Friday, February 09, 2007
Retired Chico State professor explores the self's yearnings
By DAN BARNETT
Former Chico State University professor David Downes has achieved international renown as an expert on the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Now, in his retirement years, Downes has taken to writing novels, drawing on stories from his boyhood growing up in the Cripple Creek gold district in Colorado ("The Belle of Cripple Creek Gold") and his exploration of how self, belief and love are interconnected ("The Angel in Wax").
In his new story, "Sailing: Inside Passages -- The Mysteries of the Inner Sea" ($10 in paperback from Xlibris), Downes, writing as "David Anton," puts his characters aboard the cruise ship Europa for a tour of the western Mediterranean -- which becomes a tour of their inner lives.
Merlin Morgan is 55, a retired literature professor. Marina, his Mother (the story always capitalizes the word), is very rich indeed; widowed for a decade, she had never remarried and always worried she had made her son's life too easy. Merlin, looking at himself in the mirror, "saw an older man, cynical about life, who had taken a hard look at the ways of the world and his role in it and concluded there was far more evil than good in life, and thus happiness in each individual life was a gamble involving the luck of the draw in a losing game."
On board the ship, Merlin, Marina and Milli (Marina's close friend), find themselves sharing a meal with four other passengers, including Nolan Merrill, "a retired banker in his early 80s. He was a bit fragile physically, spoke in a soft voice. His attractive daughter, Zelda, Merlin guessed, was unmarried, dedicated to making her Father's last years secure and happy. He liked hearing her speak; she possessed a rich, deep, toned voice that was very pleasant to hear. The flamboyant Masons were a true match. Victor was a retired car salesman, somewhere in his sixties, and his wife Alta, in her late fifties, an inveterate bridge player."
Most of the action in the story is inner. The tablemates find themselves disembarking at various ports of call, to shop or sightsee, and the cruise itself is uneventful. But Merlin is struggling with a growing sense of emptiness and lack of companionship. At one point he has a long talk with Nolan who asks Merlin point blank: "Do you have any religion?" All Merlin can do is mutter that he was baptized Catholic and then he adds: "Religion never took with me. And I think my education gave me reasons not to have any beliefs." But then, speaking more frankly, he tells Nolan that "I think I am, in some way now, more open to some sort of spiritual experience. Now that I am moving into middle life, I feel the need to allow myself to consider fresh possibilities."
"Sailing" is about some of those fresh possibilities. Merlin realizes that his exploration of the ruins of Carthage on one of the stops is merely superficial, passionless. Nolan, on the other hand, sees beneath the surface. As Merlin tells Zelda: "Your Father really saw them for what they were -- dusty covers for a civilization that lay under them that was rich and powerful, interesting and consequential in history. He made me realize this."
And so Merlin's story unfolds as real love, which had passed him by in earlier years, finds true anchor. Anton has written a thoughtful and engaging tale in which a cynic finds the magic of hope.
Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright 2007 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.