Genoa - A Telling Of Wonders

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

Also from Coffee House Press is the reissue of GENOA–A TELLING OF WONDERS, by Paul Metcalf. First published in 1965, the collage-like novel follows the fortunes of two brothers as each works out his destiny in 20th-century America. Juxtaposed against their stories are passages from the writings of Christopher Columbus and Herman Melville, who not incidentally happens to be the author’s great-grandfather. In an interview, Metcalf confessed that he avoided reading Melville until he was forty, on the grounds that “the Boston Red Sox were much more important than the fate of some dumb whale.”

Eventually, Metcalf not only stopped ignoring his family legacy but took it into his soul. The portrait of Melville which he paints in GENOA is Van Gogh-like in its depth, pain and madness. “He who has never felt, momentarily, what madness is has but a mouthful of brains,” said Melville, not long after the crushing failure of his magnum opus Moby Dick. Spent, destitute and shunned, he ended up toiling as a custom-house clerk for the rest of his blighted life.

Metcalf puts Columbus alongside Melville for much of the book. The crafty explorer braved uncharted seas and battled ferocious enemies to discover new lands and riches, only to be called crazy and untrustworthy by Queen Isabella–-and denied his share of the spoils he brought back to Spain. Alone, crippled by gout, he soon died of frustration and resentment.

The third tragic character in GENOA (Columbus’ beloved birthplace, by the way) is Carl Austin Mills, the older brother of the book’s narrator, Michael. Carl was something of a golden boy: brilliant, idealistic, charismatic, yet shot through with violence, self-destruction and madness. A drop-out from medical school, he fights against fascism in the Spanish Civil War, then against the Japanese in WW II. As a POW, he is tortured brutally by the Japanese for nineteen months, an experience that will dog him for the rest of his life–-a life that ends tragically in a Missouri gas chamber.

Metcalf’s investigation of the darkness lying at the heart of human existence is bold, unsentimental and unsparing. One of his quotes from Melville tells it all: “Bail out your individual boat, if you can, but the sea abides.”