The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: Dotty


Physically, Dotty is a companion to The Elliptical Grave, as was East of Laughter to Serpent’s Egg. It is a United Mythologies Press chapbook novel, slightly shorter, printed on white rather than sepia paper, and similarly limited in number, this time 330. My copy should be numbered somewhere between 1 – 250, but is sadly unnumbered. Like all the few remaining books in this series, Dotty appears in the Archipelago checklist and, although it is not part of The Devil is Dead trilogy, it is a part of Lafferty’s Argo Mythos.
But only as a sidebar. Dotty is Dotty O’Toole Peisson, friend to Finnegan (who is mentioned two, maybe three times in her book), World’s Greatest Galveston-Style Piano Player, and this is her story, up to the age of twenty-one or thereabouts, and for once with Lafferty, we are given an almost clear time-frame, beginning with her birth on 15 October 1933, in dust-bowl Oklahoma, though Dotty’s natural home is indeed Galveston.
This is as clear and open a book as Lafferty ever wrote, and whilst he never descends to any crudity, it is also as carnal a story as he ever told. Dotty, the youngest child and daughter of Sheriff Slywood O’Toole and Mary Theresa O’Toole is pretty blatantly indicated to be the product of marital rape, during the War. Slywood pretty blatantly pimps his wife out to his superior officer, Colonel Kean, and Dotty herself, under the influence of Pan, throws away her virginity, and with it for a long time her Faith, becoming next to a prostitute before she is partially saved.
Dotty is about faith, or rather Faith, since what is under consideration is Roman Catholic belief, and an old-fashioned version of it that Lafferty himself considered essential to the health of the world. Dotty herself is a preternaturally intelligent and determined child, for whom precocious is a word that doesn’t go half far enough, but she lives in a real world of Lafferty’s experience and the country’s experience. This is not a fantastic book in the way that we have become used to in Laff’s body of writing, and the closest to it in its rootedness is Archipelago. Indeed, from comments Andrew Ferguson has made elsewhere on this blog, I believe it to be Lafferty’s second novel, chronologically.
Dotty begins as an adherent to the true Faith. She is rigid and doctrinal, though those are words that ill-fit her turn of mind and belief. Rather, she is Absolutist, rejecting the world of the body, of matter and dirt, characterising those who lapse into that form as pig people, in favour of the world of spirit. She’s incredibly advanced for her age, in knowledge, perception and adventuring, but in a world that is relentlessly solid.
And she is full or argument and debate, as is the book. Lafferty rejects liberalism and humanism as tools of the Devil, rejects everything that he sees as compromise from the old, original Faith. He is more direct in his philosophy than at any time since, yes, Archipelago again. But this is a section of the Argo Mythos: one day, some enterprising publisher will, we hope, create an omnibus containing all the elements of this Mythos, to be stored under one roof.
But Dotty is about both Faith and Doubt. Dotty herself Falls, under the influence of Pan, Pan who is both nature and rutting, and her surrender to physicality, outside the licit state of marriage, breaks her for a time. Absolute Faith admits no equivocation, no least failing. What rescues her, in a remainder of the story that see-saws between her attempts and failings to recover Grace, is the sailor, Charles Piesson, with whom she finds love, and marriage, and a wholeness within that is only temporary, for he must return to sea, and there he is lost and so too is Dotty again.
Here, Lafferty hints at things beyond the solidity of life. Charles has foreseen his death, has written fifty-two letters to Dotty, to be sent to her weekly so that for a year further he can speak to her. Dotty will not open them, because to do so is to acknowledge that Charles is dead, but she knows their contents. Others read them, Soft-Talk Suzie Kutz – a barmaid and, it is faintly hinted, perhaps an Angel – takes and keeps them, to give to Dotty in their proper order, weekly, once she has admitted her loss, and Soft-Talk Suzie says that some of the contents of these letters were written after Charles died.
There is the typical Lafferty non-ending. We are only seeing part of the story, just as all his novels are part of the unfinished ‘A Ghost Story’ of his entire work. We have seen Dotty to a certain point and what else lies ahead is not to be told us. Just because there is no climax does not mean we cannot have an ending. Every story goes on for longer than we are allowed to participate by its writer.
This is a book that requires an open mind, even as you will no doubt decide that R.A. Lafferty’s was closed. It is an argument and a doctrine, and I am not equipped to judge it in theological terms, only to learn how a certain viewpoint differs from my own.

3 thoughts on “The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: Dotty

  1. Shameful admission here: I have not finished Dotty yet. I got as far as her mother being flirted with by the well-to-do officer while on vacation in Galveston.

    The book (from what I’ve read so far) see-saws back and forth between more doctrinaire meditation and more straight narrative–a little more straightforward I’m used to with Lafferty. His description of the joys of living in the big house with all the families under one roof almost echoes Bradbury’s Green Town, Illinois. Dotty’s fixation on mortification fo the flesh was disturbing to read but fits something from the author who brought us “Ginny Wrapped in the Sun.”

    Time to re-start!

    1. Kevin, your dereliction appalls me! Get on with it!

      As an aside, i have had ‘The Back Door of History’ a week now and still only read two of its six stories. This is because I am holding out. Once I finish it, that’s the last Lafferty I can possibly read until the unpublished work starts appearing. I don’t want it to be over.

  2. From an e-mail from Garth Groombridge, reprinted with permission.

    Hi Martin,

    As always your Lafferty books summary is fascinating – and this time a bit less confusing, more ‘conventional’, almost! With Lafferty Catholicism, I couldn’t help but think of Hilaire Belloc, another Catholic writer, whose only book I’ve read is “The Cruise of the Nona”, non-fiction, about him sailing a small boat around Britain. My edition had a foreword by Jonathon Raban who did much the same in the 1980s when Thatcher was in power (he was NOT pro-Maggie!). Belloc had a similar non-compromising, reactionary, almost medievalist Catholic philosophy, to what you imply with Lafferty, but as his book was written in the mid-1920s he also was flirting with Mussolini-style fascism ( as was D.L. Lawrence also, expressed in his travel book “Sea and Sardinia”). I read the “Nona” book maybe a bit like you do sometimes with Lafferty, fascinated by his keen mind, intellect and ideas, even though I personally utterly disagreed with him. Over the years I’ve read a number of books about Mussolini’s Italy and fascism in general, as well as the more extreme version of the Nazis, which even people like Belloc or Lawrence would have been disgusted by.

    With Belloc I also had a strange feeling that my eccentric paternal grandfather (who I don’t personally have any memory of, only the books he read and what I’ve pieced together about his life) might have found Belloc a kindred soul. To my surprise, when I asked my father at that time, he produced a Belloc book grandfather had of poems and writings. Now grandfather Groombridge was a “freethinker”, possible atheist, who was himself fascinated by the Anglo-Saxon world and pre-Christian paganism, but he also flirted, or was interested in, fascism and had both an English and German copies of Hitler “Mein Kampf” – alas the English copy I had disappeared during one of my many pre-1980s moves from place to place. So again, grandfather and Belloc were quite different in their core believes, yet even I could see they had that same strong philosophy, suspicion or distaste for democracy, a hankering for a strong, even retrogressive form of society, belief system, but love of place and things. While my politics has always been that of the more radical socialist or perhaps post-capitalist, I’ve always been aware of that contradiction in myself, why I’ve read about fascism, been fascinated (if at the same time repelled by) Catholicism, Judaism or Islam – religions that are about life-styles not just belief, and my long fascination also of the supernatural and occult whilst also being a pro-science rationalist. I say it’s the Libra in me – that measuring balance, in arguments and ideas and life in general.

    And it’s good that we can read such books like Lafferty or Lewis or Belloc, enjoy them, even though we disagree with the author. Another example of the French writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine, his “Journey to the End of the Night”. Even Georges Simenon, a writer I love, yet, having read biographies of him, I cannot say he was especially likeable as a person – like a lot of French (or Belgians) in that 1930s/40s/50s period he sympathised with aspects of fascism or authoritarianism. But then I argue that almost ALL utopias are not really places many people would like to live – by their very nature a utopia, no matter how enlightened, has to be authoritarian to survive and remain socially stable. It cannot allow non-utopia ideas. Every utopia has to have its Guardians or Thought Police. The only exception I can think of is William Morris “News from Nowhere”, which was an unworkable mix of medieval socialism/anarchism. It was rather daft and totally unworkable (back to candle power, no medicines, no sewage treatment, no way to cope with natural disasters, everything was simplistic and unrealistic).

    Keep up the good work with your reviews.

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