Macleish Sq Dennis Must book review
book review

Book Review: MacLeish Sq.

MACLEISH SQ by Dennis Must is a masterfully stylistic tale of personal identity where fiction and memory meet. Check out what Erin Britton has to say in her book review of this Red Hen Press novel.

MacLeish Sq.

by Dennis Must

Genre: Literary & General Fiction

ISBN: 9781636280592

Print Length: 216 pages

Publisher: Red Hen Press

Reviewed by Erin Britton

A masterfully stylistic tale of personal identity where fiction and memory meet

Reality shifts and reforms in disquieting and disorientating ways in MacLeish Sq., the latest novel by Dennis Must, as the unlikely hero recognizes that he has reached the final phase of his life and reluctantly embarks on a metaphysical odyssey that leaves him questioning the nature of his current existence and reevaluating the sins of his past. As fact and fiction combine in increasingly dynamic ways and it becomes ever more difficult to separate the real from the unreal, the quester merges with the quest and the Rubicon of sanity is seemingly crossed.

A solitary and somewhat melancholy figure, John Procter spent the majority of his life enjoying the anonymity of the city and relishing the mental freedom that an existence devoid of personal ties afforded him. Yet, when he spotted the telltale signs of old age creeping up on him, his thoughts inexplicably turned to the past, to those he had loved and lost, and nostalgia drove him to return to the place that was once home.

“Thus, approaching my seventieth year, I bought a small farmhouse on the outskirts of the now mostly desolate mill town where I’d grown up but fled when I was eighteen. Despite its dereliction, the burg was alive with old memories as if they had reached out to greet me. I’d enjoyed no such ambiance in the metropolis.”

As a consequence, he has been living in a rural backwater for several years, still keeping people at arm’s length while secretly delighting in sudden rushes of memories featuring them: “… bits of my boyhood began to reemerge out of the darkness of time. Events, places, and people I hadn’t thought about in years rushed back like water seeping under a door.” He passes the time, mostly contentedly, by painting in   the studio he has built in the backyard, rarely troubled by the intrusion of the outside world.

However, one evening, John looks up from his painting, glances out the window, and notices “an inscrutable young man in a mackinaw jacket stood gazing in, his tousled hair the shade of straw.” Before he really knows what he’s doing, John invites the young man, who introduces himself as Eli, inside and makes him a cup of tea. As the two talk, Eli reveals that his grandmother sent him to John in the hope that the latter would take him in. Much to John’s surprise, Eli further explains that his grandmother is the woman who John was briefly married to in his youth.

“Sara Phipps vanished prior to our first anniversary. I’d no idea what I did or hadn’t done that caused her to flee. But it must’ve been dreadful because it plagues me to this very day.” The suggestion is that John is Eli’s grandfather, that Sara kept her pregnancy from him when she fled the marriage, but even worse, Eli implies that John might also be his father, having unknowing “profaned” his own daughter some twenty years ago. John takes this disturbing news surprisingly well, perhaps due to disbelieving it, and invites Eli to stay with him.

The two settle into a companionable routine, although they continually dance around each other in terms of their recollections of the past and their interpretations of potentially mutual acquaintances. To his surprise, John finds his life enriched by the presence of Eli, but he still questions the origins of the mysterious young man. For his part, Eli “it seemed, was fabricating his life from swatches of the books he read, his bittersweet memories, and an insuperable will to escape an inherited eager fatalism.” He is also being called home by a ghostly presence he perceives as his father, which causes considerable angst for John.

The titular MacLeish Sq. is Eli’s purported place of origin, a twisted version of a city like Salem, Massachusetts, where he alleges he was raised by a host of quasi-religious characters known as Ishmaels. “These souls were the MacLeish mendicants of which there were legion.” Here, Dennis Must has crafted a peculiar and likely illusionary community around tropes and characters from the era of American Romanticism, principally the “Great American Novels” of Herman Melville and Nathanial Hawthorne, combined with references to classics such as Dante’s Inferno

Both John and Eli are literary characters who have almost crafted themselves from literature. John wrote stories in his younger days, stories reflecting his perspectives of events and people from his real life, which he has kept in notebooks and carried with him, despite no longer wishing to read them. When Eli finds some of these stories and interprets them based on things John has said about family, friends, and events, John is forced to reflect on how little he really knows about himself, although the clues are all there in his writing. The focus here is the power of stories and their influence on the identity of the reader.

As Eli forces John to remember and reflect on things he would much rather stay forgotten, Eli’s presence and pronouncements become increasingly disquieting. His actual purpose in visiting John remains ambiguous, and it is difficult to determine if he (consciously or otherwise) has malevolent or benign intentions. There’s a sinister atmosphere surrounding the majority of the pair’s interactions, and that’s without factoring in ghostly presences or violent deaths. This is exacerbated by the various stories that the two read and relate, particularly Eli’s recollections of the Ishmaels and John’s tales of deceased brother.

In some ways, John and Eli seem to be parts of the same character, perhaps because it is sometimes difficult to differentiate their voices. Indeed, while they alternate the narration of the chapters, the style and tone of their voices, as well as their use of metaphors and symbolism, blend together. This confusion heightens the surrealist atmosphere of MacLeish Sq., where pretty much everything seems strange and disorientating. Buckle up. While you’ll grasp the overall direction of the story, it can be difficult to comprehend all of the detail.

Aside from these mind-boggling elements, the major strengths of MacLeish Sq. are Must’s innovative stylistic approach and masterful use of language, both of which appear to be informed by a deep knowledge and appreciation of literature. He weaves a distinct air of mystery into the mundane activities and discussions of John and Eli, and his construction of memorable secondary characters is second to none. Moreover, the text of MacLeish Sq. is complemented by the inclusion of a number of vivid and unsettling illustrations by Russ Spitkovsky, which add to the unreal nature of the story.

Thank you for reading Erin Britton’s book review of MacLeish Sq. by Dennis Must! If you liked what you read, please spend some more time with us at the links below.

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