To forgive is wisdom, to forget is genius.
— Gulley Jimson
MY FATHER’S PAINT BOX was made of leather-covered wood, worn at the corners so the wood showed through. As a child, I loved opening that box, looking at the inner compartments intended for tubes of oil paint, now crazed with dried blotches. The paints were long gone when, decades ago, I lifted the lid and looked inside, but I could see lines where brushes had lain in a mess of creativity. My father had not struck me as a man capable of mess, but he was.
For a time he painted with steady application, though the only pictures I ever saw were small studies, a crude self-portrait of a red-haired man smoking a pipe, a sparsely furnished room with an electric lamp. All very stiffly done, but I recognized him in the effort, the thing started and left unfinished.
All his life, my father tried one sort of creativity after another. He made jewelry, he built gardens, he began a novel, writing from back to front without ever reaching the beginning. Some of these things remained after his death, but my own life of constant movement has meant abandoning most possessions, like those bits of furniture left behind by covered wagons on the western pilgrimage. Now that I live in Australia, on the far side of the planet from where I was born, there is no trail across the Pacific where I might rediscover that paint box, those crude little paintings. They are lost forever.
For some people, the objects of a life, identifying heirlooms, remain a physical source of comfort, even a necessity, holding the past together in one coherent place. For the rest of us, these objects and places live only in memory’s imaginal realm. They can no longer be turned in the hand or searched for evidence. They are ghosts. Immigrants or refugees, we live like survivors of flood and fire, with the clothes on our backs and whatever possessions a new life affords us. Still, even when we deny their necessity, the lost things call out to us. They are the future as well as the past, emblems of the final letting go.
It is my father himself I would rather have kept. Maybe that is why people hang on to old things from the past — because they can. The fact that I could not only reminds me, quietly, daily, what those things mean.
A man dies, but a character lives. A man seldom wishes to be a character, but he becomes one anyway, the moment he is recalled. At the end, the spark of my father’s character gave only the faintest light. A restless spirit was reduced to something less than infancy, tinged with paranoia. “I’m in hell,” he said from somewhere in the depths of dementia. Before then, what a character! A psychic adventurer, whose story arc moved from sailor to psychiatrist to an architect of whimsy, from the Boy Scouts to LSD — Naval officer in World War II, socialist and devotee of communes, the Great Depression crashing the party of the 1960s. And most curious of all, perhaps, a man without a metaphorical mind who could still be influenced by literature. He was a man who, at least for a time, fell in love with a fictional character.
The character was a notorious artist, Gulley Jimson, from Joyce Cary’s novel, The Horse’s Mouth (1944). Cary is now nearly as forgotten as my father’s paint box, but in his lifetime he was considered one of the century’s major novelists. He was indeed a marvelous writer whose career sits uncomfortably among the tastes and demands of our own time. Yet it is worth knowing about Joyce Cary and his world. Riches reside there we should not entirely lose. I think of those lost men — Joyce Cary, Gulley Jimson, my father — and a new relation occurs in their connection. The correspondence of art and life is what I would consider here in their parallel stories, what is worth keeping and what must be left by the trail.
One of the few possessions I retain from my life in America is my father’s copy of The Horse’s Mouth. Published in paperback in 1957 by Grosset’s Universal Library, it cost $1.45. Inside the front cover, I find my father’s signature: JC Mason. JC — like Joyce Cary, like Jesus Christ. His name was James Cameron Mason. The first name calls up memories of an urbane British actor and movie star with a voice like ironized velvet. Cameron came from our Scottish ancestors, mostly coal miners, one of whom got himself killed in the California Gold Rush (burned alive by a claim jumper, according to family lore). My father’s name married Old and New World stories, a connection to the larger history of the United States, working-class roots with the veneer of aristocracy. But my father was not born to be an artist. He would strive in the American way and rebel against that striving and seek new purpose among the cultural upheavals of his time.
He was born the eldest of four sons in Trinidad, Colorado, just north of the New Mexican border. His father, Abraham Mason, had also grown up in that town of dry buttes and mesas in the valley of the Purgatory River. Abe ran away to cut timber in Idaho when young, then joined a Scots Canadian Regiment, the Seaforth Highlanders, fighting in World War I. He was wounded at Amiens, late in the conflict, and came home to marry a girl from Washington State. Her name was Ethel and she was older, funnier, willing to live with him in the high desert of Trinidad. They had a spirited marriage, punctuated by Abe’s occasional drunkenness and fights the locals called “Mexican riots.” He loved to hang out with ranchers and businessmen, telling their tall tales. The Masons were small businessmen. Abe’s father got his start running one of the notorious company stores that cheated coal miners in the area around Ludlow, where the infamous massacre of striking immigrants by units of the National Guard took place in 1914. By that time George Mason had another business, a dairy known for its ice cream. He converted it to a small candy factory, and when his son came home from war he taught him the business. They made sweet things and sold them throughout Southern Colorado, New Mexico, parts of Oklahoma and Kansas. Abe was a drummer, selling on the road, before he took over the company. It was modestly successful, less so after the Depression, so the family always seemed to be striving and never quite arriving at the American Dream.
Trinidad is still, for my money, one of the great American small towns. Located on the old Santa Fe Trail, it seems more a part of New Mexican than Coloradan culture with its deep Latino and Indian history and the classic mesa, Fishers Peak, rising to the southeast. Kit Carson hung out there. The train robber Black Jack was hanged in the street and his head fell off — I used to stare at photos of the hanging in the local museum, trying to see that head. The charming gunfighter Bat Masterson was briefly town marshal, 1882–’83, voted out due to his corruption. In some ways isolated, the town also feels connected to the rest of the world, surprisingly multicultural. The coal mines brought in immigrants from all over the world, and the two cemeteries, Catholic and Protestant, comprise a United Nations of the dead. Italian immigrants brought their own culinary riches and criminal ways, but so did the Anglos who competed for business in the streets. Many of those streets were paved with bricks you can still see under patches of modern asphalt. In the Roaring ’20s, Chicago gangsters like Baby Face Nelson had getaway cabins in the country nearby, especially at Stonewall Gap on the banks of the Purgatory. For a while, Abe, as a local businessman, felt it necessary to carry a pistol in self-defense. Mexicans and Anglos tolerated each other and sometimes mixed. I remember a Spanish-language movie theater in town, the strong flavor of chilis in everyone’s cooking, the houses with their Navajo blankets, the arrowheads my father picked up in Dust Bowl days when the topsoil blew away and left such artifacts exposed.
Jim Mason grew up with some social standing. The Mason boys all had red hair and muscular frames and were known to be good-looking, hard-working fellows, Jim the best-looking and hardest-working of them all. He had the proverbial newspaper route and sold magazines. He pinched pennies whenever he could. Sometime in the 1970s, I visited my grandmother in Trinidad. I was a college student then, and I wanted to know more about why my parents had divorced. Ethel was a talker, a small, beautiful woman whose top-heavy bosom seemed out of proportion to the rest of her, with her thin legs and arthritic hips. She and I sat up late playing Spite and Malice, her favorite card game, trading theories.
Why had Jim, the eldest and most responsible and most successful of the Mason boys, suddenly abandoned all responsibility, leaving his wife and sons in Bellingham, Washington, for a new life in Seattle?
“Let me show you something,” Ethel said.
She went into the bedroom where, since Abe’s death at 73, she slept alone, and emerged with a little notebook my father had kept as a boy.
“Take a look at this.”
What I read was my father’s list of his responsibilities and aspirations, the images of what he thought a good young man should be. I recognized it immediately as the very thing I had been reading in a college classroom in The Great Gatsby. It’s the scene after the murder, when Nick Carraway meets Gatsby’s father. I no longer possess my father’s notebook, but I have a copy of Gatsby I bought in Hobart, Tasmania. Nick tells of the father trying to piece together the strange life of the son:
He seemed reluctant to put away the picture, held it for another minute, lingeringly, before my eyes. Then he returned the wallet and pulled from his pocket a ragged old copy of a book called Hopalong Cassidy.
“Look here, this is a book he had when he was a boy. It just shows you.”
He opened it at the back cover and turned it around for me to see. On the last fly-leaf was printed the word SCHEDULE, and the date September 12, 1906. And underneath:
Rise from bed 6.00 A.M.
Dumbell exercise and wall-scaling 6.15-6.30 ”
Study electricity, etc. 7.15-8.15 ”
Work 8.30-4.30 P.M.
Baseball and sports 4.30-5.00 ”
Practice elocution, poise, and how to
attain it 5.00-6.00 ”
Study needed inventions 7.00-9.00 ”
No wasting time at Shafters or [a name, indecipherable]
No more smokeing or chewing.
Bath every other day
Read one improving book or magazine per week
Save $5.00 [crossed out] $3.00 per week
Be better to parents
This is almost exactly what I remember reading in my father’s notebook. My father was Jay Gatsby, minus the bootlegging fortune. More precisely, Jay Gatsby grew out of the American ideals of his time, all the striving, dutiful self-improvers, the good boys out of Horatio Alger who would discipline themselves and do right, who were also, of course, boys utterly torn by their own sexual urges, their masturbation and mockery of masturbation, their fear of their fathers and terror of becoming their fathers. No wonder Jim Mason was an Eagle Scout. No wonder he studied engineering as a means to the middle class. He was a son of the Dust Bowl who kept his sexual abuse by an elderly neighbor entirely hidden, who polished his virtue and, when war broke out, applied for an appointment to the Naval Academy. He was the boy-hero of Trinidad, Colorado, Annapolis Class of ’44, but shipped out in ’43 because we had lost so many officers fighting the Japanese.
A laptop can carry a lot of memory, and as I type I call up details written for my father’s memorial service in 2003. They pertain to a certain adventurous spirit he never lost until dementia took it from him. He was a sailor and mountaineer all his life, briefly a pilot as well, and these adventures began in his youth. By the time he was 16, he had already done a lot of hitchhiking up and down the Front Range. He and his high school friends climbed Mount Blanca, a prominent peak in the Sangre de Cristo range, in their hobnailed boots, using an old clothesline for belay. In that summer of 1937, holding down a job in Albuquerque, he got his student pilot’s license. He wrote home a good account of what it was like to fly a biplane:
At about 1500 ft. [Bill Cutter] gave me full control and told me to aim at a mountain. I gained 1000 ft. in a few minutes and Bill told me to lower the nose. After aiming at mountains and holding my course for a while, I got used to it. Then he told me to make a right turn. I made a floppy one with my nose too low. I tried again and did better. After several right and left banks aimed at a mountain, I made a complete circle back to the mountain and then I reversed controls. … Did this several times. Then he told me to shut off the motor and glide. I banked the plane several times in the glide and kept gunning the motor so that it wouldn’t cool off too quick.
This was only Jim’s second time in a plane, but he reports landing safely and loving flight.
In 1939, a high school senior with dreams of Annapolis and the Navy, Jim went back to an old diary he used to keep, recording, “I have been quarrelsome, foolish and inalert today. I have had little exercise of any kind. I must have some freedom soon.” The self-accusation and desire for freedom were pincers he lived between all his life. Something happened to him in the war that left a deep scar on his rectitude, not to mention his soul.
As a young lieutenant on the USS Terry, a Fletcher-class ship, Jim saw action in many of the biggest sea battles of the Pacific war, including the Solomon Islands campaign and the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot” that destroyed much of the Japanese fleet. He survived Typhoon Cobra in December 1944, a storm that sank three ships and damaged some 27 others. Years later, when I had sailed in a fisher-processor through a storm in the North Pacific, I bragged to my father that I never got seasick. He saw at once I was lying but didn’t admonish me for it. He just smiled — “That a fact?” — and let the subject drop.
The Terry’s service was nearly ended at Iwo Jima on March 1, 1945. After days supporting the Marine landing, escorting supply ships and exchanging fire with Japanese batteries on shore, they were moving to a new position off Kitama Point on the island’s north coast. A shore battery opened fire at dawn, quickly found their range, and scored a direct hit on the Terry’s starboard deck. The explosion killed 10 sailors, wounded 19 others, and left the ship unable to steer and without telephone communications. That morning, Jim Mason, the Eagle Scout from Trinidad, Colorado, was on the bridge as Officer of the Deck, since his skipper had gone behind to catch some sleep. He was 24 years old, and would always think the hit was somehow his fault, though he had made the right moves to evade the guns while other ships took out the battery. He never talked about it when I was growing up, showing the veteran’s usual reticence, occasionally joking that they’d lost their water supply and had to live on Coca-Cola till they got away. But in old age, as the dementia descended, so did the unstoppable memories, the terror of “Japs,” the images of body parts on a deck awash in blood, a man’s severed penis among them.
On a website listing the Terry’s dead and wounded, I find my father’s name. Never in his life did he say he had been wounded in battle, and I never saw a purple heart among his belongings. He did mention once that his ears bled after an explosion, and perhaps that is what the website refers to. In any case, he lived with his survivor’s guilt and his war trauma and for decades maintained his Gatsby-esque disguise of the successful American male, the small-town boy who triumphed over adversity and made good, the doctor who acquired enough money to take care of his parents, the dutiful older son.
Alec Guinness played Gulley Jimson in the 1958 movie of The Horse’s Mouth. He also wrote the script, which has its moments, though the picture does not entirely hold up. The whole thing is much too cute, confusing prewar bohemians with postwar beatniks. While the novel lingers lovingly over characters like Gulley’s former partner, Sara Monday, the movie sketches them as comic types, shying away from depths Joyce Cary never denied. Gulley is a difficult character to portray, a genuine artist whose devotion to his work sets him at odds with conventional society, not in some adolescent rebellion but out of a primal urge, the creative spirit itself, a force that cannot be stopped without killing the soul. His muse is the poet William Blake — lines of visionary poetry punctuate the novel almost like emanations from Jimson’s own mind, so the artist’s urges are nearly religious in their devotion.
Of necessity, Gulley lives on society’s margins — to do otherwise would make his work impossible. He is not unappreciated, and by the novel’s opening his paintings are selling for good prices, but he himself is just out of jail, finding his old life entirely overturned:
When I came back, there was nothing. Wife and kids had gone back to her mama. Flat let to people who didn’t even know my name. And the studio was a coal store. As for the Living God, my drawings, cartoons, ladders, they’d just melted. I hadn’t expected to see the frypan and kettle again. You can’t leave things like that about for a month in any friendly neighborhood and expect to find them in the same place. But the Living God with his stretchers and stiffeners weighed a couple of hundredweight. When I came back from gaol even the smell had gone.
Gulley keeps encountering the fearful deadeners Blake warned us about, forces pitted against the creative spirit, anti-life because they deny the darkness as well as the light, the full range of experience. Jimson’s inner life is in part a constant dialogue with a dead poet. Like all real artists, he’s living with ghosts: “Yes, I thought, there’s Billy again. Handing me the truth. Even when I wouldn’t take it. That’s what he was saying all his life. A tear is an intellectual thing. And a joy. It’s wisdom in vision. It’s the prophetic eye in the loins. The passion of intelligence.”
Gulley is constantly going out, away from people, “to get room for my grief.” But he’s drawn back by loquaciousness and even love, the detached love of an artist for whom every observation might serve the painting.
Joyce Cary writes Gulley Jimson’s character so well that he never seems sentimentalized as merely the artist-rebel. He is deeply devoted, but he is also cruel to others, a liar and manipulator in the service of the truth, quite possibly a bigamist. The grubby textures of his life feel entirely and uncomfortably real. “Only individuals exist,” he tells a young devotee, “lying low in their own rat-holes. As far apart as free drinks.” Gulley’s rebellion against groupthink at times takes on prophetic anger:
One man is a living soul, but two men are an indiarubber milking machine for a beer engine, and three men are noises off and four men are an asylum for cretins and five men are a committee and twenty-five are a meeting, and after that you get to the mummy-house at the British Museum, and the Sovereign People and Common Humanity and the Average and the Public and the Majority and the Life Force and Statistics and the Economic Man brainless, eyeless, wicked spawn of the universal toad sitting in the black bloody ditch of eternal night and croaking for its mate which is the spectre of Hell.
The man can talk.
That last passage is one of several my father marked in his copy of the book, a ballpoint line drawn lightly in the margin. Did he approve of Gulley’s ideas, or only his gusto? I do not know. My father was at times an angry man — angry about America’s constant warring, its betrayal of its own ideals, angry about the social hypocrisies we all encounter in a life. Anger blows through us like strong wind. I sense that Joyce Cary himself shared many of his characters’ views, but not all of them, since The Horse’s Mouth is the final volume of a trilogy, each novel narrated by a different character. The first book, Herself Surprised (1941), belongs to Sara Monday, a tragic presence in The Horse’s Mouth, where she can’t let go of a painting Gulley wants returned to him. Their relationship has become an end-of-life stand-off, full of jaded love. “I’m only fit for a warning,” Sara says.
“Don’t say that, Sara,” I said, giving her another squeeze. And meaning it. For you couldn’t help liking the old trout. The very way she was speaking; easy from her soul as a jug runs when you tilt it to a wet lip; it made me tingle all over; it made me laugh and sing in the calves of my legs. It made my toes curl and my fingers itch at the tops. It made me want to go bozo with the old rascal. What a woman. The old original. Clear as a glass-eye and straight as her own front. The very way she worked her great cook’s hand, jointed like a lobster, round her glass; and lolled her head on one side, and turned up her eyes and heaved up her bosom when she sighed, enjoying the feel of herself inside her stays; it made me want to squeeze her till she squealed.
Those touches of affectionate objectification and violence are hardly the stuff approved in our puritanical time. But Sara is not merely objectified, even from Gulley’s point of view. She is as fully realized, as precisely rendered, as a character in fiction can be. There are no angels in Joyce Cary’s trilogy, only human beings seen from different angles. Cary despised the very idea of allegory, even while thinking his characters representative of life’s various urges. He was trying to convey an enlarged and entirely embodied vision of human spirit.
Yet my father only ever read the one book in the trilogy, only Gulley’s point of view. He never read Sara’s story, nor that of another lover, the conservative lawyer Tom Wilcher in To Be a Pilgrim (1942), nor could he have known the larger context of Sara’s abuse by successive men or the tragic vision of her own aging body. In “Out of Exile,” his marvelous 1986 essay about Joyce Cary for The New York Review of Books, Brad Leithauser points out that Gulley shouldn’t be seen only as he is presented in The Horse’s Mouth:
Not until he is meshed into the rest of the trilogy, with its presentations of other, quieter virtues, does his depth emerge; Gulley’s impracticality, monomania, anger, and adaptability need to be set beside prudence, balance, tranquility and rigidity. And only by following Sara’s story from its outset will the reader appreciate the bitter sweetness of her dealings with Gulley — an extended, troubled love affair that is perhaps the trilogy’s finest achievement.
So it wasn’t complexity my father sought. It was freedom. It was the dream of a creative life. Jim and Jimson — they were an odd pair.
In high school, I used to take the bus from Bellingham to Seattle to visit Jim. He had moved out when I was 12. I was 15 when my parents divorced. He had also left his practice as a pediatrician in order to train as a psychiatrist, and in the years afterward I was constantly meeting mothers who missed “Dr. Jim” and fervently wished he had never left, as if they were all a bit in love with him. But something in his years of working with those parents, those children, had made him believe he should be helping families in a different way, helping them heal their dealings with each other. In the 1970s, he was caught up in all the profession’s revolutionary movements, every single one of them, each with its guru. I remember watching Fritz Perls videos of gestalt therapy in Jim’s medical student apartment. He read every new book about undoing the buttoned-down psyche, beginning his new, more practical career trying to understand how families went wrong. What about us? I used to think. Why didn’t he stick around and help us get healed?
When he left, I wrote him a long angry letter, telling him he’d regret it, he’d grow old without family. And after he died, I read the drafts of the letter he tried to write in reply, explaining himself. He must have felt his justifications were useless, since his letter was never sent.
He was also living with a beautiful younger woman, Claire, who treated my brothers and me with gentle, unobtrusive loving. They moved into a houseboat like Gulley Jimson’s, only theirs looked across Lake Union at the Space Needle. Going to Seattle to see my father meant leaving my troubled mother behind to stew in her anger and addiction, getting a release from it all, feeling I was temporarily saved and forgiven for being alive.
Jim used to tell me that he didn’t want me to suffer all the guilt of responsibility he had felt when growing up. He wanted me to be free. And it was on one of those visits to see him that he let me know, because he knew I wanted to be a writer, that there was a novel he loved about a wild old artist, Gulley Jimson, and he had always wished he could be more like that wild old man.
The explosion of a six-inch shell on the deck of a destroyer brought me to life. When the Terry was towed back to the shipyards of Oakland, California, my father attended a dance with young women from Mills College, and there he met a smart, vivacious girl who was also from Colorado, Evelyn Peterson, nicknamed “Pete” by all her friends. She must have carried an air of romantic sadness, since her father, a coal miner-turned-doctor, had died when she was 18 and her mother, a Scottish immigrant and nurse, was already addicted to morphine. But Pete was also lively and funny and whip-smart. Jim and Pete fell in love. With the war ending they probably felt the world was their oyster, they could do anything. They both wanted to be professionals. He was moving away from engineering now, thinking of medical school, and she had taken an interest in psychology. In the meantime, he was still a Naval officer, stationed after the war at Pearl Harbor. In May 1946, Pete boarded a troop ship to join him there. My laptop contains scans of their telegram exchange:
DARLING SAILING TOMORROW MAY 30 I LOVE YOU!
DARLING X WAS ASTOUNDED AND IMMEASURABLY HAPPY WHEN YOUR CABLEGRAM ARRIVED X HAVE BEEN SEARCHING MY BELONGINGS FOR THE RABBITS FOOT THAT BRINGS SUCH WONDERFUL LUCK X EVERYTHING IS ARRANGED X HARDLY BELIEVE THAT WEDNESDAY CAN BE SO FAR FROM SUNDAY X LOVE YOU WITH ALL MY HEART JIM
And a bit later:
DEAREST PETE STOP SO FAR UNABLE TO CLOSE DEAL WITH NINTH PIECE BAND FOR WEDNESDAY MORNING BUT STILL TRYING STOP HOPE YOU LIKE PINK CHAMPAGNE STOP NOW ABOUT ASKING THE SKIPPER TO QUIT DRAGGING THE ANCHOR STOP I LOVE YOU STOP LT JC MASON
I have seen photos of my mother disembarking at Pearl with a lei around her neck and no doubt the wolf whistles of a few hundred sailors on deck. She looks like a young starlet, with her hair cut well above the shoulders as it was most of her life and her tomboyish name, yet entirely and buoyantly sexual. Another photo taken in a car shows Jim and Pete beaming for the camera like the very gods of postwar happiness. I know what it’s like to be drunk on love. I also know what it’s like to be drunk, and my mother was possibly a bit of both. She did like pink champagne, and pretty much anything else with alcohol in it, but her “problem” would not become apparent to the rest of us for another decade or two. They had married that year in Trinidad, flanked by Jim’s Navy pals with raised swords.
In the 1950s, my father was still in conventional hero mode, an Eisenhower Republican, a young physician looking about for a small town in which to practice. He had earned his MD at Washington University in St. Louis, where my mother would get her PhD in Psychology. It must have been a heady time. Masters and Johnson were at work on their studies of sex, and at some point they invited my mother to join the study. Though she turned them down, she was a woman of strong libido, frank intelligence, and would have at least one extramarital affair, possibly two, before my parents split.
The other big medical fashion in St. Louis at the time was the frontal lobotomy as a cure for pretty much anything that ailed people, from manic depression to drug addiction. At this point in their marriage, the big headache for Jim and Pete was her Scottish mother, Maggie, who kept getting fired from nursing jobs for stealing morphine. I do not know how the decision was reached, but Pete was persuaded that a lobotomy would cure her mother’s addiction. Whether it was the then-famous Dr. Walter Jackson Freeman, a man who graced the cover of Time for his innovation, or some other doctor performing the procedure (it could hardly be called a surgery), Maggie’s case was not one of the rare successes. She developed a post-operative infection, ended up in a semi-vegetative state with occasional obscene ramblings, and was institutionalized for the rest of her life. I never met her, never heard her voice, and was in my 40s before I learned any details of the secret guilt my mother harbored, one of the deep triggers that fired her drinking.
So the young hero from Trinidad had a brilliant, beautiful wife who could go sideways at a moment’s notice. They settled in Bellingham, just under the Canadian border, then little known but definitely one of the most beautiful corners of the United States. My brothers and I grew up looking at mountains like Shuksan and Baker, the lights of Vancouver BC to the north, hiking and sailing and skiing, all of us athletically assuaged by the wild. Our parents were remarkable. Pete and a friend created the first mental health clinic in the town, then she took a job teaching at the local college, on its way to becoming Western Washington University. Many years later, my younger brother took a class from her, and realized in the middle of a lecture on addiction that he was the only student in the hall who knew she was blitzed. We used to joke bitterly that she’d “rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.” She was able to keep the trick going until her late 50s, when her drunkenness showed and colleagues gently coaxed her to early retirement. In the early years, Jim was building his practice, but he would remember having to clean Pete’s vomit off a car seat while awaiting the arrival of a prospective medical colleague at the airport. The drinking worsened, and whatever else tore at their marriage worsened, and we three boys (I was the middle son) cringed in solitude during their tearing fights. “I used to have this fantasy,” Jim told me late in life, before the dementia got him. “I just packed her into a space capsule and blasted her off to the moon.” When we heard that one, my brother and I laughed ourselves silly, a beautiful release after decades of accumulated tension. By that time, Pete had been in and out of most rehab clinics in the Pacific Northwest.
By the time Jim moved to Seattle in about 1966, his politics had swerved left. Johnson’s lies and Nixon’s lies erased the last vestiges of the dutiful older son in him, the conservative, and he was reborn a man of distinctly socialist leanings and utopian hopes. For decades, he and Claire participated in a sort of floating commune, living together without being married, meeting their fellow communards for retreats in different parts of the country. They followed a benign leader named Jack Gibb whose ideas arose from theories of organizational development. Jack believed that communities flourished when they emphasized trust over fear. He was quite right, of course, and in my own life I have seen institutional fear making life miserable for people time and time again. The one small problem for the “Trust Group,” as I came to call them, was that they could rarely accomplish practical living together for more than a few weeks at a time. The necessity of having jobs and making money kept them apart, and they were unable to make Jack’s theories work in the production of salable products. They had the spirit right, but the market defeated them, as it does most utopian ventures.
On the few occasions when I joined the Trust Group for one of their retreats, I felt myself out of step with them, unable to let go or open myself to the fluid sexual promise some of its members offered to me. My problem was something none of them had ever experienced. I wanted to be an artist, a writer, which meant holding my nose to the grindstone, working more than enjoying free love. And herein lies the paradox of Gulley Jimson that perhaps my father did not entirely understand. He saw the freedom of the artist, the wildness and irresponsibility, the way his life remains unintelligible to other people because he simply does not share their motives and desires. But he might not have seen that Gulley was also a deeply disciplined man, a man who made ambitious canvasses and put his life on the line to finish them, a man for whom freedom was not entirely personal. Jim had been an engineer and a doctor. He loved literature but did not think metaphorically. When I began to publish poetry, he was curious about it all. Late in life he even took a poetry class, amazed to find that the textbook used was one his middle son had edited.
Jim’s experiments were not in making art but in making a life. He must have been in his 60s when he hiked into the Cascades with two friends and tried LSD. His ecstatic notes from the trip are among the many personal possessions I have lost in my wanderings. Of course lots of artists experiment with drugs and alcohol, and some even survive the damage that can result, but whatever my own minor chemical dabblings, I was always more focused on being able to work, even if most of what I wrote seemed a pale shadow of what I dreamed.
It’s a strange thing, trying to make art in a country like the United States, where people do not believe you are working unless you have a conventional job with benefits and the rest. Even now in my new life as a retired academic writing full-time in Tasmania, I sometimes feel that neighbors do not believe I am working. They think I’ve got nothing to do and might enjoy partying late into the night. But I am not really a free man in that sense. I am chained to my craft, thinking of it even when I’m out chopping wood or clearing brush on our block of land near the Southern Ocean. There is something I want to finish before I die.
But what is the freedom of the artist? Perhaps we are all chained to something, if not to each other. After 20-odd years of living together, Jim and Claire shocked their friends by getting married. They were an ideal couple, their friends argued. Why ruin it?
Joyce Cary’s path as a writer was a crooked one, and success came late. Unlike Gulley, he was a person of utmost integrity, a family man who loved his wife and children, but like Gulley he was a deliberate artist even in his failures. He was born in Northern Ireland in 1888, the same year as T. S. Eliot, and soon after his parents moved the family to London. He grew up an Englishman with a strong sense of his Irish heritage and divided sympathies. Cary found his vocation young, quitting school at 17 and heading off to Paris and Edinburgh to study art. This is why he was able to make Gulley’s obsessions as a painter so vivid and real, casting them in relief also through other people’s eyes. Here is Gulley talking about painting with his friend Cokey:
“Half a minute of revelation is worth a million years of know nothing.” “Who lives a million years?” “A million people every twelve months. I’ll show you how to look at a picture, Cokey. Don’t look at it. Feel it with your eye.” “I’m not a snail, am I?” “And first you feel the shapes in the flat — the patterns, like a carpet.” “You told me that one before.” “And then you feel it in the round.” “All that fat.” “Not as if it were a picture of anyone. But a coloured and raised map. You feel all the rounds, the smooths, the sharp edges, the flats and hollows, the lights and shades, the cools and warms. The colours and textures. There’s hundreds of little differences all fitting together.” “The bath towel isn’t too bad, I can see that — it’s got the look of huckaback.” “And then you feel the bath, the chair, the towel, the carpet, the bed, the jug, the window, the fields and the woman as themselves. But not as any old jug and woman. But the jug of jugs and the woman of women. You feel jugs are like that and you never knew it before. […] A jug can be a door if you open it. And a work of imagination opens it for you. And then you feel with all the women that ever lived and all the women that are ever going to live, and you feel their feeling while they are alone with themselves — in some chosen private place, bathing, drying, dressing, criticizing, touching, admiring themselves safe behind locked doors. Nothing there but women’s feeling and woman’s beauty and critical eye.”
The shame of our contemporary reading habits, where everything is read for its moral virtue or lack of virtue, is that it misses Cary’s particularity, his desire to let things and people be themselves. Such dated humanity might well be compromised by all the systems of injustice, but we shouldn’t throw it out entirely in our pursuit of the good because it is itself a kind of goodness, a kind of love.
Literature got ahold of Cary young, particularly the writing of James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence. He abandoned his art studies and went to Oxford, ending with a fourth-class degree that offered him few professional opportunities. After service in the Red Cross during the Balkan Wars, he joined the Nigerian Colonial Service in 1913 and spent the next seven years in that country, taking part in the African campaigns of World War I. He was wounded in battle in 1915 — wounded in the ear, in fact, a weird rhyme with my father’s war. On leave home he married a beautiful woman, Gertie Ogilvie, started a family, and was still trying to write with little success. Aside from the novel Mr. Johnson (1939, filmed by Bruce Beresford in 1990), little of Cary’s African fiction is read now. Even his humane, generous sympathies can seem patronizing in postcolonial times. Cary’s publisher kept him on as an esteemed literary status symbol more than for sales. The Horse’s Mouth, and especially the movie with Alec Guinness, changed all that. After decades of toil, Cary had pulled off the difficult trick of being both literary in the most ambitious way and popular.
He was a writer of loving particularity, suspicious of symbolic structures. His theme was the creative impulse of life itself, nature itself, a freedom that might well be antithetical to our own more straitened era, where social justice is the bottom line. Looking back on his career in The Saturday Review (May 28, 1955), he wrote,
Because we are free creative souls, for ever inventing, achieving, we live in a world of continuous revolution, continuous change. […] The personal tragedies of ruined men, superseded business, frustrated artists, can be mitigated by various devices, but the fundamental insecurity, the fundamental conflict remain. To the free personal soul we owe all love, beauty, everything that makes life worth living; and also that everlasting conflict and insecurity that makes it tragic. Freedom is all our joy and all our pain.
Less than two years after that article appeared, Joyce Cary was dead, aged 68, following a slow, crippling descent into motor neuron disease — what Americans call Lou Gehrig’s disease after another of our heroes.
My father loved living in his body. All his life he was fit and active. When he left the houseboat for work, he would walk up the steep city staircases to a clinic on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, and on his return at the end of the day he would loosen his tie, take off his shoes, and step onto his windsurfer for a quick sail across Lake Union. Visits to the houseboat were always a deep relief. We would swim in the lake or sit in the tiny living room, looking across at the city and talking about damned near anything, especially the latest experiments in living Jim and Claire pursued. In one of those conversations, I was shocked to hear him recalling sexual abuse, how an old man who lived in a neighboring house in Trinidad had invited Jim and his friends inside, then had somehow made them let him suck their cocks. I remember the chill of denial in my own bones, and how he too must have felt shocked by the revelation and never mentioned it again. But there it was, this conflict between our ideal images of ourselves and the reality of our experience, the very thing Joyce Cary dramatized so movingly in his best fiction.
Alzheimer’s ran in Jim’s family, and he feared it above all deaths. He used to tell us he would rather get into his kayak and paddle out to sea and disappear. Or he would die like Socrates, gather his friends around for a final talk, then drink the hemlock. He studied the methods of the Hemlock Society, and when the first signs of aphasia came he made his best friend promise eventually to help him die.
By the time his disease was so advanced that he no longer knew us, no longer knew even how to eat his food, we had all taken turns with him, wiping his bum and the rest of what caregivers regularly do, the things Claire did with such loving patience for years. When I heard him say, “I’m in hell,” I could no longer determine whether or not the words were connected to what we call, for lack of a better word, reality.
Did he recognize any of us? Did some part of him know the shadows who surrounded him? I remember him pointing to a photograph of my older brother, who had died in a mountaineering accident, and holding a fist over his heart. What did he see of us before he died and we scattered his ashes with my brother’s in the mountains?
The character he loved, Gulley Jimson, shared with Jim the medical condition of hypertension, and always suspected he would go of a stroke. At the end of The Horse’s Mouth, that’s exactly what happens, despite the old painter’s unyielding spirit:
“Please don’t talk,” said the nun. “That’s all right, mother,” I said, “they can’t hear me because of the noise of the traffic and because they aren’t listening. And it wouldn’t make any difference if they did. They’re too young to learn, and if they weren’t they wouldn’t want to.” “It’s dangerous for you to talk, you’re very seriously ill.” “Not so seriously as you’re well. How don’t you enjoy life, mother. I should laugh all around my neck at this minute if my shirt wasn’t a bit on the tight side.” “It would be better for you to pray.” “Same thing, mother.”
In the movie, Alec Guinness gets on a boat and heads out to sea on the Thames — more the way my father wished he could go. But that’s the way of things in this world. We don’t always get our wish.
The former poet laureate of Colorado, David Mason now lives in Tasmania, the island state of Australia. In 2022 he will publish two new books: Pacific Light (poems) and Incarnation and Metamorphosis: Can Literature Change Us? (essays). His selected poems, The Sound, appeared in 2018.