The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: More than Melchisedech

As an e-Book, 2015

More than Melchisedech was the last novel of R.A.Lafferty to be published. It is the third part of The Devil is Dead trilogy. It was not published as such: it appeared as three hardback novels entitled, respectively, ‘Tales of Chicago’, ‘Tales of Midnight’ and ‘Argo’. But it is, nonetheless, More than Melchisedech and, unless and subject to the publication of those novels listed in the by now infamous Archipelago checklist, it is the last.
Hope then, for Esteban, for Mantis, for Iron Tongue of Midnight, for When All The World was Young, for Dark Shine, and those books already mentioned, of the Coscuin Chronicles and In a Green Tree, and hope for the chance one day and soon to add to this series of blogs.
But this is where the story ends.
More than Melchisedech is about Melchisedech Duffey, the Boy King, the Boy Magician. It’s closer in tone and content to Archipelago than to The Devil is Dead, since the latter is a Finnegan novel, and a fantasia in its way, whilst Finnegan is merely primus inter pares amongst the Dirty Five, and the others of whom Duffy is by some means a creator.
The original Melchisedech appears in the book of Genesis where he makes a brief appearance as King of Salem. Lafferty equates Duffey, who is basically Irish, with the King of Salem but basically presents him as a character without parents or birth, at the beginning of what will be a circular life that breaks down into three phases, each represented in the three books published.
‘Tales of Chicago’ deals with Duffey’s childhood and schooling, the latter to a far greater extent, since Duffey’s childhood is indefinite, and far too extensive, spent with too many pseudo-relatives, to have any fixed existence or narrative. He is pursued by three slant-faced killers, older boys with knives whose intention is to kill him, a task they will eventually accomplish when the story has moved far beyond any earthly confines represented in this or the second phase. Duffey becomes part of a group of friends, one of whom is a magician whereas Duffey is magic, able to produce gold by banging his hands together, and aided by invisible giant hands that he can call upon to do his bidding.
And yet this is a realistic phase, realistic so far as the grand Tall Tales tradition is concerned. Duffey’s coterie is a precocious group of boys and girls entirely reminiscent, though more far-fetched, of the children of My Heart Leaps Up.
Beyond Duffey’s schooling, at age sixteen, he arrives in Chicago and makes his first, and overwhelming business, a multifarious affair of impossible successes, dazzling in its ease and speed, and which brings him into contact with people to whom he gives talismans, talismans fated to be given to their children, amongst whom are the Dirty Five and the women who love them.
‘Tales of Midnight’ moves us into the realm of Archipelago, using Vincent Stranahan’s wedding to Theresa ‘Showboat’ Piccone as the catalyst to bring Duffey among the Duffeys in St Louis, to translate Duffey’s career to that town and the printing house that is the home of the Pelican Press in its mission to fight the Church’s fight against Casey Symansky’s The Crock.
It’s also the foreground of the battle for the world as Lafferty re-introduces the belief that the Devil was imprisoned for a thousand years, and that that imprisonment ended in 1945, when in an occasion of ceremony he was released from his cell at Yalta, to resume his place in the world.
But it is in ‘Argo’ that Lafferty moves beyond any mundane ties, taking Duffey beyond his earthly time, through Seven Contingent Years that he has already, seemingly, lived in non-consecutive fashion earlier in the book, and seven possible worlds in which fates symbolic of what Lafferty saw as the world in which he and we lived are played out, before he steps (again) into the boat that sails through time, correcting and directing.
This is the Argo, a central point in Lafferty’s thoughts, beliefs and writings. The Argo is a thing of myth but it is also the Church, and many are Argo Masters in their time. For now, and in this time, these are three: Melchisedech Duffey, Biloxi Brannagan (who we met in The Devil is Dead) and Kasmir Gorshak, who is Casey and who is the Antichrist.
‘Argo’ takes the book out beyond all anchors, gliding and eliding. We have gone beyond anything in the mundane world, though the Argo moves into and out of the world in which intervention is required to maintain the course, but it does so from beyond. Duffey has been unreal in the real and now he is outside it. He is killed, his flesh hacked off and burnt to ashes, ashes he has carried in a cigar case for much of the story, but just as his story has no beginning, it also has no end save return to the beginning, to renew the cycle.
There are, in fact, two endings, each with their similarities, distinguished by different fonts, and an afterword from the author which in his last published book becomes a farewell word to his readers, readers of the unfinished and encompassing ‘A Ghost Story’ that was all of R.A. Lafferty’s work.
More than Melchisedech cannot be described in ordinary writings without repeating its every event and moment. Its waters are deep yet shine clear. In the end, it was Raphael Aloysius Lafferty writing for himself to explain what he saw, and not all of what he saw is what we ourselves can see.

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.