Many years ago in a graduate school far, far away, a visiting professor with decidedly limited English inflicted upon his first class's sensibilities a simple dichotomy: all novels are either historical or psychological. The manner in which he gurgled these words (I shall not reveal his provenance for any sum) as well as the hesitance he displayed in convincing us of this brilliant theory remain with me as an example of many things, one of which is that simple thoughts bereft of any subtlety or qualification often smack the nail into the board with astounding accuracy. In other words, a work of art may draw its power from within or without. You know all too well about the latter: the torrid wartime romance, with fates cloven as the battlefield expands and misunderstandings multiplied in the face of increasing danger, as all the while death and history conspire to keep two sweet lovers apart. With very, very few exceptions, most works tailored on this pattern are of a very thin and flimsy fabric. The protagonists love like any other couple loves, but we are supposed to find them infinitely more tragic because they may be killed at any moment and because history, that sentinel of sorrow, will hurt them as it has hurt billions of others. Yet the saddest events in one's life are always personal, always unshared, always unimportant to anyone except the sufferer. And private tragedies inform and steer every line of this novel.
Our narrator will be revealed slowly; that is to say, we know her as Gin Rathbone, a solitary Englishwoman and long-time New Yorker now in her seventies, but her motives for composition remain obscure. We also know before we are even informed that Gin is the type of person born to refract, not to shine. At first she may be seeking to vindicate her beloved brother Jack ("the most remarkable event of my life has been Jack himself"), now dead and forgotten by the artistic world whose adulation he once sought. A later reason develops somewhere towards the middle of the story, and we sense it is a mere contrivance for the sake of padded plot, a peccadillo but not a rarity in serious literature. Still, without this odd shunting the engine of our narrative remains decidedly cold. Cold until we find a young and unsung Jack Rathbone enamored with a mildly older woman by the name of Vera Savage.
Vera, like Jack, belongs to that generation of souls that does not evince any tenderness towards its predecessors yet is consumed by an urge to ponder its own profundity. In short, the embodiment of the smug, ignorant modern artist. And while her portrait will be edited throughout the novel, stopping like some anti-Vera Expo at every stall of her defamation, her initial appearance is damning enough:
Jack liked the look of her at once, this was clear, and for this reason: she dressed like a prostitute. She stood there at the podium, a loud, bosomy woman in a tight dress and pancake make-up, one hand cocked akimbo on her hip and the other flapping the air as she spoke to us with a kind of hoarse nervous bravado, and I remember thinking her opinionated and not very clean, nor entirely sober. Her hair was the color of coal, her lips were scarlet and she had lost a tooth, whose absence lent her a distinctly menacing aspect when she grinned. What was it she talked about? Much of it I have forgotten; but I know she told us how pointless it was to attend art school, which raised a cheer, and then she spoke about inspiration, and how travel, drink, the colour black, bodies of water − passion − these were the sorts of things that inspired her.
It is of no small coincidence that I too have been inspired by precisely these "sorts of things," as they remain key components of any Romantic's toolkit − but I digress. The description goes on to quote Vera, who seems so opposite to the plain, emotionless Gin as can only happen in fiction, that "a real artist would sooner let her children starve than work at anything but her art." As Port Mungo arrives at an explanation of its title, a dingy Central American backwater that inspires Jack to form the single-student school of "tropicalism" or "malarial," we begin to understand the basic dichotomy: we all have creative desires, but for the vast majority of us these will be quenched in the production of smaller beings who will become the vessels of our hopes. For someone who thinks himself able to add to the pantheon of great art, however, children seem too common, too unruly, and too unpredictable to appeal to his one-tracked mind.
Yet this is precisely what a "real artist" would never do. A "real artist" may and should shirk a mindless job, the material pleasures of expensive food and clothing and luxury items, and the conformist ideas that proclaim that life is to be lived for the sake of instant gratification. Why? Because real art predicates only two things: beauty and pity. And to us there is nothing more beautiful and vulnerable than a child, any child, but especially one that owes its existence to our own seed. A child is the greatest work of art we can produce, because man is superior to his doodles, his tracts, and his tunes, and herein lies the tragedy of all artists. They cannot better nature in its mountains and canyons, even if perhaps that was never quite their ambition; yet a true artist gains his foothold when he realizes that a child's hair is more valuable than any book ever written, and the ripping squeal of a newborn baby more marvelous than any aria or sonnet. Such is, in essence, the main theme of Port Mungo, which has many dirty ideas and many dirty ways to imply those ideas without making them explicit. We get Vera's negligence of the couple's two daughters, Peg and Anna, both of whom will be separated from their parents, one for good and one across an ocean; Gerald, the eldest, most successful, and most genteel of the three Rathbone siblings, who steps in and makes a very important decision; Antonella, an Italian model for some of Jack's finer work; Johnny Hague, another white resident of the Mungo, Vera's sporadic lover, and, in a strange way, Jack's alter ego; and Eduardo, a sexually ambiguous and manipulative sculptor whose stealth somehow reminds us of our narrator. The action moves from England to New York and the Port with the retrospective sweep of a long-stifled confession. The only question will be the crime, and about that we are obliged to keep comfortably mum.
McGrath's style is spiteful, gloomy, and fantastically crisp; it also harbors an insatiable curiosity for the reasons of the human soul, which are infinite. He lingers on the dark psychology that is never insinuated, however hard he may try, in Banville's mannerist fables, and such attention to our ticking impulses makes some of the revolting subject matter that inhabits his dark halls all the more amazing to visualize. I shall never forgive McGrath for a short story (also featuring the name Mungo) he once wrote about a priest in a style so magnificent that the abomination of its contents would convince even the staunchest non-believer of its infernal origins. But we can overlook the monotony of Port Mungo's alleged plot − rarely has such a beautiful shawl been wound about such bony shoulders − and revel in the polish and texture of this wretched little realm. I suppose it is amusing that the names Gin and Jack echo the alcoholism rampant throughout the novel, and that Vera is supposed to furnish the savage truth, the comeuppance. In this last respect, as opposed to many other facets of her chosen exile, she does not fail. In vino veritas, indeed.