MacLeish Sq. by Dennis Must

Red Hen

Review by Jack Smith

As with many of Dennis Must’s other fictions, consisting of three novels and three short story collections, MacLeish Sq. is a tale about personal identity.  Who are we, and how do we come to know the nature of our being in this world?  In this most recent novel, what the imagination seizes just might be true, or if not absolutely true, at least one valid means of coming to know ourselves, perhaps much more so than through reason or ratiocination.  But literature as storytelling is a second means. In this novel, the principal literature is that of the nineteenth-century American Romantic era, of Hawthorne and Melville, but add to that drafts of unpublished stories preserved in old notebooks as well. What do these stories tell us about our own lives and who we are? What is real?  MacLeish Sq. is a highly imaginative novel, stylistically brilliant, which contrasts the real with the irreal, the latter being the most compelling—and the most transformative.  

John Proctor recently moved from the city to the country, from the outskirts of a mill town he’d fled as a young man.  Now, after a few years, a young man who calls himself Eli, with no surname, shows up, initially suggesting that he might be the offspring of an illicit union between Proctor and his daughter.  This unsettling remark sets the novel in motion.  Eli’s mother, states Eli, had many men, but none his father. Once settled in, Eli comes to Proctor with stories of a ghostly man commanding him to come home. Where is home? And what makes it home?  For Eli, from childhood, it’s been the mythical MacLeish Sq.   

The lives of the inhabitants of this mysterious place, with its numerous echoes of both Hawthorne and Melville, revolve about several sites, among them the Basilica, the Falling Man Tavern, the Cotton Mather Hotel, the bronze statue of Hawthorne, and Hester Alley. And, a striking image from Eli: “As I grew older, I came to wonder if the denizens of MacLeish Sq. were actually phantoms reenacting their christened lives on earth.  Had each come to this locale with its celebrated past seeking a storied identity?  How else to explain the harbor sighting of a ghostly armada on the vanishing line?” As a community, residents regularly gather in the square itself.  At one point Eli states, “We, in truth, are those dead souls brought to the shores of Naumkeag by the ghostly armada. Willing to become who we never were.” Which leads us to ask: What, then, is personal identity?  What, that is, does it consist of in this novel? How is it to be gained?

“The Basilica alone defines us,” says Eli. Identity is conferred by elders, one of whom “christens us with an identity of their choosing.” According to Eli, his identity is “all those voices in the square who each had a story … except the Ishmaels kept theirs to themselves. That’s why we gave them a wide berth.”Further, he states, “As I grew older, I came to wonder if the denizens of MacLeish Sq. were actually phantoms reenacting their christened lives on earth.  Had each come to this locale with its celebrated past seeking a storied identity?”

Is Eli’s take on reality sheer “delusion”? At one point, Proctor states that he knew MacLeish Sq. “didn’t exist.”  But it exists fully in the imagination of Eli.  Is it in Salem, perchance?  Proctor seeks out Eli there, just as Eli had sought Proctor in his own domain. We soon wonder: What levels of reality exist? To what extent can the irreal be real?  To what extent is the real constructed by the imagination—in this case, the Romantic imagination? As to MacLeish Sq., when Proctor thinks, “Nothing is real here,” we’re likely to think, “Maybe it’s more real than you know.”

The novel is about the quest for the father—a classic identity theme—but also about the pursuit of the mother figure.  Eli’s mother frequents the Falling Man Tavern and has her own bar stool.  She dances with many men.  Eli thinks, “She’d found a way to not depend on others. I had to also.”  When John Proctor had made love to Beatrice, we wonder: was she Eli’s mother? The novel soon poses several more questions: Is Beatrice John Proctor’s inspiration for his own Inferno? Is she alive or dead?  Has she committed suicide in the MacLeish Sq.’s Dantean Wood of Suicides? Is this the woman that he stole from his brother, Jeremiah?  Or is Jeremiah Eli’s ghostly father, the man who had set himself on fire?  Early on, Eli has sought out Proctor’s notebooks of fictional stories, seeking autobiographical help for answers to the conundrum of his parentage. Because of Eli’s continual digging into Proctor’s past, Eli believes, at one point, that he’s become Proctor’s “bane.”  And yet Proctor, who has long sought refuge from others, has realized his ever-increasing need for this mysterious young man, Eli.

One great strength of this novel is Must’s rich, compelling language.  There are a number of passages with clever, witty turns of the phrase.  For instance, “It’s what we don’t understand that beguiles us.” “We’re all two-stepping to marble town.” “Why should I take masochistic delight in accosting Mr. Death before our date at the River Styx?” There’s an undercurrent of irony in these lines which helps shape the tone of the novel. But the novel’s wording can also be lyrical: “One touch and the gossamer separating reality from madness dissolves like a moth’s diaphanous wing.”

MacLeish Sq. is an unusual, complex novel.  It’s a valuable addition to Must’s already impressive canon.