Centuries of June

Centuries of June opens with a stock conceit: that of the brained protagonist adrift in dreamland. Bleeding in the bathroom from a head wound of unknown provenance, the novel’s narrator seems to be preparing himself for his pre-mortem whirlwind autobiographical tour with a Freudian dream-daddy–a crowing old coot, a fatherly apparition–as his Virgil. As author Keith Donohue renders the scene of the crime with a certain grotesque lyricism–blood washing over cool, hair-dappled bathroom tiles, the synasthetic savor of a sucking wound–the proceedings take on an obligatory, writing-exercise cast. But already, a trickster element intrudes: dream daddy, who may be the narrator’s father and yet also bears a striking resemblance to Samuel Beckett, sits on the rim of the bathtub calling for a shot of whiskey, yelling and coughing as yellow feathers fly from his mouth. The mystery deepens when our narrator, headed to the kitchen in search of said whiskey, spies eight slumbering nude women tangled in his bed.

And soon we’re immersed in a psychic puzzle of charming invention. Brandishing an elaborately-carved redwood club, the first of these maddened muses awakens to menace the addled narrator–much later, we learn his name is Jack–but she is dissuaded from braining him by a forcible word from the feather-spouting old man. Her name, Shax’saani S’ee, means “younger daughter’s doll” in the language of the Tlingit, a seafaring people of Southeast Alaska; Defeated, the woman begins telling the tale of her marriage to a bear in the cool, humid groves of Tlingit mythology while Jack, his head still ringing and bloodied, wonders at her tale.

Lured deep into the forest, she was wooed and won by a handsome stranger; in the uncanny logic of myth, it took her a shockingly long time to figure out that he’s actually a bear. But in time she tired of the dank cave and the lonely winters spent watching her hirsute brood hibernate. She sent a message to her brothers far away, who came to kill and skin her husband and bring her home. Her family took her in for a time, but her cub-children were hated and feared, and she could no longer stand the mincing ways of men. Fully feral, she returned to live amid the wary bears, an immigrant dependent on her children to translate her words into the tongue of the animals. Donohue’s telling of her tale here mixes the mythic register with contemporary lyric prose:

In warm months she moved among them in an uneasy truce, teaching herself the old ways, but they gave her wide berth… She could only watch their new families from a distance. The fragrance of foamflower and coralroot every June reminded her of the husband… She felt as if she was becoming a bear herself as she aged. At twenty-five years, she could no longer stomach the sight of her own reflection in the water, and at thirty, she felt as if she had lived forever in the purest silence, bereft of all language she had once known.

It’s a lovely tale, but to Jack it presents a puzzle: what does it have to do with him? He’s never met the lovely young Tlingit, nor seen, much less been, a brown bear. And the old man, while seeming to take his side, also delights in the feminine ire Dolly bears towards Jack.

One by one, each of the slumbering women awakens to tell her tale to Jack and the old man. Each heralds her arrival in the bathroom with an attempt on Jack’s life–a flung frying pan, an ugly handgun, the abortive swing of a baseball bat–all deftly parried by the old man, whom Jack takes to calling Beckett. Each woman is a menacing manad, a vengeful virago, a divine sigil of dysfunctional gender relations. And yet in the mysterious and lethal animosity each bears for Jack, and preeminently in the stories of injustice and under-requited love they tell, they’re also roundly-drawn characters in their own rights. The serial singularity of their tales only leave a stunned and addled Jack wondering where he fits in, how these distinctive divinities come to associate him with their tales of woe.

Donohue manages the dream logic well, modulating registers from one mystery muse to the next with mostly-subtle shifts in dialect and voice. When the key to the puzzle finally is disclosed, however, the answer is an obvious one, and a bit of a new-age, pop-psych let-down, lacking the intellectual crackle of Borges and the tooth-gnashing comedy of Beckett–qualities this seductively irreal novel seems to want to foster. And yet there’s a satisfaction in the telling, and in the notion that stories find their resonances even across the generational tides of forgetting, that ultimately the tale is the only transcendent force we can bring to bear against death and its savage requitals.