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Island People by Coleman Dowell

Read Online Island People by Coleman Dowell Fiction Book

Overview: In this complex novel, a gay man who has fled the violence of the city for an island retreat spends his time keeping a journal and writing stories. He invents a female alter-ego who haunts him, as does the ghost of the murderer who occupied his house in the 19th-century; ultimately these hauntings are manifestations of his own psychic disintegration. Considered by many to be Dowell's finest achievement, "Island People" conveys the fragmentation that results from prolonged isolation.
Published 1976 by New Directions


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Island People by Coleman Dowell

Read Online Island People by Coleman Dowell Book Chapter One

THE KEEPSAKE
I told Beatrix "Yes!" gladdened to think that her friendlin~,
and Jeremiah's, apparently, had carried over the fall separation.
It was at least plain that enough of our summer feeling remained
for them to want to come to me at the farm for Christmas,
and for me to want them. After we hung up, fallowing
mutual assurances that none of us could really wait (Jeremiah,
too; Beatrix spoke for him), I checked the dates she had given
me, inclusive only of mystery when she spoke, and found that
they encompassed a week. I was accustomed to winter guests
coming on The Eve of things and departing the day after The
Day; the thought of someone willing to endure for a longer
time touched me.
I have determinedly never set my cap for younger people, so
the youngness of the Dresdens was an incidental in our success
with each other, as I suppose my comparative oldness was.
Granted that some of the most successful things we did together
could be called "young" things: flying kites in my fields
among the cropping sheep, sailing too far too late in the day,
being bested for hours by the tide at the harbor mouth, the
day sailer flapping to the dock at midnight like an exhausted
bird. But I do these things on my own with just my dachshund
bitch for company.
Incidental, too, I suppose was that the three of us roughly
shared a profession: Jeremiah, poet; Beatrix, New Novelist; and
I a more or less failed playwright: my very long-running ( five
years) play in Germany is to American recognition as sound
waves from that falling unheard tree to ears.
When we met at the ferry slip, introduced by my dachshund,
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Miss Gold, what we knew of each other was what we had surmised
those several Fridays in succession, seeing each other
waiting for the train-ferry. I had made no effort to find out
who they were. I have been here long enough to say to myself
"summer people" and let the description suffice. They were interesting
looking, he classically handsome, she as ugly as an ape
until you saw through to her simian but real beauty. I had seen
through to it before we met; had seen through Jeremiah, too,
or thought that I had; his niceness seemed both glass and shield.
As we said, my house guests and I, passing judgment sometime
in midsummer after several exposures to the Dresdens, Jeremiah
was surely the kindliest poet, too nice to be really great perhaps.
Among those passing judgment was a poet of enduring reputation,
so maybe the consensus was partly satirical.
Concerning the Dresdens knowing "who" I was before we
met, people generally can find out my identity by giving one of
three clues to any passerby: the car, the only foreign one on
the Island; Miss Gold, whose photograph adorned the cover of
a collection (Coursing) of my plays; or any word at all of my
own appearance, which is eccentric, especially among the plaingroomed
Islanders, and summer people, who are not groomed
at all.
But as I have said, Miss Gold introduced us, I don't think
in complicity with Beatrix and Jeremiah, though if they had
wanted to meet me, cultivating Miss Gold was the best way to
go about it.
I mean through these incidentals to set up vibrations of suspicion,
of the possibility of a kind of fortune hunting. I will go
farther and say that my house is the only one on the Island
where any kind of fortune hunting is possible, and let the matter
rest there. We are all adventurers, and if vibrations are at
this juncture misleading, then let us call the story a "mystery"
and let us, preferably through a glass dark with Jameson's Irish,
look for clues.
Beatrix's telephone call gave me two weeks' notice, and in
those two weeks I accomplished more than I would ordinarily
have done in a month. Before she called, my only guest was to be my best friend, the poet mentioned in the foregoing, who is
this year's lion as he was last year's lion and my sole Christmas
guest. Paul and I are too relaxed with each other for me to go
to any real pains against his visits, but for the Dresdens the
house was cleaned and rooms were opened.
In allusive tribute there would be a German Christmas dinner:
goose and sauerkraut in Riesling and potatoes sauteed in
goose fat and thick apple sauce domed with its own jelly. My
yearly gift from the smokehouse of home, an aged Kentucky
ham, could open the meal with Madeira-steeped figs; there
would be custards and spiced beef and pork pie in a crust and
plum pudding. To this extent is a host allowed, sorcererlike, to
meddle with the future: the Dresdens would be flattered by the
German motif, and Paul, a secret Pip, would be pleased by the
Dickens touches.
But early on Christmas Eve morning Paul called; early, he
said, to prove that he had got up in time to make the train ...
but. He is usually precise, admirably so to a discursive person
like me, but I did not get much past the "but"; in any case he
was not coming. He was not especially sorry; he knew that I
would not be alone. I had not told him about the Dresdens; it
seemed that they themselves had told him. It also seemed blatantly
like a clue, but to what I could not imagine. Paul had
liked Beatrix, with whom he had in common Brooklyn, an Eastern
band I have found to be as strong as a wedding ring. He
liked Jeremiah's poetry, liked his looks; as he put it, he even
liked Jeremiah, when he remembered him.
Paul is not a cruel man, nor is he unusually just; he is mainly
disinterested, and I had to admit that the precis was accurate of
many an essay of Jeremiah. His lack of temperament, of eccentricity,
of vice, apparently, bleached him out. Too frequently
one gazed at the place where Jeremiah was without seeing him.
When one said, or wrote down, "the Dresdens," it was Beatrix's
simianity that gave proper flesh to the noun; Jeremiah
was an essence, flushing the tissue with blood, coursing, undoubtedly
healthily, out of sight; but as we forget our blood
until we are cut, so did we lose sight of Jeremiah. A quip about
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his combination of vivid looks and colorless personality - "Beside
him, other men pale to significance" - was not successful
because of his art, which was significant, rather Augustinian. If,
as some maintained, he was a throwback, it was to the best traditions.
His lovely ape wife could never approach his art. Her own
was imitative of Nathalie Sarraute, experimental of many things
but never emotion. But in person she was dark emotional energy,
faintly furred (in silhouette against artificial light she wore
an aureole, the filaments of fuzz glowing uniformly). She gave
the impression, in the electricity of life, of teetering on the edge
of breakdown, or breakthrough, some volatile display or discovery
a nod away, waiting only for her permissive recognition.
One both longed for and feared the revelation of Beatrix.
Their visibility, or lack of it; their art or attempts manquesthese
are further incidentals, as such extraneous matters always
are in love and lust. They had won my allegiance and revived
the intensity of long-dormant curiosity about others, and I
don't know how they did it. Jeremiah could have been ectoplasm,
Beatrix entirely without talent, and their effect upon me
would have been the same. It is hindsight that tells me so, for I
write from a knowledge of worse than pallor and pretentiousness,
and still curiosity, if not allegiance, persists.
They called from the Island side of the ferry, and Miss Gold
and I drove through immensely billowing curtains of snow to
pick them up and welcome them with champagne in the car.
They were swathed like papooses as though we were a Canadian
outpost, great dark sunglassed eyes all that Miss Gold and I
could see of them, both of us lightly clad in sweaters in the
snow-warm air.
In a story by Beatrix the focus, endlessly circled, would be
the hidden eyes, the muffled mouths; they would become the
characters, the only physical properties referred to, and because
they were hidden, thus missing, slowly we would realize
that Beatrix's story was about two pairs of sunglasses, two
scarves, incapable of emotion but possessing a curious molecu

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