Centuries of June : A Novel

  • By Keith Donohue
  • Crown
  • 352 pp.

A stylistically clever literary romp through the mind of a dying man.

What images pass before us at the moment of death? Are they merely a chronological remembrance of things past? Or might we encounter, as Keith Donohue’s ambitious Centuries of June suggests, a witty, dangerous fantasia built from our favorite movies, books, music, art and the women we have wronged in former incarnations?

At 4:52 a.m., on a night in June, we encounter the narrator, an architect named Jack, face down on the bathroom floor and bleeding from the head (“That will be murder to clean.”). Time stops as Jack is visited by a charming, mysterious old man variously mistaken to be Jack’s late father or Samuel Beckett. With his head wound mysteriously healed, Jack explores the rest of his house, only to discover eight nude women in his bed, splayed in the erotic lassitude of Gustav Klimt’s “The Virgin.”

As Jack struggles to tell the old man in the bathroom how the women got there, they enter, one after the other, interrupting him with stories of their own. Each of the women’s stories is set in a different epoch of American history and carries a title that reads like a Stieg Larsson novel.

“The Woman Who Married a Bear” concerns a young Tlingit woman whose ursine abductor sacrifices himself upon learning she wants to return to her family. In “The Woman Who Swallowed a Whale,” a girl posing as a cabin boy on a wrecked ship that was bound for the colony of Virginia is murdered in a jealous dispute over ambergris. “The Woman Who Swung With the Devil” examines the accusation and execution of Alice Putnam during the Salem witch trials. “The Woman Who Danced the Vaudoux” is about a slave in antebellum New Orleans, seeking revenge on her master. And onward we travel through time — from the California gold rush to Pittsburgh baseball in the early 20th century to adulterous New York in the 1950s — as every woman delivers her story in the vernacular of her era, and implicates Jack as the cause of her tragedy.

The atmosphere grows chaotic as the bathroom fills with storytellers. Upon the entry of Harpo, Jack’s cat, the women disappear along with the old man, and Jack is treated to one final story, that of his most recent love, before moving to his next adventure.

Donohue is a versatile stylist. At its best, Centuries of June reads like an American variation on the “Oxen of the Sun” episode in Ulysses. The evolution (or devolution, depending on your point of view) of the American tongue is palpably illustrated with each passing generation — though I doubt a Fremont Republican of the 1860s would use the term “War of Northern Aggression.”

Still, Donohue paints from an impressive referential palette, mixing his colors from such diverse sources as Emily Dickinson, The Poetics of Space, Laurel and Hardy, “The Ramayana” and “Die Fledermaus.” It is less a novel he has written than a story cycle bookended by a whirlwind of literary and artistic jokes, like The Decameron set in the stateroom of “A Night at the Opera.” Particularly clever is his description of a silent film montage depicting the lives of a kindergarten class, which closely mirrors the final moments of Buster Keaton’s “College.”

Although the stories that the women tell are effective, the chapters Donohue has placed between the stories are not. Structurally, they are interchangeable: Jack leaves the bathroom to visit another part of the house, recalls a quote from Bachelard, checks on the women remaining in the bedroom, returns to the bathroom to tell the old man something and manages to avoid injury as the next woman arrives, bent on revenge. Though clever, these scenes are neither amusing enough nor emotionally vital enough for us to ignore their lack of forward motion.

Donohue tries to justify the lack of drama in these chapters through intermittent references to “Waiting for Godot.” It doesn’t quite work because we don’t know what Jack awaits in that bathroom, or why we should care. Jack is not the Gatsby of this book, he’s the Nick Carraway, an observer, a cipher. When he wanders through his home, we learn little about him beyond the everyday: He had a girlfriend and a cat; he bought the house with his brother, and he’s an architect who never built anything.

Donohue’s point, it seems, is that Jack is less venturesome and consequential now than he was in his past lives. He did not take full advantage of the life he was given, but as the Bible verse that corresponds to Jack’s name and time (John 4:52) implies, this is the hour he will begin to amend. Unfortunately, this conflict blossoms too slowly to engage. While the final chapter clarifies Jack’s story in a tender and meaningful way, it is a long journey that is not as compelling as the tales told by the women.

Overall, Centuries of June is a smart juggling act of artistic influences and stylistic virtuosity, and each routine, or story, within the act is entertaining. Although the patter between the routines may disappoint, in the end Donohue manages to keep most of the balls aloft.

John Morogiello is a playwright-in-residence with the Maryland State Arts Council. His play “Engaging Shaw” will be produced at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre in August and at Vienna’s English Theatre in Austria next year.

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