The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: Archipelago


According to Continued on Last Rock, Archipelago was R.A. Lafferty’s first completed novel. I did not learn of its existence until about 1980/81 when I discovered a sealed hardback copy of it in a Manchester City Centre Second Hand Shop (still there to this day). It was £20.00 in an era when hardback novels weren’t yet £10.00.
The book was published by Manuscript Press, and the back page blurb explained that it was no 2. (of 2.) in a series of Unpublished Manuscripts.
My first surprise, and revelation, was a list of other works vaster than any I’d seen for Lafferty before. This was the book that listed Where Have You Been, Sandaliotos? and The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeny as novels. It listed no less than fifteen unpublished novels (including one not named or yet written that, alas, I believe never achieved either state), amongst which list five would in later years appear.
And it told me that The Devil is Dead, which I’d read years before and always believed was a standalone novel, was instead part of a trilogy, and the middle part too, and Archipelago (which does explain certain otherwise confusing references in the original work) was the first book. The third book, though never released under its true title, later formed a sixth book to appear.
Archipelago is on the surface a mainstream novel. It begins in the South Pacific, at the end of the Second World War, with a group of five American soldiers winding down until being shipped back to civilian life. There are five of them, friends from before the War. Each come from different ethnic backgrounds, one Irish, one French, one Polish, one Dutch and one Italian, who is also Irish, because he is living two different lives in different recensions. There is also a sixth man, Jewish of name though not necessarily of religion or ethnicity. The five are known as the Dirty Five, but they are also something more, and their duties and trials in the world that follows are matters of legend and immortal peril, for they are Argonauts, Jason and others, and their duty is to save the World.
This is the beginning of the Episodes of the Argo mythos, one of three inter-connected strands that run all through Lafferty’s fiction that in later years he considered to all be part of an unfinished novel entitled ‘A Ghost Story’. Finnegan in particular, or John Solli, artist, as he is in one version of his life, roams the world, a famous drinker (as was Lafferty in his own life).
The Argo is both the world, and the Church, Church here being the Roman Catholic Church, that Lafferty regarded as the binding institution of the world, its teachings the bedrock from which all that is supposedly liberal and progressive is but a Devil’s diversion, worse still than Communism.
Needless to say, these are beliefs that I cannot and do not share. All of Lafferty’s thinking is in complete opposition to the basic tenets of my socio-political beliefs. Yet I still love his writings, and collect his works avidly.
Archipelago begins with its own creation myth, two men in a bar in the morning in a southern town. That is always how the world begins, according to Lafferty, and who would contradict him? The two men are Finnegan, who we already know and who is also John Solli, and Vincent Stranahan. Both men are Sergeants in the US Army, in the Pacific, and are currently on leave in Australia. Four of the Dirty Five are there, Hans, or John Schulz, who casually wins a drinking contest with a famed Australian Sergeant, one of the heroic labours of the Argonauts, and Casey, Kasimir Szymanski, who is the odd man out in the Dirty Five.
There are the Fivers, there are the Australian soldiers, Freddy Castle and Tom Shire, there are red-headed girls like Loy Larkin and Margaret Murphy, but this is only a context for Finnegan, the first man in the world, who is Jason, and Vincent, the least-outstanding member of his family and yet is Meleager, to appear before our eyes. Then there is the return to the islands, where Henry Salvatore, the Fat Frenchman, a mean Cajun who is Euphemus, and who will stand for ordination as a Priest after the War, has been standing for all.
Originally, I understand that Archipelago was a much longer book, in excess of 300,000 words, including long sections upon the War that is its initial background, all of which is cut out, and that it was rewritten three times. There is a chapter during which the American forces head towards Japan, that concentrates more upon the soldiers off duty, and which introduces Absolom Stein, who is also Hugo Stone and who is also Red in the same way that everyone else is of the Church.
The War itself ends quietly, a long way away, and the Dirty Five go home, all except for one, unnamed but not unidentifiable, who goes into Limbo in a medical ward because he cannot remember who he is. He will remember after several weeks, and go back into the world, as do all those with him, who are sane and stable except on the odd one or two points, such as Private Gregory, who is the same as Papa Diabolus, in his purple-headed glory, and who lives forever.
But it is not until Chapter 4 that everyone gathers together and the book reaches its more-or-less climax, long before halfway. For Vincent Stranahan is to be married to the little urchin, Theresa ‘Showboat’ Piccone, and everyone is in town, which is St Louis. There are the rest of the Dirty Five, including Hans, who is Orpheus, and his bride Marie Monohan, Casey, who is Peleus, with his girl Mary Catherine. There is the patriarch, Melchisedech Duffey, there is Dorothy ‘Dotty’ Yekouris, the Beautiful Barmaid, who is Finnegan’s girl, but their meeting is an ending, Mary Virginia, who would have been Henry’s girl, and more.
This is Vincent and Theresa’s wedding, but it is also Finnegan and Showboat’s first meeting, one that both have dreaded, knowing as they do that their relationship is special. Indeed, they will marry and live together twelve years, and have three children but this not in an world recognisable by what is known of either’s life, not even Finnegan, who lives many lives all at the same time and not one after another.
Of the marriage and the meeting comes the Bark, or Barque, in opposition to the Crock. The Crock is Casey’s paper, printed and distributed to a small but vitally influential audience of 25,000. Duffey used to work with Casey on the Crock, but he has been ousted and replaced by new backers for Casey, the weak link, the proto-pinko. Duffey, with Dotty’s practical experience and a board of editors drawn from the Dirty Five and their girls (Finnegan in absentio, wandering, drinking, on the biggest and most permanent tear, including the period of The Devil is Dead) sets up the Bark, to save the Church for loss, to speak to that same 25,000.
In a sense, the story ends there. This whole story is being told against the background of the post-War period, the late Forties into the early Fifties, the Red Menace, the Communist threat. Lafferty doesn’t make overt reference to the times, relying on his audience’s memories and knowledge for true understanding.
There is no ending, not to this story. There are no endings. Lafferty explores extensively the Dirty Five, one by one, drawing upon their pasts to light their presents, placing each of them in their mythical personae, even when, as with Henry, they are barely present in their own story. In one sense, the book is a ghost story,each person split, most obviously in the case of Casey and Stein, who are rather halves of a whole than persons by themselves.
The book covers a wide area of study, not all of it directly relevant to this introduction of the Argo mythos, but all of it involved. For an ending, Lafferty draws upon The Devil is Dead, and the death of Finnegan, caught in cross-fire between Niccolo Croutos, the left-footed killer, and Dotty, defending him. Eight, nine shots, and nobody’s missed yet. And a brief statement that all stories are improved by destroying their first and last scrolls. The world began on a morning and ends on an afternoon. There are no endings.
There are many ways of reading Archipelago, and none of them conventionally. It is not a novel in the sense of a story. It is in some part a primer, for things to be written. It is in its way an off-angle picture of a time that even when it was first published was a history. It begins in War Physical and concerns itself with War Spiritual. It is funny and it is melancholy, staunch in support of its cause, faithful in its belief in its necessity, yet recognising the precariousness of its position. In shape, in style, in tone and texture, it has nothing to do with The Devil is Dead yet more than Finnegan, the wanderer, the Teras, connects these two books, because they are two faces of a coin with more faces than two.
It would be close to twenty years before I would read the final part of the Trilogy.

12 thoughts on “The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: Archipelago

  1. Wow! _Archipelago_ is a difficult book to tackle. It is an utter joy to read, there is none of the graphic off-putting gruesomeness of _Not To Mention Camels_ or a story like “Berryhill,” but it is so dense and at the same time spread out, that it is hard to pin down. The best parallel to awakening from reading it is coming up from deep, meaningful dream or reflecting on a drunken reverie (I blogged about the drunken reverie parallel here: http://www.yetanotherlaffertyblog.com/2016/06/drunken-reveries.html).

    I’ve never really been able to unpack all the levels of Archipelago. I need to read it again at depth, but first need to reacquaint myself with Jason and the Argonauts. That Finnegan is Jason (Iason) and that their vessel (really their entire journey together through life) is Argo, which is the Church, which is (to Lafferty) the World, is undisputed. But Damned if I can remember how the parts fit together to embark (now there’s a word for you – em-bark, to be on the barque, to set sail) on the quest.

    On the other hand, it has some of Lafferty’s very best writing in the little vignettes. There’s the drunken reverie of Hans as he sits and waits for Marie, slipping from imagining talking to her to actually talking to her without clear transition (see DOJP’s blog: http://antsofgodarequeerfish.blogspot.com/2016/02/reading-argo-cycle-part-2-archipelago.html) and there’s the opening, fittingly Genesis (reflection in my blog: https://www.yetanotherlaffertyblog.com/2014/06/in-beginning.html), and many, many more incidences.

    Wonderful to see a writer so maturely in charge of his powers so early in his career, but his powers here demand equal power from the reader. A joy, but one you have to let wash over you in a dream.

    1. To me, Archipelago stands out from all Lafferty’s other novels because of its deliberately non-fantastic milieu, and yet I can’t help but feel that it encompasses his every other book, that everything is implied within its pages, without any direct reference. I would love to see a greater Archipelago, to see deeper and wider, and to be longer in a Lafferty world.

  2. Hi Martin. So far as I’m aware, there was no other title than More than Melchisedech, though when it was finally published, it was as three volumes: Tales of Midnight, Tales of Chicago and Argo. I did, once, see an intended publiction as More than Melchisedech and tried to order it as such, but that edition never appeared and I know nothing more about it.

  3. Yup, never been published as a single volume. I was lucky enough to find a copy of Tales of Chicago (with the wonderful R. Ward Shipman illustrations some years ago. More recently, I landed a copy of Tales of Midnight, but it arrived just before we moved to Colorado, and it’s in a box in the basement somewhere! I’ve never been able to score a copy of Argo.

    Here’s a breakdown of the publishing history of the Argo Mythos books and related stories and novellas: http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/pe.cgi?24555

    1. Great link. I’m lucky enough to have everything in the list. Of course, I was lucky enough to get all the novels in the /nineties, including all three parts of Melchisedech, before the prices ballooned.

  4. Really like the last paragraph of your review. It catches the feel of the novel, as does Kevin’s likening it to waking from a dream or reflecting on a drunken reverie.

    I think this statement really nails it for me: ‘It is in some part a primer, for things to be written.’ Aside from Devil is Dead (which I agree is a different beast), I find the whole Argos trilogy to have this primer-like quality. It seems like a blueprint or overlay or some such thing for the whole body of Lafferty’s works but in itself it is difficult to pin down as fully solid. As Kevin mentions, there are many, many passages in both Archipelago and MTM that shine out as vignette gems in Lafferty’s corpus, but the full novels are… what, exactly? (Or even approximately.) They’re diffusive and dense at the same time (as again Kevin mentioned), or maybe they oscillate a bit between these. The long passages in Archipelago about the magazines and visits between the friends seemed to have very little literary depth to me, craft-wise or theme-wise. They’re often peppered with theological or philosophical chat, which I’m prone to love, but they still feel slight. But these are interspersed with incredible passages that are as deep as anything Lafferty wrote (like the meditations on Finnegan’s split personas/lives) or as wildly inventive as anything he wrote (like the storytelling in the mental ward, as well as the passages Kevin cited).

    I’m actually very glad that I read Devil is Dead first and then Archipelago and MTM and I usually recommend people approach it that way. There’s something about being thrown into the mythos the exact way that the amnesiac Finnegan is at the beginning of Devil is Dead that is good for the reader too. After all, Lafferty does preface Devil by urging readers to arrange it as they will.

    1. That was my reading order as well, and I think I agree with you. Archipelago and MTM are clearly beasts of the same genus whereas Devil is Dead is very much the horse of the different colour. In this order, the series goes from a definitive fantasia to an increasing diffusion of progression where the fantasy is left largely to the reader’s imagination: we may all of us, if we possess the true beliefs, be Argonauts and conduct battle via our own symbols.But the Devil never really dies…

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