McMaster

Robert Boucheron

The reclusive author John McMaster never gave an interview, sat for a photograph, or splashed across a cover. He did not gush on television, endorse a personal care product, or make a live recording. His work appeared solely in print in magazines with a small circulation and a brief lifespan. Readers who missed him on the first go, however, have a chance to catch up. Books of his fugitive and unpublished pieces issue now like rabbits from a hat.

The books clump like with like. My Peregrination sketches the author’s childhood and school years, while Metro Confessional continues the story in New York. The Gilded Frame looks at paintings old and new, from Pre-Raphaelite to Post-Impressionist, with a throwaway piece on the Ashcan School. Lucent Fans and the sequel Faint Olympians render homage to poetry and the poetic impulse in varied endeavors, including home improvement, amateur sports, and solid waste disposal. Sphagnum Moss collects thoughts on gardens and botany. Foot It Featly does the same for travel. McMaster hated tourist attractions, airports, and jumbo jets. He visited places that were off the beaten track, such as abandoned mining camps, forest fire watchtowers, and utopian communes.

McMaster never wrote a novel, in the sense of a book-length narrative. Yet everything he wrote, it might be argued, is one continuous stream of thought, a long roman-fleuve. He worked in bed on waking, and he drew scant distinction between dreaming and writing. The result is a dreamlike quality in the work. Rich in image and symbol, it resembles a lyric essay that never clinches an argument, an excursion that fails to arrive at a destination. “And why should it?” he once said. “The journey is the thing.”

McMaster blurs the line between prose and poetry, reportage and fantasy, truth and fiction. He calls his brand “inflected reality.” In this vein, A Likely Story is a string of tales set in the landscape of North America and a vague world of the imagination. Instead of a plot ruled by cause and effect, a dream-sequence eddies and flows, with digressions and pseudo-explanations that only confuse the issue. Characters are drawn from life in bold strokes, and their plight is of interest, if not always believable. The hero is often a stand-in for the author. The heroine is ideal, attractive, and present. Acute observation and a gift for dialogue add tang. A reviewer today might tag McMaster as magical realist. He would certainly protest.

***

In My Peregrination, billed as a “serial autobiography,” John McMaster rambles through life as a boy at home, a student at a boarding school, a wanderer in Europe, and a budding bon vivant in New York. Writing this account of his early life, he relies on memory, aided by a talent for vivid detail and scene-sketching. Detours into fantasy are not clearly marked. “The naked truth is a bore,” he says.

In the 1940s, home is a house overshadowed by gloomy pines and hemlocks, in an affluent suburb in New Jersey, Long Island, or the Connecticut panhandle. Geographical names and firm dates are somehow vulgar in the world of McMaster. As soon as he can toddle, little John is out the door. “Only then could I breathe,” he says. The atmosphere inside the house is as thick as in a play by Eugene O’Neill.

The adored mother, Mamie McMaster, is a faded society belle, capriciously indulgent, timid as a mouse, and as shrill when caught. Yoked to a husband prone to verbal assault, she also gets some licks in. Her relationship to her son oscillates between smothering and needy, behavior that confuses the little boy. “Mother demanded complete surrender, and the next moment she begged me to kiss away her tears.”

John McMaster Senior does something on Wall Street, has a grasp of finance and law, and worships wealth. The product of good schools and privilege, he flaunts a large vocabulary. He is a man of towering stature, insatiable appetite, terrifying rage, and boundless self-pity. Artists are parasites, he says, yet he has an obvious talent for the stage.

The family includes a daughter, Nancy, and small pets that survive briefly—tropical fish, a turtle, and a hamster. Houseplants wither, and domestic help flees. A rare visitor remarks on a foul smell and asks if the plumbing is out of order. A toilet drain is clogged with little bones, the remains of the pets. Later, the problem is paper. A born writer, McMaster has not yet learned that first drafts should not be crumpled into balls and flushed.

A typical evening chez McMaster is awash in alcohol, tirades, and tears. Husband and wife goad each other, as their two children cower under a table and try to decipher the insults. There are punitive hangovers, memory lapses, bouts of remorse, hysterical outbursts, weeping fits, and shudders of exhaustion.

The episode of the spoiled birthday party takes family drama to the limit and beyond. The nine-year-old boy harbors murderous hate and attacks his father with a toy dagger. The plastic breaks and the jagged stump draws a “crimson torrent.” The police siren, handcuffs, and brutal interrogation that follow are perhaps embroidered, but something went wrong.

Shortly after this scene, McMaster is shipped off to school, “so my parents could concentrate on ruining their lives.” Houndstooth Academy is an exclusive college preparatory school in a cold climate, remote from civilization, probably in New England. The appalling weather, inedible food, and grotesque inmates recall a nineteenth-century novel by Dickens or Balzac. The hero takes refuge in literature. He reads anything and everything but prefers dark classics—Lovecraft, Bierce, and Poe. His own literary efforts at this period explore the macabre and the psychic, he says, but “a horror of juvenilia” leads him to discard them. He enjoys biology and chemistry because “I could dissect dead animals and blow things up.”

McMaster falls in with a social set who provide good copy. The straight arrow Clapp is an unbearable prig who goes rotten. The debauched Snodgrass maintains a pipeline of drugs and cheap liquor. The glamorous Rowlandson, with his stash of cosmetics, plays female leads in drama club productions. The firebug Apthorp plays with butane and explosives and gets expelled for arson. Whether McMaster participates in the plot to burn down the school chapel, “a hideous example of Collegiate Gothic,” is open to question. He claims he was disciplined and implies a whipping, but he suffers no long-term effects.

The Houndstooth faculty are as colorful as the students. Mr. Pennyfeather is the bombastic history teacher, with a gleaming bald dome like a battle helmet. Mr. Gray is the shy English teacher who writes poems, barely speaks above a whisper, and flinches when he looks you in the eye. Mr. Bothand teaches the sciences and leads the class on hikes to collect specimens. The boys fight for the privilege of lugging his box of apparatus, with a hammer for rocks and bags for bugs. Mr. Maldemer is the chain-smoking French teacher, a native speaker whose suave manner conceals a ravenous appetite for intrigue.

In the all-male world of Houndstooth, where Greek classics loom large, a degree of same-sex flirtation is to be expected. The word “homosexual” is never said aloud, and “gay” is not yet a synonym, but the boys hold Oscar Wilde and E. M. Forster in high regard. They read Walt Whitman’s poems on “the dear love of comrades.” An older student taps McMaster as his “fag” and subjects him to a “painful initiation.” What the author commits to paper, however, reflects the climate of the 1950s. He suggests and alludes. A queer activist will find him inhibited, still in the closet. As he says in another context, “Read between the lines and use your imagination.”

McMaster earns high grades without effort. He graduates at the top of his class, “with a prize for doing intellectual tricks like a performing seal.” Instead of going on to college, with the prize money he flies to Europe. He tramps back roads, stays in hostels and farm sheds, scrounges for food at outdoor markets, loses his glasses, and sings on the street like a blind beggar. He meets a kindly old priest in the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, pals around with a foulmouthed urchin, and falls for a black-eyed “gypsy girl” who steals his heart and his wallet. The gender of this last person is in doubt. She plays him for a fool, but the young American has no hard feelings. He lives in the moment until the money runs out.

McMaster returns to attend an unnamed college on a bleak plain where snow falls seven months of the year. A bargain is involved: “My parents threw money at me to stay away, and I cashed their checks in a spirit of revenge.” The college fails to live up to expectations, or is it the other way around? McMaster bridles at medieval rules and tiresome reading lists. Asked to declare a major, he wants to “specialize in the ineffable.” He takes a leave of absence to prolong the freedom of youth. A semester passes, and we hear no more about academic rigor or a degree.

McMaster belongs in New York, he decides. He finds an apartment in Greenwich Village and teaches English in a private school uptown. The daily subway commute is irksome, but the social milieu of eccentric wealth suits him. He paces the streets of Manhattan like the deck of a cruise ship. He dresses well, cuts a fine figure, and grows a glossy black mustache. He attends the opera and ballet in the new Lincoln Center, sees every show on Broadway, and accepts invitations to dinner parties, where he tells outrageous stories. Money is no problem. The young man lives on credit, underwritten by good looks and manners copied from Mr. Maldemer. Bills go unpaid, but business owners get the benefit of his acquaintance. He cultivates an accent nobody can place, “for the excellent reason that I made it up.”

While on vacation in Mexico, both parents die in an accident—they stray too close to an active volcano. John and Nancy inherit enough to provide an income. Hand in hand, they walk through their childhood home, now sadly dated, before listing it for sale. McMaster says only that lawyers are involved and a lovely memorial service. Nancy retreats to an island off the coast of Maine, buys a trawler, and embarks on a career in commercial fishing. McMaster retires after a few years of teaching, and the book ends.

The style may be an acquired taste, like an overripe fruit or an aged cheese, but McMaster offers a unique perspective. Take a walk in his tasseled loafers. The world will never look quite the same.

***

The 1960s are a decade of social ferment, political protest, intellectual revolt, drugs, and sex. McMaster participates with gusto. “In New York, I did everything, met everyone, and went everywhere,” he says in the “quasi memoir” Metro Confessional. An attractive young man about town, with no responsibilities and the gift of gab, McMaster gains entry to private clubs and exclusive circles. He pursues famous figures. He talks trash with Truman Capote, analyzes films with Gore Vidal, drinks whiskey with Tennessee Williams, experiments in media with Andy Warhol, sings along at a party as Leonard Bernstein plays the piano, and shares a cab one rainy evening with Marilyn Monroe. He is too busy to jot any of this down in a diary, but his memory for details is exact, he says. The cameras of the paparazzi miss him, news stories of the time omit him, and celebrity memoirs fail to recall him. Perhaps he exaggerates.

Living in Greenwich Village, McMaster is present at the Stonewall Inn in July 1969, when homosexual bar patrons defy a police raid. The event marks the birth of Gay Liberation. In the tumult, McMaster is lost in the crowd. In fairness, McMaster’s black mustache and trim figure, a look called “the clone,” make him resemble thousands of men around age thirty. Like one of his own characters, McMaster might easily go incognito. He may have used an alias, a street name. If so, he took the secret with him. He paints the scene in his unique style. Did he really goose the police officer?

As the 1970s get underway, the system adjusts, the off-Broadway theater scene blossoms, and the Golden Age of Disco dawns. This is the age of queens, tricks, cruising, and roller skates. The fairy godmother Rollerina zips through the streets in chiffon, spangles, and fancy eyeglasses. She dubs McMaster with her magic wand, and he tingles with anticipation. He dances at Studio 54, the Saint, and Limelight. He attends plays performed in tiny theaters at basement level, literally underground, with gay plots and actors in drag.  He frequents the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore, loiters in Sheridan Square, and joins the passeggiata up and down Christopher Street. Yet he spurns an offer of membership in the Violet Quill, a group of gay male writers in New York. He rejects labels and recoils from identity politics.

One night at the corner of Christopher Street and the West Side Highway, outside a cowboy and western bar, McMaster stumbles over a young man sprawled on the ground. Clad in blue jeans and a tight-fitting T-shirt against the chill of October, the muscular youth gazes up and wriggles. His teeth are dazzling white.With a limited command of English, no past to speak of, and “a body for days” in the lingo of the era, this person is Silvio Bugiardo.

On his very first day in America, some new friends take Bugiardo out for a drink, a single beer which makes him pass out. The friends leave him lying there. A conscientious citizen, McMaster picks up “this bit of street trash” and takes him home. The next morning, Bugiardo refuses to leave. On his own initiative, he assumes the roles of valet, housekeeper, and cook. He takes classes in English and typing. He becomes McMaster’s typist, secretary, and promoter. Bugiardo is to McMaster as Alice B. Toklas was to Gertrude Stein.

Of what we read today, how much flows from the pen of the author, and how much from the keyboard of the transcriber? The situation resembles Socrates and Plato, the Buddha and his earliest disciples, and a Jewish preacher from Nazareth. Bugiardo makes no bones about his role:

From the heterogeneous mass of writing, I secretly made excerpts and furnished them with titles. I slipped them to monthly journals, quarterly reviews, biannual issues, and year-end compendia. I cultivated editors and performed discreet favors. In this way, McMaster began to publish.

Bugiardo has mined the notebooks, manuscripts, and letters ever since. It is he who shapes the endless poem into readable prose. His contribution may be considerable, given the author’s lack of discipline. The unfiltered McMaster will forever remain an enigma, while Bugiardo alleges “a sympathetic vibration of souls.”

The wild party of 1970s New York fades, as a frightening new disease appears from nowhere. Nobody knows what it is at first—a rare form of cancer, a combination of infections, a sexually transmitted disease like syphilis, a fatal illness like tuberculosis before antibiotics? By 1983 the plague has a name, and research identifies the cause as a virus, but McMaster never mentions AIDS or HIV.

An essay on The Decameronand the Black Death that inspired it may allude to contemporary events. A story set in New York in the 1800s during a yellow fever epidemic, “The Miasma” may echo the 1980s. McMaster lingers in bed, no longer a sybarite but an invalid. He is loath to admit weakness, shuns the vogue for confessional literature, and refuses to be a victim. He takes up philosophy. Søren Kierkegaard supplies the phrase “the sickness unto death,” but McMaster changes the meaning from “despair” to a weariness with consumer culture, which includes a “corrupt American health care system, driven by obscene commercial gain and a fetish for shiny gadgets.” As Bugiardo desperately nurses and watches, the home patient enters a decline, wastes away, and expires with the decade.

The latest title to sprout, like a fragrant hyacinth from the moldering grave, is The Tyranny of the Quotidian: A Book of Days. In an introduction, Bugiardo explains the birth of this addition to the McMaster oeuvre:

Of the pet phrases and enigmatic sayings that McMaster was fond of repeating, one that stuck like a burr on a sleeve was “the tyranny of the quotidian.” If I complained about chores or the running of the household, he would trot out this chestnut. One day, I was driven to ask what the devil he meant by it.

“Dear Silvio,” he said, “you bend beneath a burden. You labor under an illusion. You groan from the lash of an unseen overseer. Who asks you to do these things? Not I! Your own need for order compels you. Throw off this load of care and live!”

The cycle of nature and mortality are themes, and “transcend” is a favorite word. “What else can we do with the petty task, the polite obligation, the insipid fact, but transcend?” McMaster seldom quotes a source by name or acknowledges an intellectual debt. Still, he read widely, and he shows the influence of the Transcendentalists—Emerson’s booming oratory, Hawthorne’s knack for the strange, Thoreau’s flights of ecstasy, and Melville’s erotic fixation on sailors. “If you can escape the classroom of an American high school without the din of the nineteenth-century clanging inside your skull, you are made of sterner stuff than I was.”

Incisive and seductive, the voice ricochets in the canyons of the city and echoes in remote suburban cul-de-sacs. Perhaps McMaster can enjoy a quiet moment now. That is, if the busy Silvio Bugiardo will let him rest in peace.


About the Author

Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, Saturday Evening Post, and online magazines.