Here is a scan of an old streaky xerox of one of my few turns at fiction, “The Social Mallard.” It was published in the February, 1966 Harvard Lampoon. I was 19 and was the Lampoon’s Jester. Every Thursday day night I would dance on the table in a harlequin jester’s outfit on the long table in the Lampoon Castle at the black-tie dinner which would degenerate into a food fight and boisterous singing of a doowap version of Keat’s “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer.” (By sheer coincidence, I would write my thesis on “The Heroic Language of Chapman’s Homer,” comparing a passage of the original with the Elizathan’s translation). We lived in London from l960 to l968, and although I was yet not aware of the writing of P.G.Wodehouse (I wouldn’t discover him until decades later but was, though, working through all the novels of Aldous Huxley), this little piece is very much in the style of Wodehouse, and evokes the same, cozy, parochial world of the English country gentry. Indeed, I call the famous sportsmen in it Cuthbert Neville, and Wodehouse published a short story collection in l922 called “The Clicking of Cuthbert,” of which I was unaware. I got Cuthbert from research at the Public Records Office I had done when I was 16 on his nephew, I think he was, Marmaduke Neville, who had his head chopped off in l545 in the Tower of London for being a Catholic after Henry VIII separated from Rome so he could get a divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Ann Boleyn. I used to take visiting American friends of my parents up the Thames to the Tower of London, and on my 20th trip or so I noticed the words Marmaduke Neville 1545 chiseled in the wall of one of the prison cells in the basement of the tower and became curious who he was. So I went to the Public Records Office and after an afternoon of slogging through historical and genealogical records found out who Marmaduke had been. Now it takes less than a minute. All you have to do is Google him.
That summer, l963, we went for a family weekend at a place in the country north of London called the Peacock Inn. I had brought my ultralight spinning rod and reel and a box of Mepps spinners in case there was a trout stream (sacreligious as spinfishing was), and even though it was raining hard, I went to the little river near the inn and cast my Mepps spinner under the bridge and immediately tied into a fat 16-inch rainbow trout. Astonished and delighted, I put the fish in the pocket of my trenchcoat and cast again and pulled in another one just as big and put it in the other pocket and ran back to the inn and gave the fish to the cook to prepare for us for dinner, and cook asked, aghast, “Where did you catch these
fish?” and I said, “right under the bridge” and he said, “Do you realize you’ve poached the Duke of Rutland’s trout ? That was a capital offense until only ten years ago !”
So that summer I started to write a picaresque novel about the life and untimely death of Marmaduke Neville, who was executed in the Tower of London for poaching the Duke of Rutland’s trout. I only got the first few pages written, but they were promising and precocious. They may be permanently lost. I have been unable so far to find them in my trunk of juvenilia. That was my first attempt at fiction, and “The Social Mallard” was my second and last. I wonder what my life would have been like if I had become a novelist instead of a journalist and nature writer. Some like Peter Matthiessen, Bruce Chatwin, and Edward Hoagland, have done both, but I wasn’t interested in making thing up as much as in trying to figure out what is out there, which is endlessly fascinating and has many more astonishing twists and narrative truth than the most fertile imagination could ever come up with. There all kinds of great stories in the “real” world that haven’t been told and are waiting to be discovered, so I became a practitioner of literary “non-fiction,” a dubious genre : any genre that defines itself by what it isn’t is already in trouble, as far as I’m concerned. There are only degrees of fiction, and non-fiction is viewed by novelists as something writers who don’t have the imagination to make things up, who are more timid and literalistic, do. At this point, I no longer care what anybody thinks. I produce the stuff, and the reader can make of it what he will.
What is also interesting about this little piece is that it has a magic-realism quality like Nikolai Gogol, who I only found out I am distantly descended from years later, in the late 90s. At this point, I had read “Dead Souls,” but not Gogol’s magic-real stories like “The Nose.” I knew nothing about magic realism, which Gogol is really the father of, as well as of the short story itself, yet this is little Wodehousian, Gogolesque piece is an unconscious exercise in the genre. So I wonder, is there a gene for magic realism, and if so, did I get it ? Magic realism in South America, where it is supposed to
have arisen, is really a way of processing reality in the tropics, which has a magic-real tinge, as I discuss in “The World is Burning,” my book about the murder of Chico Mendes. In fact it is a way of seeing reality anywhere. What I in fact became, though more due to the psychedelic Sixties, could be described as a magic-real journalist.