Ira Foxglove

Ira Foxglove

by Thomas McMahon

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
This may be an early work, set aside for who knows what reason, but it has the same loopy charm and rueful insight as McMahon's previously published fiction (all of which has recently been reissued by the University of Chicago Press). For those who are already fans of McMahon, Ira Foxglove will be a chance to have one last little adventure in his company; for those new to his work, it makes a nice introduction to the bustling, more densely populated novels that have already earned him a small but devoted following. — Alida Becker
Library Journal - Library Journal
Harvard scientist and novelist McMahon (McKay's Bees; Loving Little Egypt), who died in 1999, is known for his quirky characters and unique hybrid of science and whimsy. Appearing 30 years after being written, this intimate story features Foxglove, a 42-year-old inventor and professor at a Boston science college. He is in pain from his recent heart attack and from the departure of Portia, his wife of 20 years. His estranged daughter is also gone, studying in Paris. Helped by a hippie businessman friend, Foxglove embarks on a journey to save his marriage, his family, and, ultimately, his life. Along the way, the author's flare for invention is manifested in such objects as a material known as Feather Fabric. While McMahon occasionally elaborates on minutiae, what is startling is that this 1973 work freshly captures the waning of the 1960s while simultaneously depicting what we now call a midlife crisis. It would be a disservice to pigeonhole this book, however, as it is essentially a story about a man going after what matters most to him, which makes it timeless. Recommended for larger public and academic libraries.-Maureen Neville, Trenton P.L. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A deceptively lighthearted fourth novel by the late cult favorite McMahon (1943-99; Loving Little Egypt, 1986, etc.) depicts a forlorn husband's tragicomic quest to reclaim his AWOL wife. A shy, private soul, Ira Foxglove is a Boston inventor who recently created a miracle textile known as Feather Fabric and is now working on an artificial heart-a project perhaps suggested to him by the massive coronary he suffered a year ago and hasn't fully recovered from. Unable to work and denied his favorite vices (cigars and rich food), Ira has sunk so far into depression that on the blackest days he can barely summon the energy to call his doctor. It got so bad that his wife Portia finally moved (without much by way of explanation) to London. With Portia in England and daughter Henley studying mime in Paris, Ira has little to live for in Boston, so he prevails upon his wealthy friend Neptune to take him to Europe on his next business trip-something easily arranged, since Neptune has just bought himself a blimp from Goodyear and is in the mood to get away. So the two set off and, after a brief fishing vacation in Iceland, descend in England a few days later. Ira's initial reunion with Portia is a bit strained (thanks mainly to her disagreeable, jealous-and male-Hindu roommate), but, pressing on to Paris, he consoles himself with Henley and her arty crowd, who welcome him as a fellow eccentric and even put him in some of their productions. One, a young American named Peaches, manages to seduce Ira and, in the process, give him an idea that helps him complete his plans for the artificial heart. That, in turn, gets him his wife back. You'll have to connect the dots yourself. Reminiscent of the best ofWalker Percy: a deeply funny, strange, moving account of middle-aged angst overcome by genius, sympathy, and profound naivete.

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Product Details

Brook Street Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.22(w) x 8.94(h) x 0.73(d)

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a novel

brook street press

Copyright © 2004 Estate of Thomas McMahon
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-9724295-3-0

Chapter One

Portia left me on a late summer evening. She put all her clothes in two suitcases, carelessly wadding them in. Her tank suit went on top in the small suitcase.

"It's this or go nuts, Ira," she said as she walked out the door.

She had called herself a cab, but it was late coming. I followed her outdoors and sat on the front steps with her until the cab showed up.

"How about this," I suggested. "We'll get floor lamps for every room. Then the place wouldn't be so dark. Then you could stay."

"I don't want to stay."

"I wish you would."

"No," she said.

The cab arrived. It had a black roof and orange fenders. On the side, in black letters, it said DADDY'S CAB.

"You're not going to abandon me in Daddy's Cab, are you?" I asked her.

"I certainly am."

That was her last word. Daddy jumped out, zip, zip, the bags were in, and off they went down Pearl Street. I watched them drive all the way down to the end, then left and out of sight. Aha. The old left turn. This would take them out to Memorial Drive. Another left turn at the traffic circle under the B.U. Bridge, then off to the airport. Portia hadn't told me where she was going, but I imagined I knew. She was going to her sister in New York.

Later, I knew I had played it wrong. I should have been more kind. I should have given her more money. I kept forty dollars in traveler's checks in my chest of drawers. I should have given her that.

This was on Monday. On Wednesday evening, it seemed a reasonable idea to check in with her sister. Portia wasn't there, although she had been. Her sister's husband had loaned her the airfare to England, and she had left earlier that afternoon. I was stupefied.

A week passed without any word. I called Portia's sister again and talked with her for an hour. I've always liked Portia's sister. She's married to a restaurateur who can afford luxuries for her and their children, but she's easy to please and doesn't cost him much. They have a large apartment, and they're generous about sharing it with you when you come to town. They're also generous with food.

Portia's sister hadn't heard anything either, but she didn't mind talking about some of the things Portia had said and done in the brief time she was with them. She had spent nearly all her time in their swimming pool, which was on the roof deck of the building. As this was September and the children of the building were in school, Portia had the pool to herself. Her sister had served Portia all her meals beside the pool, except for dinner, which she had with the family in their eat-in kitchen. After dinner, she was back up in the pool again, under the stars. I've been in this pool after dark, and I know how attractive it can be with the lights of New York reflecting from its moving surface. The Spry sign, for example, comes back inverted and in pieces which break apart and fit together every time a wave passes.

"All that despondent swimming," her sister said. "I was worried about her. I called her on the telephone out on the deck once in a while to see how she was coming along. And I spent a lot of time there with her, too."

"What did she say?"

"She said you were better and didn't need her anymore."

"I am better."

"I'm glad to hear that, Ira," her sister said.

"But that's no reason for her to run away."

"She said the house was too dark. She said you just lie on your back on the couch in the darkness."

"I don't do that all the time. I just do it when my chest is hurting."

"Does it hurt often?"

I thought about this. How much had I been lying around feeling sorry for myself? Enough for Portia and me to fight about it. She wasn't pleased about all that darkness. But I often left the curtains open, so that I could see the street lamp, and a corner of the church against the lighter sky. At twilight in fair weather, this blank brick face of the church would be scarlet, standing on a dark blue sky. On the sidewalk under the street lamp, the adolescents of the neighborhood would fight urgent, sexual, roughhouse games. I could hear them but not see them unless I lifted my head. A girl's scarf would be taken, and the clatter of a running army could be heard moving down the block. When I did lift my head, I would be likely to see a boy pressing a girl against a parked car, keeping her prisoner by his grip on the door handles. But Portia would see only that the parlor was dark and that I was there on the couch, silent.

"It hurts often enough so that I can understand why Portia might be exasperated with me," I said. "I wasn't supposed to have pain this long after my heart attack. I was supposed to be free of pain a month or so after leaving the hospital. Such was not to be."

Portia's sister wanted to stop talking. Her children needed to be put to bed.

"Come on down here and let me take care of you, Ira," she said. "You can float in the pool if the weather stays warm. I know you like that. I'd rather have you here than Portia if you can't be here together. She's too nervous. She swam up and down, up and down, all day long yesterday. Our pool isn't big enough for that. It's more for lying in."

This was a very nice invitation. Portia's sister, like Portia, is a pretty woman. She's two years older than Portia. They're fond of each other.

"I want to come," I told her. "But I want more to be here when Portia writes or comes home. Let's put it off until things are more tranquil."

Months passed. Portia sent me notes on postcards. She treated the abandonment as a joke. On the back of one showing Trafalgar Square she wrote:

It has more cars than this even on Sunday morning. I can't make up my mind whether I wish you were here-P

The postcards had no return address, but after the third month I received a letter which led me to understand that she would look for mail at American Express. I wrote to her and sent her all the money in our bank account. In my letter, I asked her what she was doing in London and why she couldn't come home. She answered, on the back of a postcard, that she couldn't explain then but would write me a long letter soon.

Another month passed, and when the letter came, it proved to be very unsatisfactory. It was a vaguely argued manifesto for human wildness. I came close to being referred to in the third person. It was as if Portia was at the end of a long speaking tube, and more interested in letting me know she was there far away, than in saying anything to me I might understand.

More postcards came after that. She described the sights, and once, for a sequence of five cards or so, she pretended to be a rich lady tourist writing to aunts and uncles. She affected an accent and purposely misspelled words. This was also going on as she described visiting Paris, where she spent a few weeks with our eighteen-year-old daughter, Henley, who is enrolled in a school of mime there. Henley wrote me about this visit:

It's great to have Mother here, but she seems awfully distracted. She wanted me to join in that game of writing you hick postcards, but I wouldn't do it.

Meanwhile, my salary as a science teacher at Browning Tech was being strained by the necessity of supporting both Henley and Portia in foreign campaigns. I was forced to borrow even more money than I had when Portia had been home. Although Portia apparently wanted to think about her absence as a practical joke, it had its impractical side.

In late winter, Portia wrote me to say that she was living with a wonderful Indian from Bombay in his flat near King's Cross. Their bed-sitter room had two high windows which looked out on an alley. The skyline was entirely brick chimneys and chimney pots, she said. They had painted each wall of their room a different color. He worked in an administrative job in a government office. Portia was looking for work but meanwhile was putting most of her energy into swimming at the facilities of a nearby school.

She invited me to visit her. She wanted to see me, she said, and her friend had okayed the plan of my living with them for a few days if I would like to come. She suggested that I come during my spring break, a time we had often spent together as a family camping in the White Mountains north of Boston.

I considered Portia's invitation seriously enough to take out a passport and get a smallpox vaccination, but as I thought through my plans, it all began to look too expensive. The most Portia had promised me was a few hours of talk and a chance to meet this guy Dawlish whom she raved about. She had made it clear that I shouldn't expect to bring her back with me. I finally sent her money instead.

I made the decision, as winter was just ending, lying on my bed in the kitchen. The kitchen could be kept warm by using the space heater in the gas stove, thus allowing me to save money by not heating the rest of the apartment. I had tacked Portia's cards and letters on the bulletin board to the right of the stove, just over the foot of my bed. During the winter I had grown into careless habits involving food and had encouraged the cockroaches to exercise their options on future generations years earlier than would have been wise previously. One of my bigger mistakes had been to assume that the spaghetti pot needn't be cleaned between usings. I kept it on the floor under my bed.

A week arrived, during that summer in 1973, of nearly unbearable heat and humidity. The newspapers and broadcast media said that many people in the Northeast thought some kind of end was at hand, since Washington, Philadelphia, and New York were suffocating in a smog blanket each day more and more concentrated in toxins. A quirk of large-scale pressure systems trapped the air over the entire country and held it fixed; there was no wind anywhere for five days. Temperature inversions over the cities sealed them still further. Newspapers published alarms regarding this or that pollution index, including maps with the unhealthy areas of cities indicated in black. Lights flickered and darkened in the late afternoon and evening under the demands of air conditioning. Many people with respiratory diseases were admitted to hospitals.

Boston stewed with the other cities, but faint sea breezes helped it escape serious smog. As in previous summers, I had my usual arrangement with the local school board whereby I was a guard at Browning three nights a week in exchange for the use of a basement laboratory I had assembled there. They also paid me a small salary. Before my heart attack, I would customarily take a daytime job as a consultant at the rubber hose factory on Second Street during the summer months, but not this summer. With only the seven-to-two guard's job to do, I was free to stay in bed during the mornings, but on the week I'm speaking of, it was impossible to lie in bed during the day. On Wednesday of that terrible week, the temperature had already reached ninety-five by ten o'clock, and the humidity was high enough to keep the sun from casting sharp shadows anywhere in the house. I dressed in a cotton shirt and light trousers and stepped out onto the porch, intending to investigate whether the outside could be as bad as the inside.

In my letterbox, there was a fat envelope from Henley. I brought it inside to read it. The letter was long, by her standard. Paris in spring and summer was fantastic, the people at the mime school were beautiful. She was growing as a person. She had just returned from a visit in London with Portia, which Portia had paid for. On returning, she had been given the promise of a job as a cocktail waitress in a bar in the evenings, but until the job started, she was in need of a small loan. Typically, she hadn't stated the amount required, but from the things she needed, including the school's fee, I knew I should send her three hundred dollars. That was three hundred dollars I didn't have. I took off my shoes and socks and lay back on the bed.

Through the windows of the empty bedroom, framed with curtains made (by Portia) of white bed sheets, the scalding glare of the street diffused inside. The bedroom walls, which had been covered with a textured green wallpaper when we moved in, were now painted white, but had become, in Portia's absence, soiled enough to need repainting. I looked at my watch. It was just after ten-fifteen. I picked up the phone and dialed Neptune's number.

"Ira," Neptune said when he answered, "Look, can I call you back? Where are you?"

"At home."

"O.K. I'll call you in five minutes."

I put a shallow pan of water on to boil. I then went into the bathroom and used the toilet. (It had a wooden handle painted violet on the end of the chain.) By the time I returned to the kitchen, the water was boiling. I shook in a bit of salt, removed the pan from the flames, and stirred in the oatmeal. I opened the door of the old refrigerator and was removing a carton of milk when the telephone rang.

"Ira? I had somebody in my office before, I'm sorry."


"Hey, I'm glad you called. I've been meaning to get in touch with you. I hired this chemist guy to work on coloring your feather fiber. He isn't doing it right. Can I send him over to talk to you?"


"He isn't a moron. He's got a Ph.D. and the whole thing. But since the feather fiber is your invention, I thought he could ask you about it and save himself some time."

"I'd be glad to talk to him," I said. "Send him over. Any day except today. It's too hot to stay inside. I'm going out and sit by some water somewhere, in the shade."

"Isn't it ridiculous? I've got my air conditioner turned down to zero over here, and it isn't doing any good. What can I do for you, Ira?"

"I hate to tell you. You can do what you've done before. I want to send my daughter a little money."

"Is she still in Paris?"


"Why send it to her? Why not give it to her in person?"

"I don't get it."

"Come with me to Europe. I'm making a trip to sell Feather Fabric to the Scandinavians. I'm leaving tomorrow night from New Bedford. I have my own aircraft now. I don't know if I told you."

"No," I said, "you didn't." I considered his suggestion in a few moments of silence.

"Don't think about it too hard, Ira, just come."

"I don't know whether Henley would be in town. She travels sometimes, with her friends."

"So wire her," Neptune said, "and let me know."

"I might stop in London and see my wife."

"Wire her too," Neptune said. "I have to land at Boscombe Down, in Sussex. You can get a train from there to London. Call me before noon tomorrow."

"Where will you be?"

"Right here, Ira. I'm sorry, three people are standing here trying to tell me things."

"Sure. I'll call you tomorrow."

"Right," Neptune said, and hung up.


Excerpted from IRA FOXGLOVE by THOMAS McMAHON Copyright © 2004 by Estate of Thomas McMahon. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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