According to recent reports in the press, my father was not only an alcoholic (a remarkably functional one given his output) but he also suffered from bi-polar, or manic depression, to use its twentieth century name. Diagnosed when he was in his early twenties, he managed to conceal it from my mother until after they were married and went on to conceal it from me until I was a teenager. My mother let go of the secret one night over the kitchen table after he’d woken us up by dancing on the hen house. She told me the story of how he’d been found wandering naked among Mrs Harbinger’s lettuces and how his parents had to convince her not to phone the police. Mrs Harbinger had phoned the doctor instead and he was taken to the Bartholomew Clinic on Mayview and admitted as a voluntary patient where he proceeded to harass the nurses with surprise erections and fail repeatedly in downing his blue pills, which meant a fair amount of sedation-by-force.
After that first night dancing above the hens he began to make a habit of it. He would arrive home after being expelled from our local drink-pit and after falling on the same stone in the driveway every time, would climb onto the roof, his feet catching in the wire netting, and make a medieval din dancing on the rough cover, kicking his feet as though a newborn hound. The hens would muscle together beneath him, protesting noisily. They cackled, afraid, and my father would simply Hoot! in response, twisting his body and singing tunes from the drink-pit’s jukebox. My mother would eventually be able to lure him down but only after repeatedly flashing her breasts. ‘Do it again,’ he’d scream. ‘Come on love. For me and the hens!’ By the time he was stumbling back inside they were both laughing and while my mother ran the cold bath and scolded him charitably, I’d be gazing up at the ceiling from my pillow along the hall wondering how they’d ever thought they could raise a child.
Although our neighbours, cousins, and even some close friends have characterised my parents as sad hippies, I’ve always thought of our family as more bohemian, like the organisers of an illicit poetry reading at the edge of the Garden of Eden. But maybe the image of our family as a hot-house for poetry reading comes from the fact that on any weeknight my father might decide to gather us around his chair and recite his adolescent poems. They are almost exclusively erotic. Unlike his Collected Stories, these clunky ramblings have thankfully yet to make it into the world. This is in spite of the recent efforts by his agent Mr Howe, who has sent several letters to the farm suggesting the poems would make a great addition to the forthcoming Essays and Letters.
It is well known that my father’s literary renown, lauded as his novels are, has always rested on his short stories. His novels Cold Well and The Paradise Institute were called long short stories by various critics, including The Herald’s notorious spoiler-of-breakfasts Janet Bruckenridge, and his stories ‘Scrub’ and ‘The Secular Diamond’ are read by every student taking a course on Twentieth Century Literature. But unlike my father’s readers, I’ve never had the luxury of reading his stories at a distance. For me, the lens is cloudy: life is twinned with the work. That’s why when I applied for the MFA program at Bridgewater College a few years ago there was such institutional anxiety about my candidature that the Dean called me directly and asked if I really wanted to do this, to go up against my father. I told him emphatically that I would make an earnest attempt to find my own voice and that my father had already given his blessing. In fact, he’d encouraged me to join what he termed the ‘family business’.
I understand that many of you—let’s assume there’s many—are reading this simply because I’m the son of Richard Marks. Maybe you’re hoping that if only his offspring could produce some execrable prose you might find it easier to look doubtfully on his Miles Franklin award and his reputation as a famed gentleman-of-letters. I hope for his sake that I don’t fall too hard on the pavement of delusional sons, especially because much of what I’m setting down is about the man himself. Because, in spite of many failings, he is a good man (if we define good by way of the New Testament or Advaita Vedanta). He’s been my greatest inspiration and also in my therapist’s words a ‘truly suffocating presence.’ I think the contradiction has not only to do with his occupational hazards of loneliness and self-hate but also the pendulum swing of his bi-polar. In the morning he could be praising me for my papier-mâché science experiment demonstrating Newton’s Third Law of Motion and by nightfall he would be saying that I had little hope of growing a real man’s neck and that I should resign myself to owning a corner grocery and marrying someone named Erica Jade.
Up until his mid-forties he’d always worked in the downstairs study, locking the door behind him and chain smoking like a monstrous cliché. But he never smoked macho brands like Chesterfields or Marlboro. Instead, he had boxes of herbal cigarettes that smelt like burnt apples shipped from Varanasi. He referred to his typewriter—an unremarkable 1930s Corona—as his ‘daily concubine’ and on many days, long after lunch, the plate of tomato sandwiches my mother had left outside his door was soggy and untouched. On his forty-sixth birthday he declared his fear of leaning towards fifty and said that with such a big milestone coming, he had made the somewhat illogical decision to move his study outside. Thus began six weeks of arguing with builders as they constructed his new study above the barn. He’d hastily drawn a design on the back of a cardboard folder and having refused to elaborate on the minimal sketch he was constantly bombarded with questions to which he would shout confusing directions from John Ruskin’s Stones of Venice.
My mother and I referred to the project as his ‘vanity cabin’ and when it was finally finished, I would look out from my bedroom after midnight and see the study’s lonely light across the lawn. It was always on, whether he was working or not. Sometimes I would see his silhouette pass through the light. When he was deep into a story he’d often write straight for a day, even two, and then when he was done my mother would find him prostrate on the floor with the Carter Family singing on repeat and cups of black tea everywhere. He wrote ‘The Secular Diamond’ in a fever like this. I think this is why in the countless theses that have been written about the story, students equate the ending where Mo dives off the Sardinian cliff with ‘the author’s unapologetic joie de vivre.’
For my parents, the problem with owning a farm is that they’re not natural farmers. Despite both of them growing up rurally, they would sooner let the weeds take over the house than conduct a regime of regular mowing, and they’ve always refused to bring in fruit pickers or general hands. My mother occasionally prunes the red chrysanthemums near the old well but only in pursuit of relieving her boredom, never to achieve a symmetry of the landscape. Although the farm is genuinely wild, and although every autumn the apple trees and fig trees in the orchard are mostly left to spoil the ground with their fruit, the animals are never neglected. The three cows we had when I was younger are all dead now but the geese, which only seem to multiply, continue to be the noisy tenants of the barn beneath my father’s study. The geese and the hens oscillate in their position as favourite animals among us, and yet, if an interviewer were to ask who were the truly chief subjects (and if I were to tell the truth) the hens have enjoyed the longest periods of favour.
The first story I wrote at Bridgewater College was about a postman called Beckman Utteridge who lived as an American ex-pat in the south of France and would write letters in both English and French to names he found in the phonebook. I was too precious with it and after my group critique I learned that my conceptual ambition of trying to get a postman to exemplify the history of literature’s intentional drift was too heavy handed. In the words of our group’s most outspoken member, Rebecca Breenlock, it was like ‘a German shepherd chasing its tail.’ I asked my father to read it, and after much handwringing, he said it owed too much to Thomas Pynchon and perhaps even Wikipedia and that I should look to history for inspiration instead. ‘Read about the French Revolution,’ he said, ‘or Tutankhamun. Forget Gravity’s Rainbow for now.’
The second story I wrote faired better with the banker’s daughter Rebecca Breenlock and even led to a brief affair. ‘Champagne Anklet’ is set during the reign of Charlemagne and follows the bedroom exploits of the king’s parents, Pepin the Short and Bertrada of Laon, as they come to terms with Pepin’s homosexuality. He grows weary of sodomising his wife and seeks out the healthy bottom of a soldier, only to find himself having to explain his guilt and depression to his personal confessor, Cardinal Broache, who as a medieval papist is a little too eager to hear about the parting of buttocks. The title ‘Champagne Anklet’ refers to the semen on Bertrada’s ankles and was championed by most of the other students in my critique for its Anais-Nin-meets-Hilary-Mantel quality.
The brevity of my affair with Rebecca Breenlock was, like most things in my life, due to my father. I’d picked her up from one of the stations in the suburbs and driven her out to the farm in my ancient red Toyota. For my sins, the playlist I’d constructed for the drive included numerous Whitney Houston songs, but as it turned out Rebecca hated Whitney Houston—I’m Your Baby Tonight was playing when her virginity was snatched from her at fourteen by a rough tennis coach named Gideon.
When we arrived at the farm no-one was home and I immediately sensed an opportunity. My mother was visiting friends and I’d assumed my father was either out walking or locked into his study, and so after several gins we started kissing and soon graduated upstairs where I ran us a bath. I had mixed a lemon scent in with the water and it gave me great satisfaction to hear Rebecca comment on the smell as we slid beneath the suds. I massaged her breasts in a clockwise motion (having read in The Guide to Exemplary Fornication that this is the preferred mode of caress) while straining to concentrate on what she was saying about her latest story and how no-one at Bridgewater really knew her. She was clearly carrying the burden of privilege that comes with being a banker’s daughter but seemed unable to find peace with her wealth, this despite having upped her dosage of anti-depressants and finally found the right therapist.
Just as I’d succeeded in slipping a second finger into her arse, a great wailing started up outside. It was the unmistakable sound of my drunken father on the hen house. She tightened her butt muscles in shock, crushing my fingers.
‘What the hell is that? It sounds like someone dying.’
‘It’s my dad,’ I said, removing my fingers. ‘He’s singing.’
‘It doesn’t sound like singing to me.’
‘Believe me, it’s not the first time. He’s completely off his tree.’
We dressed hurriedly and made our way outside. My father’s blurry shape was stirring the darkness and Rebecca asked if that was really my father, the man with the torn shirt with blood on his nipples and his soft cock swaying in the breeze? I apologised and said that after getting him down I would drive her back to the suburbs. Her expression had taken on a mixture of intense curiosity and fear, eyebrows scrunched low over her lids. She kept muttering ‘Richard Marks, Richard Marks’ as if attempting to convert the reality into disbelief. I began shouting at him to come down but he only crooned and beat his heels against the corrugated iron. Several hens were jumping over one another while others were tapping their beaks on the gate in an escape attempt.
It soon became clear that my father thought that I was my mother and began asking me to flash my chest at him.
‘Dad, I have a visitor. You’re embarrassing me. Mum’s not here. She’s away, remember. Please, get down and come inside.’
‘Give me a flash sugarcup, my sugarbabeeee…goh on…’
With the wings of hens now batting the sides of their cage, I knelt down and tried to calm them but nothing worked. I reached up and managed to grip one of my father’s ankles, which sent him tumbling over. In the great crash of his body on the roof, the hens broke open the gate and began to scatter over the driveway. My father then jumped off the roof and began to crawl after them in the dirt, shouting their names. Rebecca had retreated to stand in the doorway of the farmhouse. Later she told me that she’d wanted to film the scene on her phone but had resisted out of respect. I tried to help my father up but he began to kick me and call me Satan. With the entry of religion I knew he was on a downward spiral. He pressed his face into my leg and as I pulled him towards the house he called me ‘Blue Satan’ and Rebecca dialed for Emergency. When he’d finally been sedated and loaded into the ambulance, the hens were still on the loose.
After six weeks at the Bartholomew Clinic my father was released on a new cocktail of medication. He was assigned a mental health nurse called Judith who visited once a week to talk through his previous overtures to suicide. But despite complaining of a locked jaw and stomach pains, he mostly readjusted well and spent that winter holed upstairs cutting out pieces of coloured paper and learning how to knit jumpers for one of our neighbour’s twin boys. With the retreat of snow and the arrival of spring birds, he ventured out to his study for the first time in months. I accompanied him above the barn and was surprised to hear him apologise about ‘that girl’ he’d driven away. I assured him that it was me she’d rejected and tried to lift his spirits by describing Rebecca’s peculiar kissing style.
‘She poked,’ I said. ‘Her tongue had the precision of a robot. How do you try and reorient the rhythm of a poker?’
He sat silently in his great chair for a while and then declared that he wanted to write another story like ‘The Secular Diamond.’ He wanted to be able to reach down and take out pieces of himself and lay it out on the page. Fuck the accusations of misogyny and the burden of critics. He was only interested in the ability of language to conjure a symphony without music, a dance that would rival the stars. Tentatively, I reminded him that this desire was a very modernist one and that the age of the totalising grand narrative was over, as he well knew. ‘Thank you son,’ he said. ‘I’d like to be alone now.’
Rather than becoming immersed in a fever of production, he did the opposite, sharpening his pencils only to abandon his study altogether. He shocked my mother and I when, at Judith’s suggestion, he took up painting watercolours and began spending afternoons down by the river like some parody of a nineteenth century Frenchman. His disdain for painters is well known, mostly due to his essay ‘The Berth of Sunday Painters’, first published in 1978, which provoked a fierce debate in The Herald and is widely anthologised. I feel guilty outing him for these watercolours, especially because he eventually came to his senses and offered them to an outdoor fire, but their banality, I’m afraid, cannot be overstated. Of the many I saw, they resembled the kind of pastel therapeutics he’d attacked so viciously in his essay.
My father has never really enjoyed swimming, unlike myself, but after ending his flirtation with watercolours he made an attempt to physically engage with the river. He would sit on the bank in the afternoon, either reading or listening to opera on his portable radio, and as dusk approached he’d strip off and wade in. I had the unhappy job of monitoring him through binoculars in case he tried to drown himself, but I never sensed any real danger as he only ever went in for a minute or two. His ritual could never be described as swimming, it was more of a baptism. Returning to the bank he would resume his reading or listening until night came over and he was ready for dinner.
My therapist believes that watching my father’s arse descend into the river every afternoon may have had an effect on my short story ‘Champagne Anklet.’ I’ve never been attracted to men and am not especially fond of the female anus either, but when I search my reasons for exploring homosexuality I can’t come up with anything but my father’s skinny dipping. The idea makes me shiver with disgust but my therapist assures me that the specter of incest, however unwanted, can linger long into adulthood, especially if you are an only-child of unconventional parents.
Critics and academics have often remarked on the surrealism of my father’s Collected Stories, of how he can take the wing of a black butterfly or the number plate of a corrupt politician’s car and make them speak to a character’s pathologies. This strain of thinking was overwhelmingly in evidence during the video recording I watched of ‘The Alchemy of Richard Marks,’ a recent conference set up by two female graduate students at Sydney University that featured over twenty speakers.
One after the other I listened to bristly-haired enthusiasts describe my father’s work as ‘disrupting the evolution of late-modernism’ and ‘circumventing Flaubertian realism to find an arch sensuality of character and landscape.’ This was far less tiresome than it sounds. It was like watching strangers accompany my father to buy a suit and witnessing a fierce argument about how different coloured ties brought out his profile. The two conference organisers wrote to me with a published volume of the lectures and asked that if there was a second edition, would I consider writing a brief foreword? I never responded. Instead, I wrote long into the night as was my father’s example. But, in truth, I really wasn’t sure where to go after ‘Champagne Anklet.’ I wondered if it was possible to write a sequel. ‘No,’ my tutor said, a man as old as my father with emotional knees. ‘Short stories don’t have sequels. We generally call those novels.’
My class at Bridgewater was growing anxious at having to submit their final creative piece and after Rebecca’s rejection of me I felt ostracised and largely avoided campus. My ever-diluting ego couldn’t take another conversation about action or character or the plotless freedom to experiment. In truth, I couldn’t wait for the program to end. My only real ambition before finishing the MFA was to try and publish ‘Champagne Anklet’ in The Midlands Erotic Review. But, as you may have already guessed, the journal returned my story with a standardised rejection letter suggesting that I try elsewhere. When I finally got a personalised email response from the chief editor—after much harassment—she said that the story was too ‘male gaze-y’ and that it was also historically inaccurate, even for fiction. My mother had always had a policy of not reading my father’s work in draft, and sometimes even when it was published, so it was with trepidation that I asked her to read my effort. She was actually very kind about it and even said that she could see herself in the story. ‘Forget worrying about what any of the other students think, or even your father, just write for yourself, and if it turns out you write with a male gaze, then so what, write with a male gaze. You’re a man after all, and more than that, you’re my son.’
I wish the tenderness my mother had shown me had been extended to my father, but in his quest to write a second ‘Secular Diamond’ he’d become increasingly belligerent and inevitably she went cold on him. I’d never seen them fight so much and over so little. Cooking together was especially rough.
‘Fuck you and your egg-whisk.’
‘No, fuck you and your little grapefruit seeds, or whatever they are.’
Thankfully Judith never witnessed one of these battles because she may have recommended a further change in my father’s medication, which I’m convinced would have made things worse.
Everything came to a head at my MFA graduation during the commencement speech, which was given by one of my father’s old rivals, Herman Seelbach. They had been to university together and both dropped out before graduating to hike through upper Mongolia, only to fall out when my father revealed he had been fellated by Herman’s girlfriend, Martha. Although Herman had published two novels, they had sold poorly and he was eventually dropped from his publisher during their mid-list cull. But last year, after an eighteen-year hiatus, he’d published The Boring Tiger Hallucination which became a surprise hit. It was thanks to this comeback that he had been invited to speak at Bridgewater.
His speech started off with a textbook career analogy about bumpy roads, only to launch a fully-fledged attack on my father, who was referred to as having ‘a long-dormant talent’ and ‘a fake Miles Franklin’, which although technically inaccurate is a devastating sentiment to hear amplified. It turns out that Herman had drunk too much Hennessy before the speech and had apparently not meant to twist the knife so hard. You have probably seen the video by now, but what ensued was a literal hissing and booing match between them with my mother trying her best to prevent my father from breaking the back off his chair and hurling it at Herman. She failed, of course. The projectile caught Herman’s shoulder and he fell backwards into the Dean’s lap.
Three days later, back at the farm, my mother and I were awoken early to the sound of axe-on-wood. Opening the curtains, I saw my father chopping at the legs of the hen house, with pieces splintering off in chunks. He welded the axe with such strength, such anger, that it only took minutes for it to collapse. I watched my mother run out of the house in a panic but it was too late. None of the hens were moving. He’d poisoned them before starting in with the axe. They lay still and silent, their heads caught in the broken wire. Even after the structure was in ruins, he continued to chop the wood into ever smaller pieces until it was little more than a pile of kindling.
Soon afterwards, my parents formally separated and sold the farm. My mother used the money to open a vegan restaurant in the city, while my father has moved to the suburbs. To date, he has yet to write his second ‘Secular Diamond’ but the updated—and deluxe—edition of his Collected Stories will be out next month. Rebecca Breenlock and I reconciled after the commencement speech fracas and we’ve recently moved in together. We both no longer have literary ambitions and I can honestly say it’s a huge weight off my mind. If things continue to go well between us, we have hopes of starting a family and perhaps a small design company. I still see both my parents regularly and these days, the relationship between my father and I is better than ever. All that I ask of the public is that the next time you pick up a copy of my father’s Collected Stories, please think only of Richard Marks, never his son.
Nathan Dunne has been a finalist for the Southwest Review Fiction Prize. His journalism has appeared in The Atlantic, the Guardian and Artforum. His website is: www.nathandunne.com