The Thrill of the TrilogyNovember 4, 2013
My introduction to the triune came early. Each morning as my classmates and I made the sign of the cross, my first-grade nun stressed that the Trinity–one God in three separate and distinct persons, Father, Son and Holy Ghost–was essential to our faith and, ergo, to our salvation. Since my six-year-old brain couldn’t make much sense of it, I was happy to be told the three-person God was a mystery beyond human understanding and had almost driven mad the theologians who’d tried to solve it.
Still, it stuck. Three in one, one in three. The holy trifecta. In the large stained glass window on the south wall of our Bronx parish church, St. Patrick held up a shamrock. One stem, three petals: They glowed a single emerald green as the sun lofted behind them. For that moment at least, the riddle of the Trinity ceased to bewilder.
Over the years, as I wandered amid the thickets of secularity, I learned that, as well as a marker of religious dogma, three brought to whatever it was associated with a special aura, whether exciting (Triple Crown), silly (Three Stooges), erotic (ménage à trois), scary (Third Reich), exceptional (triple play), or sad (strike three). Just by being three, ordinary things gained a special cachet.
When I set out to become a writer of books, I imagined one would suffice. A historian manqué, just shy of a Ph.D., I first stumbled into speech writing. I decided to try it for a year, save enough to go back to school, finish the dissertation, and turn it into a book. “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men,” as Scottish poet Robert Burns put it, “gang aft agley.” I ended up scribbling for two New York governors and five chairmen of Time Inc./Time Warner across a span of three decades.
On the plus side, my job involved indoor work and required no manual labor. It paid the mortgage and tuitions, and included a defined benefit plan; on the minus, it was frequently stressful, sometimes grinding and always anonymous. Occasionally a speechwriter or two has slipped from behind the curtain and gained fame crafting words for mouths other than his/her own. But as I saw it, once you take the king’s shilling, you do the king’s bidding, and whatever praise or blame ensues is the sovereign’s alone.
As time went on, I felt a growing need to put my name on words I could publicly claim as mine. I got to my office two hours early in order to attempt a novel. Having grown used to churning out large chunks of copy in short amounts of time, I calculated I’d have a finished manuscript in a year or two. Robert Burns proved right again. Ten years later, I left the delivery room cradling my long-gestating mind child, Banished Children of Eve, a six-hundred-page saga of Civil War New York.
The first agent I submitted it to was dismissive. I hadn’t written one novel, she wrote, but “sausaged three in one.” I was stung. Yet the more I thought about it, the more I realized its truth. My novel was the story of Irish famine immigrants, the frightening, fecund mongrel world of mid-19th-century New York, and the impact of the Civil War. These were the three petals. Minstrel-songster Stephen Foster was stem and sausage skin. His music is the book’s leitmotiv. There are worse things to be accused of, I decided, than being a Trinitarian. I stuck with three in one, and that’s how it was published.
I drew a great deal of satisfaction from at last having my name on writing all my own, so much so that I decided one wasn’t enough. I had other stories I wanted to write. Faced by commercial constraints as well as those of my own mortality, I knew the next had to be shorter. Unfortunately, hard as I tried, I couldn’t get the hang of the short form, which required the precision of the pointillist. I preferred the Jackson Pollack school, buckets of paint splashed across expansive canvases.
With the second novel, I decided to reverse the first: In place of three packed in one, one would be divided in three. The stem I started with was Fintan Dunne, Irish-American ex-cop and private eye, a veteran of World Wars I and II, whose formal education ended in the Catholic Protectory, an orphanage cum reformatory in the Bronx. In hardboiled style, Fin is a man who, if he ever had any illusions about human nature, had them kicked out of him so long ago he can’t remember what they were.
Fin is what the writer William Kennedy calls a “cynical humanist.” Distrustful of all authority, skeptical of most causes, uninterested in heroics, he is reluctant to get involved. Whatever the case, he knows from the outset that there are no perfect endings, no spotless souls, and that some mysteries are better left unsolved. Still, despite his understanding of the futility of good intentions and the hopeless fallibility of everyone–including himself–Fin can’t help but try to see that some modicum of justice is done.
I followed Fin as he fought with eugenicists and fifth columnists (Hour of the Cat), wrestled with the still-unsolved case of New York’s most-famous missing jurist (The Man Who Never Returned), and burrowed into the Cold War’s intricate machinations and betrayals (Dry Bones). I’ve seen the city and the world through his eyes as he experienced two world wars, the Great Depression and the gloom-and-boom of the Eisenhower era, the rollercoaster years W.H. Auden accurately labeled “The Age of Anxiety.”
I’m grateful for our three-legged journey. Fintan has been great company every step of the way. Now that we finished our last caper and said our goodbyes, I’m hopeful that I’ve told his story the way he wanted it told, and that the three tales together–separate and distinct yet parts of the same whole–capture him in a jaded emerald glow.