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Mortal Leap - MacDonald Harris

I’m really tempted to give this one 5 stars—as it is, I’m settling for 4, partly because I read a really ratty old mass market paperback edition with tiny print, partly because I give way too many 5 stars ratings, and partly because I’d rather you read it and gave it the 5th star yourself.

I don’t usually generalize from myself to other people, at least not in any ways that do credit to me or them, but I liked the narrator from almost the very beginning, and pretty quickly, he won me over thinking there might be common ground here. I’ll admit, the idea of going through 254 pages with a Mormon protagonist got things off to a somewhat hesitant start, but when the kid started reading, and reading important literary titles at that, not only reading them, but hiding them from his Bishop father inside porno mags when he knew he was going to be caught…well, I liked him. This kid is off, just enough, to be someone I’d like to know.

When the same kid takes the rap for a friend’s bag of pot, does two years in San Quentin for the crime, and then resumes his relationship with the friend without ever mentioning or expecting anything to come from the incident, well, let’s just say it reminds me of a time and a time of life when some of us, young and inexperienced, would like to think we’d never have ‘ratted’ on our dealer. (It was the late ‘60s or early ‘70s, there were festivals, trails and traces, VW microbuses, and an in-group mindset . You mighta needed to be there.)

But our protagonist isn’t a child of the ‘60s. Or the ‘50s of Kerouac’s Sal Paradise or Dean Moriarty. He’s run away to San Francisco prior to WWII, coming of age in brothels and bilges. This guy could, today, be the geezer at the family reunion, with sparkling eyes, a knowing grin, and a don’t-fuck-with-me-ever expression. At least, I’d like to think so, and at least, that’s the impression you might have after reading the first half of the book.

On reading the second half, readers are faced with a new protagonist—not completely new, but new nevertheless. A disaster at sea lands Larry Backus/Ben Davenant in a naval hospital where doctors attempt to put back together his damaged body and his damage psyche, and this is where things really start to cook. LB yields his identity and begins life as BD. Incremental yielding, incremental new life. A new wife. A new family. New friends. But always lurking are those elements of the ‘who I was’ in conflict with the ‘who I am.’ Harris brings the reader to a knowledge of the protagonist as his real identity begins to make sense to him, and as we question our own roles in the identity we’ve created for ourselves. Bits and pieces resurfacing, the old imposing on the new, the roles of friends, family and love and their creation of the person. Nicely done.

It’s somewhat surprising that women readers have tended to like this one. The repeated references to women as ‘receptacles’ or ‘machines’ doesn’t impress the brightest women readers (the one’s we’re lucky enough to know or are getting to know). However, to Harris’ credit, readers aren’t stuck with an antediluvian perspective the protagonist outgrows. Mortal Leap is not, so much, beautiful writing (although it may be glimpsed here) as it is a meaningful story, beautifully told, part coming-of-age adventure, part coming-to-peace saga. Before stepping into a Grant Wood painting, this guy description wrote one helluva story. A final thought on the novel’s masculinity, I think there is definitely a sense of a masculine reader here, more than simply a masculine point of view; I suspect it wasn’t so much written in a way men might like it more, rather it’s written in a way men might read it because we need it more.

If you can get your hands on it, read it.