Jonathn Bayliss: Where West Meets East
Bayliss has self-published all three of his novels, aware that the market for his brand of literature is limited . . . a treasure-trove of prose poetry, mathematical puzzles, and mythological and literary references . . . Bayliss brings Gilgamesh, Aristotle, and Christ into the nuclear age . . . Dogtown contains all the philosophical intrigue of John Barth's New Tammany or the Interzone of William S. Burroughs, but with a poetic imagination that renders the tragedy of Gloucester all the more poignant.
In the novels of Jonathan Bayliss, we experience society as a battlefield where forces intent on monopolizing human imagination and endeavor contend. Leaders of industry, political and religious ideologues, and the academic elite struggle to define history and even reality itself to suit their purposes, regardless of the damage they wreak upon culture or humanity. They manipulate technology, language, the calendar, mass media, and the marketplace to further their agendas, which they construct unwieldy philosophical systems to reinforce. Ultimately, these forces intend to portray their machinations as anonymous and inevitable, so that opposing their aims seems as absurd as opposing the weather.
The city of Gloucester, Massachusetts is Bayliss’s canvas for this panoramic project. Its rich economic and artistic legacy having declined with the ebb of the fishing industry and the emigration of its ambitious souls, Gloucester is desperate for redemption. When the retrograde exodus brings the luckless pioneers back East, they find their granite island just as forbidding as before. Its soul is still the mysterious forest of Purdeyville, where from the old quarries the locals try to coax answers more useful than the banal truisms carved on its stones. Worst of all, the hard times have brought predators to the area, seeking material gain in Gloucester’s failure: the locals have to choose between selling cheap to the land sharks or even cheaper to the tourists who invade the island during the summer.
Unashamed of his reliance on Western history and philosophy, Bayliss brings Gilgamesh, Aristotle, and Christ into the nuclear age. Bayliss’s project also fights the degradation of the English language against the plunder of popular culture. His prose is obviously painstakingly crafted, and it requires a patient, perceptive reading. Perhaps Bayliss is speaking through one of his characters in Gloucestertide when he says:
Indeed, Bayliss is uncompromising in his efforts. He has self-published all three of his novels, undoubtedly aware that the market for his brand of literature is limited at best. This project is a treasure-trove of prose poetry, mathematical puzzles, and mythological and literary references. It is not recommended for those intimidated by intellectual challenges.
During the Sixties and Seventies, Bayliss gave readings and released excerpts from Prologos, his work-in-progress, in select literary magazines. Based presumably on Bayliss’s life in California during the Fifties, the novel seemed destined to be a Joycean gondola-ride through the wild canals of history. The travels of Michael Chapman resonated with mythological import, whether he was recalling crossing the vast Pacific during his stint in the Navy in WWII or taking the family on a surreal trip to the San Francisco Zoo on Palm Sunday. Bayliss actively evoked such literary demigods as Sterne, Melville, and Yeats in his literary ambition. The Gloucester poet Charles Olson praised the work-in-progress as a rejuvenation of the English-language novel. In 1992, Bayliss finally published his debut. However, this was not the anticipated Prologos but the remarkable Gloucesterbook.
Instead of the realistic West Coast saga that the excerpts of Prologos had promised, Gloucesterbook is an alternate-reality epic set in the East Coast of 1960. Bayliss has cleverly disguised the physical and personal geography of Gloucester: renamed Dogtown, the system hides Gloucester luminaries and landmarks within disguises echoing ancient mythology or history. Dystopian Dogtown contains all the philosophical intrigue of similar creations such as John Barth’s New Tammany (in Giles Goat-Boy) or the Interzone of William S. Burroughs (in his Naked Lunch), but with a poetic imagination that renders the tragedy of Gloucester all the more poignant. The readers who brave the difficult terrain of the enormous Gloucesterbook have praised its originality and power.
The unlikely hero of Gloucesterbook is aspiring playwright Caleb Karcist, whose memories of a fatherless childhood have him seeking paternal figures among the cultural giants of Dogtown: a renegade poet/professor with innovative ideas on theater and philosophy and a hatred for TV culture’s saccharine sentimentality; a businessman determined to solve the mystery of a shadowy corporation; the city planner charged with bringing Dogtown back from the economic grave; an old salt stranded on land; a sex-crazed sculptor who pays the bills by welding; and a visionary priest who redefines the liturgy for those lost in the age of quantum uncertainty. Through Caleb’s artistic and romantic failures, his dog Ibi-Roi is his only wholly trustworthy companion. His Cold War anxieties are common to our age as well:
The novel seems like a surreal frieze carved in the omnipresent Dogtown granite, the material that juts high out of the ground in Purdeyville; that marks the graves of the city’s forgotten dead; that houses the families struggling to survive in the tourist-theater Dogtown has become; that lines the streets which automobile traffic has made all the more treacherous; and that is cut from the island’s earth and sent away, leaving profound hollows throughout the system in place of mountains.
The sense of place is very strong throughout Gloucesterbook. Characters make various pilgrimages through Dogtown’s maze, and a geographical knowledge of the real Gloucester allows the reader to appreciate the integrity of Bayliss’s program: though names have been changed, the map of Dogtown is as faithful to Gloucester as Joyce’s Dublin is to its inspiration.
The winter’s tale of Gloucesterbook ends abruptly at May Day 1961. It was obvious that the novel only laid the groundwork for further development. Upon the publication of the equally weighty Gloucestertide in 1996, Bayliss’s readers learned that the author planned a trilogy of Gloucester novels, which he dubbed the Gloucesterman cycle. Gloucestertide brings the saga up to the summer solstice of 1961, and the projected Gloucestermas will conclude the series.
Gloucestertide expands on the themes of the first novel. Expertly Bayliss delineates the personal and political geometries in the Dogtown system. Spring reawakens the organic element of the city, and all sorts of lusts along with it. The travels of the characters take them outside downtown’s paved streets and into the far reaches of Cape Gloucester, including the wilds of the primeval forest. The concept of the city-stage is made explicit as Caleb’s Gilgamesh play appears, intertwined throughout and offering curious correlations to the Dogtown narrative.
The strands of the Gloucesterman themes have also begun to intertwine, creating a web that can easily ensnare a committed reader. Sexual trysts in a cemetery and a basement chapel fuse the spiritual and physical, the granite with the flesh. A fire at a machine shop is a reminder of the ineluctability of entropy despite human endeavor. The local theater troupe plans a Rock Dance for the summer celebration Gloucestermas, emphasizing the meaningful human activity that may take place on the inert stone of the island. The novel leaves Caleb tantalizingly close to solving the puzzles that have occupied him throughout the saga, paving the way for the Gloucestermas installment, which Bayliss’s loyal readers are still anticipating.
In 1999, Bayliss finally published Prologos. Literally decades in the making, the novel is an explosion of creativity and originality. This thousand-page literary landmark contains Bayliss’s most ravishing prose poetry, the most comprehensive coverage of his major themes, and the most personal statements he’s likely to make. Unlike the other novels of the Gloucesterman series (to which it belongs, albeit in a more distant orbit), Prologos combines fiction and essays; features innovations such as parallel texts and copious headnotes and footnotes; and uses the conventional names for places rather than their mythic disguises. We find Caleb Karcist in college in California before his return to Gloucester, attached to the father-figure of Michael Chapman. Throughout the Gloucester novels, Chapman had been a remote but significant presence: a Gloucester native relocated to California, he watched and perhaps influenced events in the Dogtown system from afar. Chapman dominates Prologos in descriptions of his home, his family, his job, his routines, and his intellectual obsessions. Even by Bayliss’s standards, this novel is mind-boggling.
Prologos, then, brings us to Caleb’s eastward return, five years before he and Ibi-Roi first walk among the gravestones in Gloucesterbook. The other end of the saga is still open, waiting for the publication of the Gloucestermas episode. I hope that by the time he releases the final novel, Bayliss will have many more readers dedicated to his work.
Novels by Jonathan Bayliss:
Protean Press. 1992
Protean Press. 1996
Basilicum Press. 1999
© Stephen Farrell, June 2006