As It Is On Earth, Peter M. Wheelwright, Fomite Press, September, 2012, 297 pages
I am happy to introduce you to a new author and his intriguing and beautifully written first novel. "As It Is On Earth" by Peter M.Wheelwright is being published today, Sept. 15.
Peter is no literary wunderkind. In his early 60's Peter is a respected architect and a member of the faculty of the Parsons School of Design. He and Laurie Simmons designed The Kaleidescope House, a modernist dollhouse, that is displayed at the Museum of Modern Art. (Peter was my college roommate and remains a good friend to this day.)
At this ripe age, he has created a unique artistic vision. "As It Is On Earth" is as ambitious as it is well executed with the added dimension of being a damn good read. Trying to generally characterize it, diminishes its stature, but "Earth" is, like most good novels, a quest for self-knowledge.
Set in various parts of New England, "Earth" is the story of Taylor Thatcher and his 12-generation Maine family. Taylor is a soon-to-be 31-year old professor of science at what Peter calls the University of Hartford, but has the feel of Trinity College where we first met. His degrees were in the "Sociology of Engineering Science" and the "Science of Social Engineering," but what Taylor is really interested in is origins, his own, mankind's, the cosmos's. "In the Beginning was the Word. Fine, what about before...that?"
What Taylor really wants to understand is his family and his place in it. He rebels against that granite heritage, but, as he approaches his 31st birthday on Columbus Day 1999 and the end of the millennium, he seeks resolution.
You can excuse him for being confused. His father was a country doctor known as the Deacon, a virtually silent, hard-drinking recluse. Taylor's mother Lily drowned when he was two, and the Deacon married her identical twin sister Rose. She then died giving birth to Bin on Taylor's birthday, Oct. 11. So Bin is Taylor's half-brother and first cousin. In fact he is Taylor's doppelgänger. "He's my other half," Taylor says. Esther Flournoy Bishop, a Cajun descended from Acadians driven from Maine during the French and Indian War, returns to take care of the Deacon and his two boys at the family farm, prophetically and suggestively named DawnTime.
This family has many secrets, and Peter skillfully doles out foreshadowings and clues and even the secrets themselves as the book progresses. Bin had a childhood accident, but what is it, and what did Taylor have to do with it? What was the real nature of the relationship between Esther and the Deacon, and is Esther's child Evangeline, his daughter and Taylor and Bin's half sister? Why did the Deacon die in the snow and cold the same night the Congregational Church burned to the ground, killing the Rev. Samson Littlefield and his wife Felicity?
In the only part of the book not set in the Northeast, Taylor flees from a confounding family revelation to seek meaning in the Mexican wilderness. He finds love, literally in the ruins of Palenque, with Nicole Robbins, a biologist, but it is fleeting. He is joined by Bin and Jemma McMoody, their neighbor from Maine. Typically, Bin is interested in the ruins for their own sake; Taylor seeks transcendent meaning in the Mayan's relationship to the stars. No wonder Taylor never seems to find answers, always looking for origins and outcomes, while Bin is content to see things as they are, today, without judgment. Taylor agonizes when he catches the train back to civilization from the ruins and Bin doesn't, only to find that Bin and Jemma have hitched a ride with the police and get back before he does.
You are informed through the many flashbacks, but the plot centers around Taylor's concern for Bin in Hartford that early October, while he prepares for a weekend symposium at Connecticut College in New London. The college is also adjacent to Mamacoke, the island, really an isthmus, where his grandmother, Lily's and Rose's mother, lives. New London also is equidistant between the big casinos, Mohegan Sun in Uncasville and Foxwoods in Ledyard.
In Taylor's search for origins, we see the irony and fascination in the resurgence of the two Indian tribes that have so benefited from the creation of these sprawling, ludicrous casinos in the Connecticut woods. He takes you back to the original betrayals that to this day disrupt the relationship between these two tribes.
There are many memorable characters in the book, and they all converge on New London for that weekend: Miryam Bluehm, the lovely photographer, who Taylor tries to set up with Bin, despite his own attraction for her; Charley Dunham and William Bent-Wigley and his girlfriend Liberty Fordyce, fellow faculty members more interested in gambling than the symposium; Nicole, pregnant and back in Connecticut with her former and current lover, the dark and glamorous Rafael Villareal; Taylor's and Bin's dotty grandmother, Mooty. They all join Taylor along with Bin and Jemma, Esther and Evangeline, for the joint birthday-Columbus Day celebration. (A special congratulations for all the imaginative, evocative names in this book)
I truly found myself spellbound over the last chapters as the various story lines come together, and you see Taylor struggle towards, what he calls, Grace. And, in keeping with the rest of the book, it is both the sacred and profane: a high stakes poker game at the Mohegan Sun contrasts beautifully with the search for the stars from the new excavations at Foxwoods.
Peter has done something remarkable with this book. First off, he is a gifted, natural writer. His career in architecture gives him an ease with detail that allow his descriptions to be specific and vivid. He has also conceived and presented a fascinating story set in a time and in places that are very real to him and to us. He has researched the book so well that you never doubt for a second its authenticity.
But what I admire most is the ambition of this book. While telling a good story, he is not afraid to challenge us with Taylor's philosophic dilemmas and ask the really important questions: Where did we come from? What is our relationship to God and Science? What connects us materially and spiritually? What keeps us apart? While looking to resolve his specific issues, Taylor, like all of us, seeks these higher truths.
I wish Peter all the best in how this fabulous novel fares in the marketplace, but, in any event, he has already succeeded. "As It Is On Earth" is a book you will enjoy, you will appreciate and you will learn from. You can't ask for more.