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Thoreau Lovell

   Fiction, Poetry & Pet Projects

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Marco Polo Mother & Son

My new novel, Marco Polo Mother & Son is now available from Wet Cement Press. I began writing this book when my mother got sick for the last time in 2015. In its earliest incarnations it was a collection of odd fables that referenced my mother’s life and death indirectly, if that. Then it became a creative memoir that grasped rather too tightly the facts of her life as well as mine. Now it’s a “novel” about a deceased mother and her grieving son playing a game of Marco Polo with words as they pursue each other through a universe of memory and fantasy, truth-making and truth telling. Working on this book, I have keenly felt the two dangers that Peter Handke writes about in his essay, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, written after his mother's death: "the danger of merely telling what happened and the danger of a human individual becoming painlessly submerged in poetic sentences.” Eight incarnations later, It feels like some kind of balance has been found.

If you order from my website, you'll get a hardcover edition for the same price as the paperback costs online!

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$18 / Hardcover 

232 pages / 8”x 5”

ISBN: 979-8-9883840-1-4  

Pub date: 4/15/24

Cover image by Basil King

Hardcover edition only available

through this site and at in-person events

Praise & Reviews

—Kirkus Reviews

The book is dedicated to the author’s mother, Georgiana Helen Mary Allen Lovell Frame. Lest there be any doubt, she alone among the characters keeps her real name, Georgiana. Lovell becomes dutiful son “George,” to whom Georgiana speaks from the grave. After his mom’s death, he becomes obsessed with his grieving—or, more to the point, with his failure to do so. Is there life after death? Is Georgiana in the bardo, trying to contact him? How can he get through to her, to give her peace? A moving remembrance—every mother should receive such a fitting tribute.

Independent Book Review, by Lauren Hayataka

Exceptional writing immerses readers in missed opportunities as two lives run parallel but never intersect. Thoreau Lovell’s Marco Polo Mother & Son is a poignant exploration of the intricate relationship between the recently deceased Georgiana and her grieving son George. Through the lens of an imaginative game of Marco Polo with words, Lovell expertly shifts between the stories of two captivating central characters. Set against the backdrop of various locations across the United States and abandoned dreams, the novel skillfully straddles the line between fiction and memoir, inviting readers into a space where memories, grief, and familial bonds intertwine. On the surface, Georgiana and George appear as different as chalk and cheese and have a distant relationship. Georgiana is a realist—pragmatic, proud, and private— who acknowledges that she is dying from congestive heart failure. Georgiana’s dream is to pass peacefully away in her sleep in her home in Fresno. In contrast, George is a dreamer whose mind is perpetually occupied with thoughts of abandoning his partner Paula and their daughter Lily to focus on his writing. The one that understands George the most is the one that he thinks understands him the least: his mother. Lovell crafts a masterful portrayal of an intimate yet distant relationship between mother and son, one filled with unspoken words and unshared memories. Georgiana and George resemble trains on parallel tracks, journeying together yet never intersecting, despite the reader’s yearning for their connection. This is not a novel for those seeking an escape from their thoughts and emotions. It is a narrative steeped in pain, grief, and loneliness, heightened by Lovell's exceptional prose. Amidst the unrelenting sorrow, Lovell provides readers with brief respites, painting scenes with whimsical details like “pairs of hummingbirds dancing over Willy's fingers as he sat writing in the yard as if they were signaling to him which keys to press on the typewriter.” Other moments are filled with a quiet grace and tenderness, such as George’s observation that he “loved (his) mother’s small kitchen made infinitely larger by being stuffed full of things that couldn’t possibly fit together in the same space and time.” Yet, these moments are fleeting, drawing readers back into the characters' enduring anguish—a journey willingly endured. Lovell's narrative refuses to release its grip even after the final page is turned. His exploration of grief is raw, realistic, and simultaneously ugly, shameful, and beautiful. The portrayal exudes a profound sense of understanding. Every scene and every word serve a purpose, and as the reader experiences the loss alongside George, who surrounds himself with his mother's belongings, the realization dawns that he never truly knew her at all. Only an exceptional writer could immerse readers in such profound pain, leaving them reluctant to accept the conclusion of the story. Lovell's novel adds layers of authenticity and devastation that are undeniably worth cherishing. In creating Marco Polo Mother & Son, Lovell has crafted something extraordinary.

Cable Street, by Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno

In the mid-70s I devoured Peter Handke’s memoir A Sorrow Beyond Dreams in which he attempted to understand himself by understanding his recently departed mother. I remember being very moved and disturbed at the time by Handke’s long essay but it receded as a thousand or more other books entered my consciousness over the years. And then, suddenly, last week came Thoreau Lovell’s Marco Polo Mother & Son, a truly remarkable novel about a son in search of his mother and a mother in search of her son. Within moments of finishing it, Handke returned forcefully from the land of forgotten books, not just because of the subject, but because Lovell, like Handke, has written a book just as intense, in which the “action” is mostly in the psyche. And what action abounds in Lovell’s deft presentation of the past as it comes spilling into the present, and the present as an evocation and effect of the past. Lovell’s subject is hardly unique—I’m thinking most recently (for me) of Colm Tóibín’s stories—but the way his saying gets said is. The dual protagonists, Georgiana, the mother, and George, the son, are given not just equal treatment but equal voices. Georgiana, though dead, narrates alternating chapters with her son. The effect is that of immediacy, due to the first-person narration. Accordingly, we are able, first hand, to see and feel and experience their individual stories while also becoming involved in their respective lives which are totally entangled with one another. Despite each narrative having its own specific focus, each character develops the other so that we have a continual bifurcated point of view. What the characters relate in their individual chapters, however, is quite different. Georgiana tells snippets of her life story; George’s narrative is largely concerned with the final days of his mother, her death, and his attempt to understand his conflicted feelings. While the style of telling is fiction, the book is clearly autobiographical. Lovell even includes grainy black and white family photos in each new chapter heading. The fruit of all this fictionalized lived experience is, of course, the novel itself, which is/was a way for the author to work through his own grief and actions before and after his own mother’s death. As his mother sickens and then succumbs, [George] becomes obsessed with what he could have done better to keep her alive. “She died two days before her 84th birthday,” George tells his friend. He then reflects: “…I realize I’ve been repeating that phrase two days before her 84th birthday to anyone who asked. To make it clear that she had lived a long life. And that I had provided in every possible way for her care. And that I had not subtracted a single day from her life through neglect or selfishness.” While George’s chapters mostly look inward, Georgiana seems eager to sketch her life from early adulthood onward. She devotes much attention to her 20s, maybe, because as she tells us, “The older I got the unhappier I became with what I remembered.” What we do learn from Georgiana is that she was originally from Detroit but moved first to San Antonio and then, at the behest of her Uncle Bill, to Pasadena. She chronicles bits and pieces of her life in coastal California, including meeting Whitey, the man who will become George’s father. We quickly learn—but only from Georgianna, not George—that Whitey is an ex-con and a hustler and a writer. Or as she tells George from beyond the grave: “He was a good man and a good dad and a good writer but he was a terrible husband-writer-dad. He couldn’t do it all. Not even close.” [In the beginning of the book, the mother writes: ] “Now I wonder whether I even have a mind for memories to appear in. No mind, no body, no time, but there is something like awareness. I'm aware that I'm here and not there. I'm aware that my son George is wandering through his memories trying to create something like a memorial for me. I’d like to help him, but he seems to enjoy doing it all by himself. Overdoing it, is more like it. He’s trying to write a requiem when a simple pop song would do the trick. More power to him! Whatever that old saying means. Dwelling on the meaning of words spirals me away from any sense of George or anyone else I ever knew. So, I step lightly, mindful that remembering is like putting on a play or projecting a movie into a dark room.” In the final chapter George narrates, he tells us this while looking out at the Pacific: “Out of habit, I looked for my mother. I didn’t really expect to see her, or hear her, or sense her. But for some reason I kept looking. Maybe, I decided, it was finally time for me to accept my little slice of reality for what it was. Severely limited to the here and now. Locked in its three-dimensional predictability. A narrow tunnel burrowing straight through time without any mystical funny business….No matter what happens with this book, I realized walking back to my car, it will always be a poor substitute for the tree I didn’t plant, the memorial I didn’t give, the obituary I didn’t write.” This is George talking, not Thoreau Lovell. The tree, the memorial, the obituary is Marco Polo Mother & Son.

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Excerpts [mother & son]

Chapter One
Hope Got the Better of Me

The older I got the unhappier I became with what I remembered. Why was this little something lodged in my mind while so many more important things vanished entirely or seemed no more than a dim outline against an opaque sky?

     Now I wonder whether I even have a mind for memories to appear in. No mind, no body, no time, but there is something like awareness. I’m aware that I’m here and not there. I’m aware that my son George is wandering through his memories trying to create something like a memorial for me.

     I’d like to help him, but he seems to enjoy doing it all by himself. Overdoing it, is more like it. He’s trying to write a requiem when a simple pop song would do the trick. More power to him! Whatever that old saying means.

     Dwelling on the meaning of words spirals me away from any sense of George or anyone else I ever knew.

So, I step lightly, mindful that remembering is like putting on a play or projecting a movie into a dark room.

There I am sitting at my kitchen table nibbling on a piece of toast, enjoying the hour or so of sunlight that shines through the dining room window in the morning. George is stirring in the spare bedroom. In a few minutes he’ll say hello on his way to the bathroom. Disheveled in his wrinkled mismatched pajamas with his thin hair sticking out at odd angles.

     George had arrived late the previous night, wearing old blue jeans and a baggy gray sweater with a ratty hood that drooped and clung to his body with no rhyme or reason. He said he left work as soon as he could, but some computer glitch kept him at the library late.

     I wonder how he gets away with looking like that at work. How come nobody tells him he’s too old to dress like a college student? On the other hand, what’s the big deal? Why should I care if my son never learned how to dress like an adult.

     By the time George gets out of the bathroom, I have already read the Fresno Bee front to back. Once again, I’m offended by the vapid stupidity they pass off as news. I shove the pile of paper toward the center of the table and greet George as he sits down with his coffee. He picks up a section without saying a word.

     Oh, my inscrutable son. You never know your children any better than they know you.

Chapter Two
Saint Agnes

Paula and I live above the semi-industrial flats, with their small, once-affordable homes and dusty, horizontal light, and below the Berkeley Hills, where twisty streets without sidewalks snake past storybook homes costing unimaginable millions.

     Our 100-year-old house sits in a neighborhood of otherworldly gardens and tree-lined streets. The first time we saw it we knew it was perfect. Or could be. There was an office and work room for Paula. Lily’s bedroom had a converted sunporch playroom. Our bedroom was large with windows on two sides and a door that led to a second converted porch that could be my office.

     But of course, we would have to add a second bathroom and a deck and remodel the kitchen and remodel the upstairs bathroom and turn the bare-dirt yard into a lush garden. And, before any of that, we would have to burn sage and chant prayers in every room, to dispel the lingering sickness, mental decay, and overall feeling of grief left behind by the previous owners.

     Only then could we crack open the paint and get to work obliterating every inch of white and off-white and beige that reminded us of their sad, dissipated, lives. We painted the living room mustard yellow. The dining room mossy green. Paula’s office tangerine. The entryway and stairway blood orange. Our bedroom lemon yellow. And Lily’s room turquoise.

     Our aesthetic was old-world hippie chic. We paired boomer tchotchkes with family heirlooms. A huge macramé wheel, with an antique butter churn; a Polish theater poster with a 19th century cherry wood cabinet; a German witch mask with a knock-off Ames chair.

     Lily was the first one to fully embrace the house. She filled it up with her dolls and magnet tiles, and rolls of white paper, and colored pens, and tubes of paint, and toy animals; and an entire three ring circus that fit inside a suitcase. That three-ring circus became our life. And we did everything from take the tickets to feed the lions.

     Lily was a running, climbing, jumping, spotlight-hog of a two-year-old who thrived in the chaos—while Paula and I floundered, confused and in shock. Remind me again, we dolefully asked each other. Why did we leave San Francisco? And pay all this money for a fixer?

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About Thoreau Lovell

Thoreau Lovell is a contented Bay Area resident and a worried American. In the past he was more of a poet, these days he's more of a fiction writer, but he isn't a typical fiction writer either. His writing is a mishmash of story telling, memoir and poetry. He takes "the progression through digression" approach to storytelling. The "nested boxes" approach. No boasting in that. It's just the way his mind works.  

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