Savage Art


Patrick McGrath’s great topic is morbid, self-obliterating obsession. He haunts the moors and marshlands of a vast country called Freudland, where primitive sexual impulses sublimate wildly, where monsters and doppelgängers walk among us. Disfigured in mind or body (often both), McGrath’s unfortunates rattle around inside creaking spaces: an asylum, a moldering halfway house, a drafty old cottage by the Turner-like sea. McGrath is, in short, a total goth, and his temperament hasn’t changed amid the incongruously sunny, sultry climes of his sixth novel, which pitches camp in New York and the Caribbean, as well as McGrath’s native England.

The reaper stands watch over the very first page of Port Mungo. “What can you say about the death of a child?” asks the tongue-clucking narrator, Gin, by way of introducing the book’s central upheaval: the mysterious swamp drowning of 16-year-old Peg, the daughter of Gin’s brother, Jack Rathbone. A reclusive painter—”this latter-day Gauguin,” as Gin enthuses—Jack will go on to enjoy a brief New York vogue in the go-go ’80s as a “tropicalist” (“school of one,” he explains) before slouching toward his own ignominious demise. As a teenage art student in late-’50s London, Jack fell in mad love with the frowsy but alluring Vera Savage, a semi-established painter nearly twice his age. He was restless and grandiose, she was passive and unhappily married, so they lit out for the western territories in search of solitude, cheap living, and the Muse. First they took Manhattan and then—when the vise of alcoholic sloth began to tighten—Miami, Cuba, and finally Port Mungo, a seedy, malarial river town on the Gulf of Honduras, where their daughter will find her watery grave. Congenitally bored and soggy with rum, Vera disappears for months at a time on adulterous Central American holidays, leaving Jack to chase the art dragon and, eventually, raise two daughters on his own, bewildered but stoic.

Jack the heroic artist-househusband, Vera the slatternly vagrant: It’s a conveniently binary account of events, credulously relayed in Port Mungo by the judgmental but adoring Gin from her brother’s recollections. Stiff and wan, a humorless lush, Gin readily joins McGrath’s deluded gallery of unreliable narrators; they bring to mind what Vera tells Jack when, not long after Peg’s death, he shows off a series of nudes inspired by an affair with a 17-year-old Italian nymph: “Come on, Jack, it’s like listening through the wall.” McGrath’s novels often mimic the delectable frustration of pressing an ear to a closed door or trying to get a surveillance angle in a cracked, dirty mirror. In Asylum (1996), a psychiatrist’s wife enters into a near nihilist affair with a homicidal asylum patient—a sorry skein unwoven by the husband’s colleague, who adds his own dense embroidery of analytic speculation and extrapolation. The Grotesque (1989) consists wholly of gimlet-eyed observations, educated guesses, and outrageous conjectures made by an egomaniac in a vegetative state, his sight lines limited both by his grossly self-serving memory and his household’s tendency to face his wheelchair toward a wall.

Though well acquainted with alcoholism, child endangerment, and incestuous fixations, Port Mungo eschews the extreme physical and mental malformations of other McGrath tales. (His previous book, Martha Peake, featured a poet with a mangled spine who impregnates his daughter; like Mungo‘s vagabond creatives, she too takes flight to the New World.) The novel becomes most overtly gothic with the arrival of Anna, “the other daughter,” who was only four years old when her sister died and their uncle Gerald whisked the tyke away from the tropical slums for a proper English upbringing. Gaunt and waxy, pale and preternaturally calm, Anna (or rather, Jack’s description of Anna) evokes for Gin “the phantom outline of Peg, but in the negative, somehow.” Anna is a living ghost, come to scuttle through Jack’s guiltiest dreams; once Dad agrees to paint her, Port Mungo starts edging toward head-to-head confrontation with The Picture of Dorian Gray.

As creepily confined and erotically maladjusted as any gothic worth its garlic salt, Port Mungo frustrates—as did the ambitious misfire Martha Peake—in a dogged hermeticism out of keeping with its geographical and historical sprawl. The gothic novel developed, after all, as reflection and response to all manner of punctuated equilibrium: the expansion of the British empire and resultant encounters with the Other, perplexing advances in science and industry, the vicissitudes of the new urban classes, rampant fears of female sexuality and Jack the Ripper, and more. The latter-day gothic has allegorized everything from AIDS to Cold War paranoia; Port Mungo, for what it’s worth, has no such larger designs. It adheres to the musty contours of an ostensibly antiquated genre but exists solely in its own moment, its own vividly sordid circumstance. The novel stagnates in a uniquely fecund, steamy swamp; what finally float to the surface are merely the shredded illusions of a silly, lonely woman in hapless love with her brother.