Every once in a while, the cliché goes, a work comes along … Actually, Peter Doyle is not the work for the ages that introduction migt imply, but it’s a terrific historical novel and deserves to be better known and more widely read. I mean, who else has done all these things in a single work: Written a book centering around a penis purloined from Napoleon Bonaparte’s corpse? Taken the reader from St. Helena, 1821 to Colorado Territory, 1886? Given us Emily Dickinson in drag? Brought Emily and Walt Whitman together in the same room (well, hallway)? And there’s more, believe me, a lot more.
In addition to the purloined penis, there’s a pivotal secret in the book, one that’s not revealed till very late, the kind of secret that I often object to because I feel manipulated by writers who hold back for effect what characters would undoubtedly have pondered in the thoughts we have been immersed in for pages and pages. But Vernon pulls it off. You find out, and you say, of course why didn’t I see that before? Or maybe you’re smarter than I am and already suspect it and have your suspicions confirmed. Either way, it’s blockbuster, changes the whole tale and aligns everything in an instant.
And if these virtues weren’t enough, there are the voices and the language. A New Yorker article by James Wood recently described how Richard Price elevates ghetto language to a kind of poetry that is both of and outside of the street language of his characters. So, too, has Vernon transcended his historical period and his historical characters’ voices with a language that evokes authenticity but is all his own. Or all Peter Doyle’s own. Here are some examples drawn rather hastily. There are probably better, but let these serve:
You could bicker with Josie to lick creation without pulling even.
[From an E. Dickinson letter. Punctuation is as printed in the book.] How do most people live without any thoughts. Tell me, Mr. Whitman. There are many people in the World, you must have noticed a few in the Street. How do they live. How do they find the strength to put on their Clothes in the morning. I cannot say myself myself.
Walt had to stop and stand there to let his mind slowly fill back up while people skirted his rooted bulk as they would any inconvenient obstacle.
[from a WW conversation] “I’m still cheery, though badly whacked. I’m like a tree with the chief limbs gone.”
[Pete] had always known when to fly off, and just what opportunities to cling to.
Sometimes the wind blew right through her body and … she realized how much she cherished her own vile impurities, hugged them protectively.
Taken all in all, this is quite a package, full of language both boisterous and fine, of adventure, surprises, history, and characters so well-drawn there’s nothing for it but to love them. And to love Peter Doyle.