We are confined in our flesh only by our thoughts, however persistently morbid those thoughts may become (I, for one, have always been plagued by what this author once termed "the imp of the perverse," an epitaph that will not gain further explanation on these pages). The drift of our imagination may be denied by those who believe in nothing greater than themselves, but some of us know full well that it is within our imagination not our reason that the truth lies hidden. Amidst the clouds we gaze upon are the shapes of things that do not make sense except in dreams of another realm, dreams that suggest we inhabit a sliver of the universe reflected in many others. A somewhat abstract introduction to a fine story in this collection.
Our narrator is Bernard, a younger writer in New York whose future seems neither particularly obscure nor particularly bright. He has no ostensible family or friends and the structure of his days is embedded in his petty routines. In this setting a good mind will not despair. However disheartening such an existence may appear to be, the creative spirit will not languish in self-pity for more than a few moments and instead let the surroundings guide its thoughts. Such an event is the writer's sudden acquaintance with an elderly dandy called Harry Talboys. A name that already sounds like a cocktail or the pseudonym of a ne'er-do-well:
A tall, thin figure in a seersucker suit the grubbiness of which, the fraying cuffs, the cigarette burns and faded reddish wine stain on the crotch could not altogether disguise the quality of the fabric and the elegance of the cut. Very erect, very tall, very slow, on his head a Panama hat; and his face a veritable atlas of human experience, the nose a great hooked bone of a thing projecting like the prow of a ship, and the mouth – well, the mouth had foundered somewhat, but the old man animated it with lipstick! He must have been at least eighty. His shirt collar was not clean, and he wore a silk tie of some pastel shade – pale lilac or mauve, I seem to remember; and in his buttonhole a fresh white lily.
One short phrase in this passage gives away much more than it should, but we can do without belaboring these unfortunate hints. Harry is for all intents and purposes a perfect literary subject. He is cultured, old enough to have had a very interesting life, and mindfully rueful about some past mistakes. When he confesses something we are not so much appalled as curious as to how much was omitted from his sentiments. For that reason and some others is his narrative about a young man once his age by the name of Anson Havershaw far more provocative than it would first appear.
And how precisely does it first appear? In the guise, as it were, of a normal, homosexual coupling, although one might ask oneself how many public passions of this nature were successfully carried out in New York in 1925. Havershaw, "he of the milk-white flesh and non-existent navel," becomes Harry's muse in a series of episodes whose contents we perceive emotionally more than in any consistent reality, and Bernard begins to entertain – such is his vocation, as it were – a few rogue ideas. Harry has his own notion of what his relationship was to the young man "who bore a striking resemblance to himself ... an uncanny physical likeness":
That summer ... Harry often found himself leaving Anson's house in the first light of dawn, still in evening clothes, and slipping into the welcome gloom of St. Ignatius Loyola on Park Avenue. 'You wouldn't know it, Bernard,' he said; 'they tore it down in 1947. A lovely church, Gothic revival; I miss it ... at the early Mass it would be lit only by the dim, blood-red glow from the stained-glass windows, and by a pair of white candles that rose from gilded holders on either side of the altar and threw out a gorgeous, shimmering halo ... The priest I knew well, an ascetic young Jesuit; I remember how his pale face caught the candlelight as he turned to the congregation – the whole effect was strangely beautiful, Bernard, if you had seen it you would understand the attraction Catholicism held for so many of us ... it was the emotional appeal, really; disciplined Christianity we found more difficult to embrace.'
Without revealing why such an understanding of standard Christian faith and practice could be so important to Harry, I should confess that without an emotional appeal, religion is no different from any system of beliefs that convinces the holder of its benefits. Liturgy and Mass may involve rote memorization, but what these rituals truly signify should bring the believer quite often to tears. Harry does not elaborate on his flirtation with the Catholic system, only suggesting that it fulfilled some of his Romantic criteria and did not wholly dispel the rest. Alas, Harry's stories become saturated with self-analysis, and Bernard grows increasingly frustrated at his new acquaintance whom he once considered mining for fictional ends. The dénouement, an inevitability that even Bernard admits, involves more impolitic neighboring although the young writer, at times, does seem justified in his skepticism.
Blood and Water was McGrath's first work, and while not his best (a scatological preoccupation abounds; one edition even features a ghostly likeness of a once-ballyhooed quack), it tenderizes topics that will be probed at greater depths in his delicious novels. However one feels about the mentally ill and the delusional, their minds are fabulous sources of creativity. When reading McGrath it is thus preferable to discount the clinical aspects of his analysis and focus on the imaginative wonderlands that these psyches paint in an eerie vividness reminiscent of a Scottish moor in early autumn. Harry does not belong on such a moor, and indeed may not quite belong anywhere apart from his quarters in the same building as Bernard where his neighbor repeatedly finds himself ensconced in an uncomfortable seat. And I haven't even mentioned the intensifying stench.