculous resurrection after being cremated five years earlier. Needless to say no one is keen to tell him that his company is gone and the proceeds invested. They also appear in ‘A Gracious Voice’ and ‘The Forgiveness of Edwin Watkins. ‘A Friend of Bill Gillen’ is set in the world of real estate agents.

‘Not Until Everything’s Perfect’ has the flavour of a Ray Bradbury story. It’s not science fiction but then neither was all Bradbury’s output. The Ashleys have bought “the three story fieldstone house on the double lot cater-corner across the street” from the story’s narrator who, thinking he’s being neighbourly, goes over and asks them:

“When are you going to move in?

He lowered his clipboard, and she her illustrated arboreal guide, to stare at me. I had not thought it so difficult a question. Then Robert Ashley turned to his platinum-haired wife, who smiled pleasantly as if she were meeting a new masseur.

“Not until everything’s perfect,” she said.

The big question is: how far does ‘everything’ extend to? You see the Ashleys are not just looking to run over the lawn with a mower and maybe give the front door a lick of paint. Oh, no. Everything has to be perfect. And that includes the neighbours.

Not all the stories are contemporary. ‘Two Cures for Phantom Limb’ is set in “the good old days before movies, television and the Internet, when self-reliant Americans had to entertain themselves [and when] an amputation drew as large a crowd as a murder trial or a horse race.” So when it looks like the Brakeman’s leg is going to have to come off there they all are awaiting Frank, the doctor’s eldest son, who brought the leg out to the back garden for burial with all due ceremony . . . but not until he has entertained the assembled throng with the severed appendage. The garden it turns out is the final resting place of a large selection of body parts which were no longer of any use to their original owners.

Then the doctor receives two very odd requests, firstly, old Jack Townsed, the doctor’s very first amputation “at the battle of Chattanooga” is dying and wants to be buried as a whole man so he needs his leg back, and then the Butterfly6 Brakeman finds he needs his back too. The solution to both problems is not what I expected.

A delightful story as is the final one in the book, ‘The Annunciation of Charles Sears’, where a down-and-out Angel fills in at a children’s Christmas pageant. And by down-and-out I mean precisely that, “a refugee from the Alcoholic Drop In Centre, who came to the church for handouts after drinking up his disability compensation.” Both these stories come with a sly humour.

As an introductory collection this is a very well balanced book and provides a good range of stories that sit well together. They don’t cover his full range — no horror or war stories which I know he also writes — but this is still a good selection. But it’s not perfect. I had to read ‘A Gracious Voice’ twice and even then I didn’t feel I’d got it. In their review at A Write Place at a Write Time they put this down to “switching gears” and although I can see where he does that in other stories — I think of it more as misdirection, starting talking about one thing and then drifting into the story proper — I’m not sure that was the problem in this particular story. For me it had too many characters and I just think I prefer my lawyers more like those on Boston Legal than Raising the Bar.

A word or two of credit is due to the people who designed the cover for this one. On the whole Black Lawrence Books does a good job on its covers — they’re the kind of thing your hand is drawn to — but with all the butterflies on this one it really is the kind of book you want to send someone as a present.

The Butterfly Collector won the St. Lawrence Book Award in 2007. It’s an award run by Black Lawrence Press for an unpublished manuscript and publication is a part of the prize.

In addition to the aforementioned Fred McGavran has also won:

  • in 2008, an Individual Achievement Award from the Ohio Arts Council
  • in 2007 the Writer’s Digest Short Story Contest in the horror category
  • in 2004 the John Reid/Tom Howard Contest
  • in 2003 the Raymond Carver Award from Humboldt State University

He has placed in a number of other literary and screenwriting contests. His stories have appeared in Pearl Magazine, Rosebud, Gray's Sporting Journal, Dreams & Visions, Storyglossia, Third Order, and other literary magazines and e-zines. The following stories are all available online:

From The Butterfly Collector:




Gwil W said...

I enjoy this fine, stylish American way of writing. It's something many European writers imitate only averagely well. And so they end up in the mid-Atlantic Trench.

Kass said...

Oh dear. All I can think of is Fred Garvin, male prostitute from Dan Aykroyd's Saturday Night Live sketch.

I definitely enjoy this Fred's style of writing. I'd read it if I actually thought I had the time. I can't even finish your book - not because it's not good, but because I'm so exhausted when my head hits the pillow, I only get a few paragraphs into it, then I'm gone.

Given the state of my mother, I find his observations of senility poetically apt.

Jim Murdoch said...

You’re right, Poet in Residence, this is a very American book on the surface, the language, the settings but I think its appeal will be broader than that. Besides most of us are more interested in what’s going on elsewhere. We know what life’s like in our own back yards.

And, Kass, it pleases me no end that you’re still plugging away at my book. So, thank you for that. As for this one, yes, I think you would appreciate the stories about the old guy. He sounds like quite a character and I suspect that he’s someone the author keeps drifting back to. But the thing for me was the fact that even where the guy’s memory is all but gone he never comes across as tragic; he shrugs and muddles along. His entire world is in his head. I get that.

Dave King said...

I enjoyed reading your review, but without quite knowing why, I did get the feeling that I was getting more from it than I would get from the stories, though one or two caught my interest. How many butterflies....? That's like: How many poem s must you write to become a poet? Isn't it? Maybe it's the same answer. I digress. I do find your reviews a good read - that's what I'm saying.

Jim Murdoch said...

I'm not sure what to say here, Dave. There were stories in this collection that I didn't connect with but that's often the case with short stories. I seriously think that all the stories that involve old people were lovely and I would have liked more of them. Maybe these are all he's written. The best thing is to check out a couple of the online stories. 'Lilian' is the one I'd recommend. In my review I've also tried not to give away too much. By holding back it may feel like I'm selling short. I don't think youngsters would take to this book but anyone else will be able to enjoy most of it.

Art Durkee said...

I agree that in some ways that "The Butterfly Collector" and "Lillian" are pretty good representations of what it's like to be inside the mind of someone with senile dementia. But I can tell you from bitter family experience with Alzheimer's that no such person, no person with Alzheimer's anyway, is ever that verbal or able to even construct complete sentences. Yes, I know this someone trying to convey a state of mind to those who don't share it. I suppose the compromise here is that the verbal storytelling art uses tools to describe a state of mind that is actually rather non-verbal. It's a paradox of means and ends, but because of personal experience it's hard to take seriously.

A far more resonant story for me, along these lines, is Ursula K. LeGuin's story "She Unnames Them," which can be found online. In that story, Eve goes around the Garden taking back the names that Adam gave out earlier. As the story progresses, things that no longer have names become things you have to talk around, or point at, but cannot otherwise name or directly discuss. The story is a tour de force in showing how arbitrarily we label things, and confuse the name (symbol) with the fact of the thing itself. In my experience, this is a lot more like what Alzheimer's patients go through.

Art Durkee said...

Afterthought: that same paradox of means and ends, in which a writer is verbally trying to portray a profoundly post-verbal or non-verbal state of mind, is for me another example of how some writers think about the primacy of their art.

For me, it would have been a lot more effective to depict directly the failing memory and mind‚ rather than to describe it using language the way a compos mentis person still would. I found that particularly and unconvincing. Again, it reflects that bias about means some writers have, in which they think it can all be done with words, when clearly there are things that can't be done with words. Paradox.

I might have been more convinced had he tried to involve the reader directly in the experience by representing state of mind with, perhaps, non-normative, non-standard post-verbal syntax.

As it was, I feel like this is talking ABOUT an experience rather than recreating the experience in the reader. Since I think it's possible to recreate even this experience in the reader, via the writing, I guess I think that talking-about was the cheaper and easier solution.

It's not that I think it's bad writing. But I don't like how it keeps the emotion one step divorced from the reality, by doing it this way. It makes me think about that old cliche about telling rather than showing.

Jim Murdoch said...

I think that’s the best way to look at these stories, Art. The writer’s taken poetic licence and he’s done so to good effect. We do see the frustration of those outside the man but on the inside it’s a different thing. I have no firsthand experience of senile dementia – well, apart from a short visit to an old woman who had lost her short-term memory (now that was tragic) – but I do remember how my mother was the day she died; she spent all her time in the distant past talking about things I had never heard before. She died happy. But she was not happy in the moment. Yes, she was pleased that Carrie and I were there but that’s not where her real comfort came from. God alone knows what she was thinking of but she died with a smile on her face.

You’re right when you talk about describing this kind of condition in words because so much of it is non-verbal. Anything written has to be a compromise but as far as I’m concerned everything written is already a compromise. If you’re not using all your sense to experience something then it’s limited in its power.

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