Monthly Archives: April 2009

John Dufresne’s “Requiem, Mass.”

John Dufresne’s latest novel is hard to classify. In an age of genre fiction, a time when a novel pretty much has to be a romance or a thriller or a something even more specialized, like a police procedural, Dufresne’s Requiem, Mass . – like Dufresne’s earlier work – is simply an original. It is a sparkling blend of fine writing, brilliant story-telling, and dazzling insights into the human heart.

Dufresne fields a question at NPC Authors & Books Festival, April 2009.

Dufresne fields a question at NPC Authors & Books Festival, April 2009.

Set primarily in a large town in central Massachusetts, this novel explores the varying capacities for self-knowledge and relationship among the members of a highly dysfunctional family. The novel’s narrator, the grown up version of its central character – Johnny -is a writer struggling to find the thread of his next book, as well as the momentum to push it forward. He seizes upon something based on his own life (we’ll never know the exact proportions of memory and invention), and stumbles along . The narrative takes us from the time of “his” mother’s mental breakdown (not the first, but perhaps the most memorable) into Johnny’s early teen years in abundant detail, tracing only briefly the adult decades that bring him to his writing life in South Florida and to the current project.

Though it is true, as many reviewers have agreed, that the book is often hilarious and witty, for this reader the dominant notes have to do with sadness, loneliness, and yearning. Dufresne describes a family in which children are neglected and even brutalized by ineffectual parents and a strict parochial school in which there are far more sticks than carrots. The mother, Frances, is lost in a world of paranoia. She believes that her children are often replaced by imposters from outer space, and she treats Johnny and his sister Audrey as threats rather than as desired responsibilities. She is simultaneously a cruel predicament and an absence, as she regularly withdraws into her fantasies or her medication. Her husband, a long distance truck driver always on the run from the madness he’d otherwise have to face on a daily basis, is revealed to be a man who has secretly fostered other families and built a world of lies. He is even more of an absence than the mother, and there is little to choose between his lies and her fantasies.

A large cast of quirky neighbors, family friends, and relatives populates Requiem and its surroundings, people who are often a solace to Johnny, even though each has his or her own measure of oddness.

Dufresne’s sympathy for his grotesques is conveyed in a style that makes sadness shimmer with promise, despair glimmer with hope, and yearning glow under the ashes of strained half-measures – incomplete gestures of recognition and concern. The author makes us feel at home in the absurd; eccentricities of character and social situation never seem beyond the realm of possibility. Human connection is everywhere longed for, feared, thwarted, and cautiously pursued.

Requiem, Mass. is also a novel of time and place. Dufresne guides us with a sure hand through the look and feel of working class America from the late sixties through the following decades. His landscapes and city-scapes are seasoned with brand names, song lyrics, and the detritus of popular culture that is so all-encompassing and so bitterly comforting.

For writers, the passages that treat the near present, the time of the book’s composition, are of special interest. Though his art mystifies, Dufresne’s portrait of his Johnny the Writer adult character is gorgeously demystifying.  No one puts this artist on a pedestal, and certainly not the writer himself. The brilliant juxtaposition of what’s going on in his daily life as he pushes this novel forward, and what is going on in the re-imagined past, is a remarkable bonus.


In this novel, Dufresne’s story-telling defies strict chronology. It’s not just the late point of attack – essentially beginning with the decision to write the book. It’s the regular interface between distant past (itself not always lined up chronologically) and ongoing present. But it’s more than this. Though he might not agree, for me Dufresne’s book validates my own favorite notion of plot – it’s not ordering what happens to the character(s) – it’s ordering what happens to the reader. And plenty happens.

Requiem, Mass.  is a must journey for writers who read, for readers who write, and for all who love language and story-telling.


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Conspiracy Novel Set in Naples

Sometimes it takes a while. This review eventually appeared in print in the November 12-18, 2009 issue of the Naples Florida Weekly. Click here: Florida Weekly – Donald Robert Wilson

 Naples resident Donald Robert Wilson has fashioned a richly detailed political thriller set in and around Washington, D.C. as well as in Naples. The plot involves a conspiracy among  enormous conglomerates whose leaders have been plotting for twenty years to swallow up smaller companies and eventually merge into one huge economic force that will control and thereby replace elected government. Along the way, these monstrous companies avoid doing business with one another, keeping their relationships undetected as they individually gain influence by takeovers, bribery of officials, and a range of other legal and illegal activities. What began as a mixture of ostensible patriotism (expecting to do a better job of running the country than the government) and obvious greed turns into a series of rivalries and cross-purposes as the plot advances.

Beware the Barracuda develops by shifting points of view.  Sometimes we follow the adventures of Sophie Woznicki, the attractive and resourceful aide to Senator Hamilton, as she works on his behalf to investigate rumors and gather evidence of such a conspiracy. One person has already been killed after publishing an article about how “unscrupulous business leaders” could “usurp economic control of the country.” Sophie’s initial task is to persuade academic turned business executive Dr. Brad James of the plot, and then to enlist his help in thwarting it. Sophie is the closest thing to the novel’s main character, but there are times when she is off-stage too long, and when she is, the novel flags a bit.

Scenes without Sophie dramatize the complex conspiracy that she is striving to unravel. We meet the principal schemers – the leaders of the five conglomerates – and witness their advancing plot. We are flies on the wall during their secret meetings and growing mutual distrust, and we are also privy to conversations between those members of the group who had not expected to be involved in criminal activities to further their goals and who now need ways of controlling their less scrupulous colleagues. Wilson has challenged himself with the need to build a large cast of significant characters through which to tell his story, not only the “big five,” but underlings, hirelings, and family members. On occasion, the novel seems overstuffed with characters – and dialogue – and short on action. But there is always an effective balance of what is revealed and what is withheld to keep readers engaged and turning pages.

The key questions that promote suspense have to do with the genuine threat of the conspiracy, its potential implosion in rivalry and discord, and the intensifying threats to Sophie as she begins to penetrate the conspirators’ secrets. And there are romantic elements as well, as Sophie and Dr. James fall under one another’s spell. And there is just enough (and not too much) violence.

Southwest Floridians will particularly enjoy Wilson’s sure-handed use of familiar places. We find ourselves driving along Alligator Alley, visiting a character’s Pelican Bay penthouse office, entering a home  in Port Royal, eavesdropping on a meeting just across from city hall on the east side of Cambier Park, and observing a secret rendezvous in Loudermilk Park. The plot makes Naples a central location, as many of the fictional business titans keep residences in this slice of Paradise.  Wilson is equally adept at handling his other settings, particularly the Nation’s Capitol, its neighborhoods, and its suburban surroundings.

When I read Wilson’s first novel, The Bucket Flower, a few years back, I marveled at his convincing portrayal of a young woman as his central figure and controlling consciousness.  He does it again in Beware the Barracuda. I would love to encounter Sophie Woznicki again in a follow-up novel.

author Donald Robert Wilson


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Pelican Daze

 Pelecanus Occidentalis

             Singly or in squadrons, the soaring pelicans are majestic riders of the air. They are graceful, confident, purposeful. Their wings don’t beat, but rather wave in spare, sinuous rhythms: flap, flap g-l-i-d-e. In these long, long glides they follow their own momentum and the invisible currents. At the distance of flight, they seem regally comfortable. One can be dazed by the perfection of pelicans crossing the sky. Along the coastal waters of California, the Gulf of Mexico, and the southern Atlantic seaboard, they transit with dignity and grace.

            There is assurance, too, and efficiency, in the sharp plummet of the pelican diving for food. Aggressive, uncannily accurate, transformed into a feathered spear, the pelican strikes what it detects with the precision of a guided missile – or perhaps with even greater precision. When it holds up its catch and begins that swallowing act, there is a hint of something ungainly. But we all know it’s hard to look good while eating.


            The pelican afloat on the water or perched on a piling, or especially the pelican waddling across a pier – now that’s another matter. Clumsy and oafish, slow and vulnerable, the grounded pelican is a half-pitiable, half-frightening misfit. Its distant beauty of airborn motion has peeled away, exposing an ugly, tottering derelict too close to ignore. Like an in-your-face begging wino or half-crazed bag lady, the pelican aground is an embarrassment. It becomes a depraved, nightmarish version of its true self.

            So there are two versions of the pelican, at odds with one another and irreconcilable. It is a striking emblem of the two-foldedness of things in human

experience: the Jekyll and Hyde, the frog-prince, the face in the mirror that often seems to have little to do with who we really are.

            Though they have been around for a long time, some forty million years (yes, they do look a bit prehistoric), pelicans have a lot in common with humans in the age of gender equality.  Both parents incubate the eggs and feed the young, who leave their nests at between 5 and 9 weeks old. They fly (which is their equivalent of driving off to college) at between 9 and 12 weeks. Adults continue, however, to feed the young for some time after they leave the colony. Sound familiar? Their nests are built, in trees or on the ground, by the females, though the materials are gathered by the males.

            Like many retirees, pelicans prefer to nest on coastal islands, where they often create large colonies. While the young nestlings squeal a lot, the mature pelican is usually silent, although he (or she) occasionally emits a low croaking sound. This behavior is very much like older couples of the human species. To cool his body, a pelican will flap his pouch and pant like a dog. I haven’t observed this behavior in humans; the closest to it was my Aunt Minna’s habit of fanning herself with her checkbook. Human panting usually results from another kind of heat. When pelicans quiver, it’s not from sexual excitement, but rather to assist food digestion. Pelicans usually stay within a twenty-five mile area. Unless, of course, they hear of a great cruise bargain. A lot of quivering occurs after the midnight buffet.

            90% of all pelicans that share living space with humans end up entangled in fishing lines, while 90% of all humans who share space with other humans end up entangled with divorce proceedings and will contestations, as well as fishing lines.


PELICAN FACTS (from internet sources)

1. Pelicans have been on earth for forty million years.

2. Pelicans nest in colonies, usually in trees, sometimes on the ground. Nesting colonies are found on coastal islands.

3. They live up to 30 years.

4. The greatest hazard to the pelican is fishing line.

5. Pelicans quiver to assist in the metabolic process of food digestion.

6. Almost extinct in the early 1970s, pelicans have mad a comeback as a result of successful conservationist efforts to halt the use of DDT and other pesticides (which caused eggshell thinning and failure of breeding.

7. Both parents incubate the eggs and feed the young, who leave their nests at between 5 and 9 weeks old. They fly at between 9 and 12 weeks. Adults continue to feed young for some time after they leave colony. 1 brood per year.

8.  While nestlings squeal, adults are silent (rarely, a low croak).

9.  To cool his body, a pelican will flap his pouch and pant like a dog.

10. Pelicans stay within a 25 mile area most of the time.

11. Nests are built by females with materials gathered by males.

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