MacDonald Harris and the Utopia of Imagination: Remembering, Celebrating a Writers' Writer

Friday night's excellent literary wing-ding at UC Irvine brought out a big crowd. Following the  nifty plastic traffic signs with their unlikely message, “Tribute to Don Heiney” led a couple hundred literati (and the people who love them) to the University Club, full-up with tweed and tight dresses, SRO in fact, free wine and snacks, and decorated in reproductions of covers of the novels of the man remembered, who wrote under the name MacDonald Harris and taught a whole lot of young Fiction Writing MFAs for a lot of years. Twenty years after his death (1921-1993), and the fellow can still fill a room.  

The wonderful Michelle Latiolais, (Widow, A Proper Knowledge), for whom anybody would do anything, put together the deal, with help from her own admirers, friends, colleagues and students, along with support from Matt Astrella, former UCI Bookstore manager, and the charming Alex Uhl of the best children's and family bookstore in Southern California–Whale of a Tale–right across the street. Plenty more good people did their very best for Don and his widow Anne Heiney and sons Paul and Conrad, including at the Department of English and the School of Humanities, which employed Don when he co-ran the famous “magic workshop” writing program for two decades with Oakley (Warlock) Hall.  
Latiolais was herself a student of Don's, and wanted to celebrate her teacher, not to mention do a little MFA boostering.  She performed a sublime, clever and generous thing, inviting back to campus an impressive gang of Don's former students to recollect and celebrate and tell funny and instructive stories about a talented, eccentric, brilliant academic, teacher and writer. Even more impressive, she assigned his novels to current MFA candidates, all young and handsome and beautiful and talented, by way of further keeping his work up there on the memory shelf.  So, some fun, indeed, first with short tributes from poet James (Capacity) McMichael and biographer Stephen (Full of Life) Cooper, novelists Louis B. (Radiance) Jones and Rhoda (The Hallelujah Side)  Huffey and Greg (Fearful Symmetry) Bills, memoirist Vicki (This Lovely Life) Forman and a whole lot (three hours' worth) more.  

You should have been there.  And, like me, you probably should have read more of Don by now. We are mortal but, happily, art is immortal.  Most of his books are, alas, out of print, but easy enough to find used or at the public library.  And, good news, there's a recent reissue of The Balloonist and a just-published posthumous novel as startling, entertaining, elaborate and fun as any of his earlier. (See below.)
As MacDonald Harris, Don the H. wrote a lot of books indeed, many celebrated and even big sellers.  The Balloonist was a finalist for the National Book Award, but all his novels were, I am told (or was, on Friday night) inventive, exquisitely constructed, risky, playful, sometimes weird. You might start with Hemingway's Suitcase, with its enviable premise, the story (apocryphal or not) of that missing valise containing the “lost” stories.  Heiney creates convincing and excellent Hemingway while spinning this one out. 
The whole tribute was videotaped, so you will be able at some point to also watch the show, with short two-minute appreciations of the work in between the personal remarks, each offered by 19 (!) different fans, including Yours Truly, who was given the opportunity to read the British-published The Carp Castle, and offered his own staccato-quick review, reproduced below.  Got some big laughs, thank you, and felt so grateful to do my part in, I hope, producing some excitement about the novel.  For more on the life and art of the late and enduring Don Heiney, check out Paul Heiney's web site , dedicated to his pop.
Here, then, my own two-minute review:
Don's final, perhaps most anticipated novel. Me, in unenviable place of going last tonight.

Enviable place of being among a very few in North America who've read it. Title: The Carp Castle. Short review: Seriously trippy novel. Funny, smart, sexy, serious romp. Philip Pullman says one of his best. Compare favorably to Garp, Ragtime. Longer review:  A puzzle mosaic of broken character biographies asking to be put together. Colors: gold and green and sky. Gustav Klimt painting of the sexy lady in gold. Back stories add up to front story, ecstatic, satirical, politically prescient. Expectation of the fantastic in the real. The real – mechanical, post-Great War industrial horror let fly into the 

fantastical, the dream, the crippled utopian. A story of women and men, mostly women. Who like men, and penises. Lots of them. A presumed clairvoyant who couldn't care less personally about penises, but constructs a big one, a dirigible, the biggest floating, flying dork ever, tumescent in its glory and doom and, yes, gilded in the mystical – and off on its journey to a communal paradise. Its passengers and crew: lost men, war wounded, visionaries, con artists, disciples. Other women, wonders, frauds, assassins, fakers, each desirable yet under-desired. Their maladies of sexual politics – hysteria, anxiety, the vapors – 

addressed if never quite healed. The lady cultist – think Sister Aimee – founder of her Guild of Love, a Theosophist suffragist rich widow and grifter who sells worship of life, beauty, perfection, up, up, up above on its way to an Eden of free love somewhere proximate the North Pole, in a dimple at the tit-end of a heart-shaped earth. Philosophy, German classical music, Jules Verne science-voyage, “an airship is to a submarine what a God is to a man.”
The author, perhaps, speaking through this book's most vivid character. No, not perhaps. Here, Don Heiney, not only the lady evangelist but the novelist MacDonald Harris: “[He] had a strong pictorial imagination and by concentrating his mental forces [he] was able to see these scenes and characters in [his] mind with great clarity. [He] could spend hours composing for [him]self, and at the same time watching, elaborate pageants in which these colorful shapes made love and quarreled, plotted crimes, seized thrones, played at being shepherds, and embarked in gilded boats for islands in the sea.”
A ridiculous and irresistible gas-bag conceit of eyes wide-open and generous deception, and

 all the better for it. A metaphor, a symbol. A dream, and a wet dream! The flying craft's captain: “Strange thing, life. A banal thought, but the very banality of the phrase is its strangeness. Do all men feel this? Do you see the hangar ahead? Just steer for the thing.” Yes, by all means, do steer that zeppelin into the hangar.
But what goes up, must go down. The end, the magnificent end, the longing sated, passionate erotic discovery,
redemption. Adventure story! Love story! Great story!
The Carp Castle, MacDonald Harris, Galileo Publishing, 300 pgs. $19.95 (available at Whale of a Tale locally)
The Balloonist, MacDonald Harris, Overlook TP, 256 pgs, 14.95 
Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.

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