Long Island Books: No There There

By William Roberson
Thomas McGonigle Anna Saar

    Thomas McGonigle’s “Going to Patchogue” is a slight, basically plotless metafictional novel of loss, identity, and discovery. First published by the Dalkey Archive Press in 1992 and out of print for a number of years, it has recently been reissued in a paperback edition. The Dalkey Archive is a small publisher known for its interest in less traditional literary works.
    “Going to Patchogue” is more unconventional in terms of style than subject matter. The novel is first and foremost a meditative and reflective story about how one’s sense of self is determined by one’s relationship with and understanding of the past and the place one grew up. The novel shares some characteristics with the tradition of the road novel, even if the road here is no more than the 60 miles of Long Island Rail Road between Manhattan and Patchogue and may be more metaphorical than actual. The book is what Kerouac termed a “true-story novel,” and Mr. McGonigle’s sustained use of stream of consciousness, free association, unpredictability, and spontaneity to tell his story seems to embrace Kerouac’s advice that the writer “sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind.”
    Stylistically, he stretches the narrative boundaries by including a few dull photographs, a railroad schedule, newspaper clippings, and a play segment, although none of these items particularly benefit the story.
    The protagonist, age 40, depressed and disheartened, and also named Tom McGonigle, decides to return to his hometown of Patchogue in the hopes of discovering or rediscovering who he is. He is motivated, in part, by his memory of Melinda, his distant and unrequited love from Patchogue High School. Whether Tom actually returns to Patchogue is not completely clear and not necessarily important because his trip is less geographical than it is emotional and intellectual. As he proclaims, “I don’t have to travel to Patchogue to be there. I am always in Patchogue.” His descriptions may be literal but the viewpoint is shaped wholly by his imagination, “avoiding the sterility of facts.”


“Going to Patchogue”
Thomas McGonigle
Dalkey Archive, $15.95

    Tom attempts to work through his extensive list of longings, memories, disappointments, and missed opportunities as he tries to come to some understanding of who and what he is by way of where he has been. How is his identity — his sense of who he is (or is not) — connected to his life experiences growing up in Patchogue? Can he move beyond them to arrive at, if certainly not paradise, at least some better place? He speaks (endlessly) of going back to Patchogue as well as traveling to Bulgaria, Istanbul, Venice, and Dublin. He is in a constant state of traveling somewhere but never arriving, always caught in between and short of a destination he cannot ever satisfactorily identify.
    As he looks back and reflects on his years in Patchogue, the people, places, and events become him. He tries to understand himself by understanding them, by “marking out the territory to be explored.” That territory comprises both inner and outer landscapes, and the autobiographical identity is constructed (if at all) in relation to the actual or imaginary people and places he remembers or encounters.
    Although the novel is not so much about Patchogue as it is about Tom McGonigle and his idea of Patchogue, the local chamber of commerce will be in no hurry to endorse its errant son and the portrait of the village he presents. As Tom remembers it, the “old home town” is racist, insular, ugly, small-minded, and welfare-ridden. The people live marginalized lives within strict social and racial hierarchies. Patchogue is best defined by its excessive number of parking spaces. The depiction is an amalgamation of the subjective mind and actual fact. But if what he says is true about Patchogue, that it is a place “where nothing is forgiven, learned, or remembered,” then is it also true about him who seeks to define and understand himself by his experiences there?
    Mr. McGonigle directly alludes to a number of writers, including Dante (Melinda is his Beatrice, Patchogue his hell), Thomas Wolfe, Thoreau, and Celine. He evokes Melville’s “Moby-Dick” at the beginning by merging and paraphrasing the brief introductory passages of Melville’s “Etymology” and “Extracts.” He offers up an accumulation of purported facts about Patchogue to establish the verity of the village to serve as his book’s ballast as Melville defines and affirms the whale to serve as his. The factual provides the foundation for the philosophic. Ahab has his whale, and Tom has his excessive pursuit of himself.
    “Going to Patchogue” contains passages of intelligence, humor, and insight. These individual pieces, however, do not coalesce into a sustained and successful narrative. One can admire much of what Mr. McGonigle is attempting to do here without necessarily recommending the whole. Tom’s tiresome journey ends in a greater sense of despair, emptiness, and persistent unawareness. He admits, “I have brought nothing back from this journey.” It is a conclusion the reader may share.

    Thomas McGonigle is the author of “The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov.” He lives in New York City.
    William Roberson, who lives in Mastic, taught literature at Southampton College for 30 years and is now at the Brentwood campus of Long Island University. His book “Walter M. Miller, Jr.: A Reference Guide to His Fiction and His Life” came out earlier this year.

Comments

"slight" can only be read ironically given the rather wonderful notice that the reviewer has written. If read in a cafe in say 1952 Moscow or Sofia, or Warsaw the astute reader would have understood the necessity for "slight" but would have happily appreciated the review as a whole and the urgent need to read GOING TO PATCHOGUE as it is the first genuine literary work to describe the actual life in Patchogue and by implication all those little towns on Long Island, East Hampton included and I dare saw those little towns in France, Hungary, Ireland, Japan...
As a very happy resident (and product of) Patchogue, I find this review to be more than generous and kind. I read this angry little book, and saw nothing of Patchogue. For the author to represent his sour take on life as a factual portrayal of life in this town is outrageous. It is simply a literary joke, full of the angry "musings" of an unhappy man, having absolutely nothing to do with Patchogue. I have no doubt as to why no other publishers would bother with this "book"; it isn't worth one's time (or money) trying to decipher it. It has no purpose, no value, no truth. At best, it is one long, delusional, angry journal entry, which would be better read in a therapy session.
Lord Patchogue acting on behalf of Jaques Rigaut is happy to see that "A Ridiculous Waste" has announced itself as a product of Patchogue. Well knowing that the Patchogue Lace Mill closed too many years ago we are curious as to the nature of the enterprise that produced "A Ridiculous Waste?"
Wow Mr. McGonigle you are pretty defensive for a man who wrote a book shit-talking his home town. Im not a huge fan myself, and I live there! Its strange to me that your name seems to pop up at each site I go to when Im reading about your book. I actually thought it was pretty ballsy to admit it so openly (even if its an easy target). I actually wanted to pick it up, but your name calling and oddball rants are a turn off. Didn't you think people would be upset? Did you prepare for that eventual backlash? I just think if the work is strong enough then you shouldn't feel the need to defend yourself...and in the comment section no less of the review for your book no less. Good luck and maybe you'll get a thicker skin for criticism.
As a literary attempt, this book falls far short of any standard of quality. It lacks any degree of writing skill, and appears as one long, boring rambling of incoherent "thoughts". McGonigle may think he is employing some sort of writing style, but he can't pull it off. Instead, this is just ridiculous ranting, better left for journal writing not to be imposed upon others. As a source of fact, this book holds nothing. For some unknown reason, growing up in Patchogue has left scars on the author, and he chooses to use this venue as a forum to vent his unhappiness in life. As mentioned earlier, his ramblings and scatter-gun spewing of venom would be well-served in therapy. If the sale of this book was meant to subsidize that, then there should be a disclaimer on the book jacket. I am sure that most residents of Patchogue would wish him well in that pursuit, but might not wish to financially contribute by purchasing this drivel.
All this wonderful strange psychobabble is much appreciated and treasured here in The City. Turgenev talked about his five unknown readers but to have now it seems more than he could claim as unknown, though it is still not entirely clear to me if some of my readers have read the same book that I am aware of having written though I am quite prepared to be instructed on how to better master the art of "scatter-gun spewing." Once upon a time I found myself in one of the Hamptons and asked a kid working in a gas station,what do you do here in the winter? Go crazy, he replied. So maybe this was all a little pre-mature as winter doesn't arrive for a few more days...
I wish I knew how to go about being a scatter-gun spewer of venom... I wish I knew what drives people to accuse other people of being sick, when by this accusation they admit that they were really incapable of understanding what they had read When one arrives at Dublin airport one is greeted by quotations from the books of Samuel Beckett and James Joyce both of whom I am sure would have been and were described in the same terms as "unimpressed" used... so the boook offers high praise to this fellow...