A Novel in Nine Novellas
“It generates its own reality, and it’s profoundly funny.”
David Chute, The Los Angeles Times
Claude Monet, The Harbor at Trouville (detail, 1870)
“I envy the lucky souls who are meeting Peter Leroy for the first time.”
Armistead Maupin, author of Tales of the City
Memoirist Peter Leroy explores one of his earliest memories, his mother’s tumble from her lawn chair; probes the root causes of his childhood pelecypodophobia (fear of bivalve mollusks, particularly clams); navigates the upper reaches of the Bolotomy River; builds a radio receiver and explores the farthest reaches of the galaxy; ponders the differences between dour foxes and happy clams; falls in love with the girl with the white fur muff; learns the pleasures of skating on ice and taking the long way home; becomes a fan of the Larry Peters Adventure series; and rises to the rank of Aluminum Commodore in the Young Tars.
“Tiny and enormous, full of mystery and wonder.”
Robert Plunkett, The New York Times Book Review
(from the first novella, “My Mother Takes a Tumble”)
MR. BEAKER LIVED ALONE in a stucco house next door to Gumma and Guppa, my mother’s parents, on No Bridge Road. There was, as a sign on the corner cautioned, no bridge at the end of No Bridge Road, though one had once been planned, and rumors persisted that construction would begin soon.
All the houses on No Bridge Road were stucco. Beside each house, on the right as you faced it, was a clamshell driveway that led to a stucco garage. Guppa, a salesman at Babbington Studebaker who never took “no” for an answer, had seen to it that in each garage was a Studebaker.
Under the right conditions, on a winter morning, when snow covered their roofs and glistened in the morning light, the houses looked like the chocolate cakes for which my mother was, within her circle, noted: dark, rich, two-layer cakes covered with shiny white frosting that she pulled into peaks with the back of a spoon.
My mother and father were living in Gumma and Guppa’s house then. Gumma taught my mother how to pull the icing into peaks, and Mr. Beaker ate his share of those cakes at Sunday dinners. I first saw one on the day that my mother and I came home from the hospital in South Hargrove. My father swung Guppa’s Studebaker into the driveway, crunching clamshells under the wheels. Gumma and Guppa ran from the house, with Mr. Beaker right behind them. My father slid from behind the wheel and dashed to the rear door. Gumma and Guppa ran right up to the car, but Mr. Beaker held back a bit. My father opened the door with a flourish and held out his hand in a gesture usually accompanied by “Voila!”
“Voila!” burst from Mr. Beaker. My father scowled at the driveway.
Gumma and Guppa poked their heads into the car to get their first look at me in natural light. Beyond them, Mr. Beaker was bending this way and that, trying to get a glimpse between them. He was holding his hands behind him and wearing a grin of the sort that usually made Gumma, and later my mother, say, “You look like the cat that swallowed the canary.”
At last Gumma and Guppa moved aside, and my father reached into the car to take me off my mother’s hands. Seeing an opening, Mr. Beaker stepped up and produced from behind his back, with a flourish, one of the famous chocolate cakes, baked under Gumma’s guidance as a birthday cake for me.
“Voila,” muttered my father, twisting his foot in the shells.
My mother blushed. “Isn’t that nice?” she asked me. “Your first birthday cake.”
My father carried me, very carefully, into the house. Mr. Beaker helped my mother from the car.
Mr. Beaker was said to have a college degree, and he may have had one, for (a) he smoked a pipe; (b) on weekends he wore loafers and a cardigan sweater with suede patches on the elbows; and (c) at about the time that I learned to stand up in my crib, he began making a tidy living in a line of work that my father called, shaking his head in grudging admiration, “a swindle that only a college man could have dreamed up”: writing letters, as “Mary Strong,” to lonely men who from time to time could be persuaded to send the unfortunate Miss Strong some money.
Mr. Beaker drummed up business by running advertisements in the personals columns of small-town newspapers. He ran his first ad in the Hargrove Daily News, just to test the waters:
Lonely Man Lovely young woman in unfortunate circumstances wishes to correspond with lonely man. Mary Strong, Post Office Box 98, Babbington, New York.
At that time, Eliza Foote was living in Hargrove and working as a typist at Hackett & Belder, Insurance, the premier firm of its type in Babbington. Guppa recommended them so highly to purchasers of Studebakers that all the homes, lives, and automobiles on No Bridge Road were insured through them, and Mr. Hackett saw to it that Guppa had a steady supply of liquor and turkeys.
When Eliza came home from work each evening, she read the Daily News straight through while she sipped bourbon from a juice glass. Sometimes she read aloud, so that her room would not seem so empty. Mr. Beaker’s ad caught her eye just as she was swallowing the last little sip. She choked, gasped, and choked and gasped again. For a moment, she saw Mary plainly, somewhere across town, maybe in one of the rooms at the River Sound Hotel, sitting at a table, sipping from a glass of bourbon, reading and rereading her ad, hoping that someone else was reading it too. Eliza began rummaging in her pocketbook for a pen. After a few minutes she remembered that Mr. Hackett had borrowed her pen to print his name on the stub of a raffle ticket he had bought from a pushy high school girl who just wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, and rarely gave it either, if Eliza didn’t miss her guess. In a kitchen drawer she found a pencil, which she sharpened with a paring knife. She sat at her table and began to write, but she hated the way the pencil lead looked on the nice stationery her sister had sent her for Christmas, so she went next door to Mrs. Mitchell, who had to repair typewriters in her spare time to make ends meet, because Mr. Mitchell had not given much thought to death when he was alive, and had left her ill-provided-for when he died, though God knows he had sent enough money to that brother of his. Mrs. Mitchell was happy to lend her a typewriter after Eliza had given satisfactory answers to a few probing questions.
Eliza wasn’t the only person to answer Mr. Beaker’s ad, but she was the first. She signed her letter “John Simpson,” approximating the name of Dan Hanson, the only unattached salesman at Hackett & Belder, a fellow who cut a dashing figure in his fedora and checked jacket and set Eliza’s heart aflutter whenever he walked past her desk.
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“Wonderfully touching and mythic.”
John Stark Bellamy II, Cleveland Plain Dealer
One of Dudley Beaker's advertisements for the Babbington Clam Council.
Walter Kendrick, The Village Voice
(from the second novella, “Do Clams Bite?”)
FROM TIME TO TIME, my parents would take me to stay for a weekend with my father’s large and sturdy parents, whom I called Big Grandfather and Big Grandmother, or simply Grandfather and Grandmother. My parents stayed just long enough to fulfill an obligation. They would ordinarily leave after dinner if we went on a Friday, and after an hour or so if we went on a Saturday morning. I would stay until Sunday evening. Though I loved my big grandparents dearly, I was never comfortable during these visits, in part because Grandmother and Grandfather were so much larger than anyone else in the family, and in part because all their furniture was upholstered with scratchy scarlet fabric, but mostly because, as soon as I was old enough, if the weather allowed it, Grandfather would take me clamming with him on Saturday and Sunday.
Grandfather clammed in the flats, where the water reached somewhere between his knees and his waist and somewhere between my waist and my chin. He would hunt for clams by “treading,” feeling for clams with his toes. When he found one, he would duck beneath the water, bring the clam up, and drop it into the front of his brief wool bathing suit. Soon his bathing suit would fill up with clams, bulging enormously at the front, and he would waddle to his boat, the Rambunctious, where he would empty the clams onto the deck. I knew that I was expected to do as he did, but even thinking of dropping a clam into the front of my bathing suit brought a stab of pain between my legs; my stomach grew cold and empty. I was sure that clams must bite and that they were likely to snap at me in there. Every moment of every visit was marked by fear of being bitten if I did as Grandfather did and fear of disappointing him if I did not.
Each of these visits began with a climb up the stairs to the rooms where Great-grandmother Leroy lived, at the very top of the house. I began to move more slowly as I neared the top of the stairs, not out of any reluctance to see Great-grandmother, but simply to adjust myself to the pace of things in her rooms, for in Great-grandmother’s rooms everything moved slowly, and while downstairs events marched on toward the time when I would have to go out on the bay with Grandfather and suffer through the squirming anxiety that came with the thought of dropping snapping clams into my little woolen bathing suit, here at the top of the house I would be, for a while, outside the rush of forward motion. Great-grandmother herself had lived so long up here, above things, that she had slowed to immobility and beyond, had begun to move backward, slipping farther into the past with each reluctant tick of the old clock that she kept on the table beside her. From my visits, I had acquired a sense of how this had happened, and my initial impatience during early visits to Great-grandmother—to be away, to get downstairs, to be moving, to do something, even to do something frightening—slipped away little by little, with each succeeding visit, yielding to an insinuating somnolence, a comforting drowsiness. The longer I spent with her there, the thicker the atmosphere became, as if the room were filling with one of the undulating gelatin desserts my mother was fond of making, and I could relax, stretch out, float, and drift. But always, sooner or later, my mother would call from downstairs, and I would have to say good-bye and descend into confusion and haste.
“Wonderfully different from most literary efforts.”
Mark Muro, The Boston Globe
“Mystery, tragedy, jealousy, love, wisdom, irony, wonder.”
James Idema, Chicago Tribune
“An ingenious investigation of the way we build our myths.”
Julie Salamon The Wall Street Journal
“Clever, anecdotal, suspenseful, and funny.”
Anna Shapiro, The New Yorker
Read complete reviews.
Robert Crampton, The Times (London)