There are writers who seem to fall through the net, who somehow miss out on the audience they deserve. They are known to a few, but the wide and admiring readership they deserve. I would hazard a guess that not many of you know the name of Thomas McMahon, and those who do will almost certainly not have encountered Ira Foxglove. So, let me tell you a little story.
There is a courtyard behind the Blue Note Café in Glastonbury. Also in that courtyard is a secondhand book shop. Here, Maureen has picked up, by whatever serendipity, a novel with the strange and alluring title of Loving Little Egypt. She begins to read it over a coffee sitting out at the Blue Note, and is immediately captivated. She insists I read the book too, which I do as soon as she has finished.
This was sometime in the early 90s. Loving Little Egypt came out in 1987; though we couldn’t know it then, it proved to be McMahon’s third and last novel. Little Egypt is the code name of a blind phone phreaker in 1920s America, who is taken under the wing of Alexander Graham Bell, learns to tap into the long-distance telephone lines, and thus establishes a secret nationwide communication network for other blind people. It is a stunningly good novel, vividly recreating the age in which it is set but adding in a degree of inspired invention and whimsy that isn’t quite science fictional but far from realist.
We both loved the book, so we set out to find more by this strange and unknown author. We quickly discovered his other two novels. The first has the wonderful title, Principles of American Nuclear Chemistry: A Novel, a title that clearly led to interesting misshelving (it appeared in Britain under the far less interesting title of A Random State). First published in 1970, it is told through the eyes of a child whose father is one of the scientists at Los Alamos, and manages to offer a distinctive perspective on that curious community mixed with a little sexual and possibly criminal mystery when the disappearance of his father’s mistress exposes a sense of corruption within the community.
His second novel came out in 1979. McKay’s Bees is set in Kansas in the middle of the 19th century when Gordon McKay tries to build a business out of raising bees and selling the honey, but the enterprise is plagued by border ruffians and the confrontations that presaged the Civil War, and the controversial Harvard scientist, Louis Agassiz, also becomes involved.
1970, 1979 and 1987; that’s not a particularly high rate of production for an author, but then, McMahon was also Professor of Applied Mechanics and Biology at Harvard; one of the things that I find so attractive about his work is that they are vividly realised historical novels informed by the author’s scientific knowledge. Fiction about science, certainly, if not exactly science fiction. We fell in love with the books; McMahon is the only author whose work we’ve bought up whenever we could find it, and given away to friends who deserve to know these books.
And so we waited eagerly for another novel, a novel that never came. Some time later we learned that McMahon had died on Valentine’s Day 1999; he was 55. And that seemed to be the end of the matter. But earlier this year we discovered (and immediately snapped up) a posthumous novel called Ira Foxgove, which came out from a small press, Brook Street, in 2004. The Publisher’s Note describes it as ‘a thirty-year-old unpublished work’, which would suggest it came after Principles of American Nuclear Chemistry, but I suspect it is actually even older. For a start this is a presumption drawn from internal evidence: a significant portion of the novel is set in pre-decimal Britain, it has the feel of the late-60s. More than that, it has the affect of a first novel, one that didn’t quite work or couldn’t find a publisher, and was shelved when he started work on Principles of American Nuclear Chemistry. For a start, the author’s biography in Principles motes that McMahon ‘has up to the present been concerned with inventing a device to keep patients’ hearts going during heart attacks without the necessity of surgery’, and that is precisely what the hero of Ira Foxglove is doing. This is an autobiographical element to the novel that is absent from all his other work, and that does make it feel like a first book. It is also more whimsical than his other novels, as if he is still working on his tone of voice.
It begins when Ira Foxglove’s wife, Portia, walks out on him in the first line of the novel. Ira responds: ‘We’ll get floor lamps for every room. Then the place wouldn’t be so dark. Then you could stay.’ A response that says a lot about Ira’s character, and gives you a taste of the novel. Ira, we soon learn, has recently had a heart attack and he is very slow to recover; for much of the early part of the novel he uses his health as an excuse for inertia. Yet at the same time he is very practical character: ‘I don’t like things to stay broken’, he says at one point, and the whole novel is about him fixing things, a car, a motorbike, his marriage.
Ira is a high school science teacher and inventor. He has invented a new sort of fabric that he sold for a pittance, but that has made his friend Neptune a fortune; and he is now, since his own heart attack, working on an artificial heart that bears a remarkable resemblance to McMahon’s own researches. (The secret to Ira’s invention proves to be the skin of a tomato; I wonder if that was the same for McMahon’s research.) Roused to activity at last, he sets off with Neptune aboard an advertising blimp to cross the Atlantic, via a fishing trip to Iceland. In London he tries and fails to win back his wife; goes on to Paris to visit his daughter who is at mime school there (Ira turns out to be a natural mime); then returns to London for another attempt to win back Portia.
It is a very simple novel; linear, episodic, plainly told. In simple literary terms, his other books are far more satisfying. Yet there is an easy-going pleasure in reading Ira Foxglove that makes the book a delight. One can only wonder what might have happened if he had devoted more of his energies to fiction, if his work had found the audience it so richly deserved.