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Read an excerpt from Roger Rosenblatt's new novel, 'Thomas Murphy'

"Thomas Murphy" is a new novel by Roger Rosenblatt. Photo Credit: Ecco

Have I told you about this? The day they dropped the giant turf? It never happened, of course, but it was something. The sky was packed with balloonish clouds as dark as the turf itself. When we looked up, turf and sky were seamless, and it appeared that everything hanging over us, the entire universe, in fact, was turf. Only when the planes flew at a lower altitude of a few hundred feet could we distinguish the substance from the sky whence it descended. Even Mickey Kelleher, who was never impressed by anything, including The Great Houdini, had to admit it was worth looking at — the great brown grassy mass in the shape of a humongous brick, at least three and a half miles long and nearly as wide, suspended over the island and held in place by four hovering World War II B-24 Liberator bombers. The noise from the engines was dreadful. Thick wire cables extended from each of the huge planes to a sort of hammock on which the turf rested. At the scheduled moment, the planes would release the four cables, and the vast turf brick would drop on Inishmaan like a fallen star.

It was a gift from Dublin, we were told. Or was it Brazil? Sean Cafferty thought Korea, but Cafferty was always thinking that Aran and Korea had a mystical relationship.

Whatever its provenance, the turf was supposed to have represented a generous gesture from the outside world to our people, a one-year supply of the most important thing in our lives. And it was true, at least from the viewpoint of us kids, that turf was the only thing the grown-ups ever talked about, when they weren’t talking about dogs, pigs, horses, cows, and the size of Jocko Flaherty’s head. And even when they were on other topics, turf always seeped into their conversations. So, naturally, everyone was excited as hell to look up at the big suspended beauty. The trouble was that the immense size of the thing, as long and wide as the island itself, made it impossible to find a place to stand where the turf would not drop straight on you.

So the entire population of the island, all 160 of us, including many of the dogs, pigs, horses, and cows, waded out to Galway Bay to the north, and into the Atlantic to the west, to watch for the big moment. Donkeys brayed. Babies murmured in their mothers’ arms. As it happened, however, the turf was even bigger than we had estimated. When it finally dropped, as if from a massive celestial trapdoor, everyone on Inishmaan, and I mean every living thing — people, dogs, pigs, horses, and cows — were covered in the stuff. Turf filled our mouths, nostrils, ears, asses, and all the slots, holes, and openings of every man, woman, and beast. This took some getting used to, I don’t mind telling you. But after a few minutes of standing there stunned, like pieces of sod ourselves, Casey Carey, I think it was, yelled, “Don’t we smell good!” And the grown-ups looked around at one another and agreed. And instead of wailing and bemoaning the fact that everyone stank . . . they carped the diem, and sang and danced and laughed, making a goddam festival of the moment. And no one took a bath for a week. Make that forever.

A poet I know uses flammable ink. No sooner do his poems hit the paper than they burst into flame. How can one be consoled by your work? I asked him. You have to be quick, he said.

The point is (do you want a point?). The point is, you never crash if you go full tilt. Only the boyos whose feet tremble over the brakes veer off the road and go down in flames. Like those murders in the noir movies of the 1940s where some poor sap, doused in bourbon, is propped behind the steering wheel, with a cinder block laid on the accelerator, and the dark coupe, released toward the guardrail, flips headlights over taillights and slams into the cliff wall before plunging in the sea. You say that’s different. That sucker was set up. But I say, no more so than the guy who drives his own car and slams on his own brakes just when he should gun it. Real fire comes from gunning it, with the curl of a grin on your ecstatic face, and the demarcations in the road shooting past, clickclickclick. The guardrail remains intact.

Onlookers gasp, he’ll kill himself at that speed. But you know better. You were never safer.

Only, who knows what it means to gun it at this age? And where to do the gunning? How to use the time. Understand? What, in the stages of final ambling, should be one’s — what is the term — principal occupation? One’s song. “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” That grand old courting tune. Do you know it?

Meanwhile, one by one, the loves of your life bite the dust through no fault of their own. Oona goes. Greenberg goes. In the white hospitals, in the green hospices, they stir from sleep and wanly smile or tell a joke or blow a kiss. Will I do likewise? Or, one blazing afternoon, on my seventy-third birthday, say, will I collapse in front of Rite Aid without ceremony, and lavish my attention on the sidewalk?

Bring it, Mr. Death, with your boney jaw and creepy cloak and outdated farming tools. Jeez. He looks like Wallace Stevens. Not that I don’t love Wallace Stevens. What poet does not love Wallace Stevens. But that efficient look of his — the factual demeanor, competent eyes, combed back white hair, not too long not too short, the jowls and fleshy cheeks, and the tweed sport coat, striped shirt, and black necktie, neat as a bird. A boyo you haven’t seen since college, the class secretary who sang in an a cappella group and who now shills for the alumni association and sells insurance in Connecticut. Death. Am I right? Wallace Stevens with a scythe?

Oh, what the hell. Behold old Murph, anyway. The singing fool. Strong as a moth wing, a feather, a sheet of the thinnest vellum. I am resolute, needy, on my own, protected, protecting. Atomized. Unionized. A flivver, a toaster, a spore. So gorgeous I could drown in my reflection in the pool. So hideous I shrink from the bathroom mirror like a mollusk to its shell. I am like no one else, except that on occasion I resemble me — hysterical (both ways), Nazi, Jew, hit and miss, petal and ash. I celebrate myself and sing myself. I cannot bear myself, or my clumsy, inspired piano playing, or my scratchy, heavenly baritone belting out the great old tunes, or my sea-blue eyes, blameless as sunlight, guilty as sin. The creek and the stone and the tupelo tree. All that, and less, more or less. Give or take. Smart as a whip. Dumb as a post. Tumultuous, I sleep like a baby. Frail as pebbles.

From “Thomas Murphy” by Roger Rosenblatt. Copyright © 2016 by Roger Rosenblatt. Published by Ecco, a division of HarperCollins Publishers.

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