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Likely Stories: Thomas Murphy by Roger Rosenblatt

Aging Irish poet, Thomas Murphy, ambles into dementia as he struggles to remember.

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

Roger Rosenblatt authored one of my favorite “academic setting” novels, Beet.  His latest novel, Thomas Murphy, is an entirely different sort of story.  Roger was born in 1940.  He was a long-time essayist for Time and the PBS News Hour.  He’s held several teaching positions at Harvard, but he is currently the Distinguished Professor of English and Writing at Stony Brook University.  He has also received seven honorary doctorates.

Thomas Murphy is the story of a respected but aging poet dealing with a cancer diagnosis.  He also recently suffered the loss of his wife, Oona.  Murphy was born in Ireland, and lived mostly in the seaside town of Inishmaan.  He now lives in the US.  His daughter Máire believes he is losing his memory.  This fear of the loss of memory is a thread that runs through the novel.  But the really interesting parts focus on his poetry.

Rosenblatt writes, “They really aren’t difficult, my poems, no matter what the good Dr. Spector says.  Greenberg got ‘em readily enough.  Oh, I’ll toss in a word from time to time, to keep the reader on his toes, the way Heaney does, and Paul Muldoon.  But neither of those great fellas is hard to understand, and I’m not either.  Most of the poets of my race are not hard to understand.  We just play hard to get” (37).  Spector is his surgeon and Greenberg is an old friend.  These patches of memory are sprinkled throughout the novel, and make me wonder about the loss of memory.  When given a quiz by the doctor, he makes every answer a barb with his caustic wit.

Murphy on his poems writes, “The whole process of writing a poem is mystical, to me at least, mystical and beyond my reach.  Have I told you about this?  I begin a poem with an image out of nowhere (where did that come from?), and at once suspect I am part of a plan, and the poem I’ve begun is part of a plan.  The process of writing then, is the progression toward someone else’s design” (156). 

An interesting episode occurs when Thomas is alone in a bar.  A stranger recognizes him, and they strike up a conversation.  Eventually, the stranger admits he wants Thomas to tell his wife he is dying.  He reluctantly agrees, and the results are comedy and tragedy mixed together.  Thomas befriends the man’s wife, and when her husband leaves her for another woman, Thomas begins to date her.

The story itself is rather poetic.  Thomas recalls an event in his childhood, “How slick the petals of the ocean as they bloom again.  How fierce, how businesslike the term in its hieroglyphics.  The Earth grinds on its axis, the strident wind goes slack, and the stars are steady as my gaze.  I would travel now if I could.  I would walk across the ocean, past the startled fish and dreaming whales until I reached some shore of thought and language.  Not this night, though.  On this night I am content with a ripple of warm air and the horizon’s ambiguity” (155).

At a shade over 200 pages, this pleasant little novel satisfied me well enough.  5 stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Check out my new blog at  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!

Life-long voracious reader, Jim McKeown, is an English Instructor at McLennan Community College. His "Likely Stories" book review can be heard every Thursday on KWBU-FM! Reviews include fiction, biographies, poetry and non-fiction. Join us for Likely Stories every Thursday featured during Morning Edition and All Things Considered with encore airings Saturday and Sunday during Weekend Edition.