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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Mortal Leap

MacDonald Harris

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To purchase Mortal Leap

Title: Mortal Leap
Author: MacDonald Harris
Genre: Novel
Written: 1964
Length: 355 pages
Availability: Mortal Leap - US
Mortal Leap - UK
Mortal Leap - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • With an Introduction by Jonathan Coe
  • With an Afterword by Steven G. Kellman

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Our Assessment:

B+ : solid, serious fiction

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 14/6/1964 Elizabeth Janeway
TLS . 3/5/2024 David Collard

  From the Reviews:
  • "MacDonald Harris, a good writer, has written an almost-good book. (...) For the life of me I wouldn't argue with Mr. Harris's writing skill, good eye, sharp ear. Nor would I argue with his basic premise that a man can change, can choose good over evil, can find his way out of a stagnant jungle and into fertile and responsive connection with his fellows. If this is a myth, it is one that we haven't seen through yet. But I do argue with his short-circuiting of the exploration of such changes by falling back on the matrix patterns that have got loose in present-day thinking and writing. Clunk ! they go, whenever they come in, clinching Mr. Harris's plot and constraining the action of his characters." - Elizabeth Janeway, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Far more than a neglected curiosity, Mortal Leap is an impressively original, adventurous novel of ideas and, as Coe says in his introduction, "a masterpiece of existential writing"." - David Collard, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In Mortal Leap the narrator tells his life story, beginning with his childhood in a little Utah town. He reflects right at the beginning on his past and who he has become -- noting that he still can't answer the most basic of questions: "who am I ?" Identity already troubled him in his youth, as he didn't fit in with his Mormon family; a fish out of water, he fled as soon as he could, heading to Oakland and, as soon as he hit eighteen, took out his seaman's papers and spent the next five years on ships, first as: "wiper and oiler and later as third engineer".
       He finds a mentor of sorts in fellow seaman Victor -- an "authentic stoic", through and through, and one who dishes out some hard lessons along the way as well (and nicely summed up as: "In his way he was quite a philosopher. Once I told him he should read Schopenhauer and he said, 'I don't read Yiddish.'").
       The narrator also learns quickly from experience:

I had found out everything I was taught up to the age of seventeen was false, so I decided that nothing was true, or at least it wasn't worth arguing whether anything was true or not.
       It's a philosophy he can and does live by -- though it leaves him unmoored.
       He does escape in books, both in his youth and then at sea -- where spending your free time reading was considered: "about as queer as you could get". Just how meaningful literature could be, and how seriously he took it, is already made clear in the early episode where his devout father catches him reading late at night. He's reading Joseph Conrad's The Secret Sharer under the blankets, but rather than having his father see that: "I stuffed the Conrad under the covers and pulled from the nightstand one of the girlie magazines from Mr.Feigel's drugstores". Better to be caught red-handed with Nifty Pics than literature .....
       It's hanging around with Victor that also leads to the next station in his life -- about which he is, still and again, philosophical, finding himself in a situation where:
You don't have to make any pretenses or feel emotion, and you know what to count on. There are no surprises and no decisions, and nothing from the outside can touch you.
       So it goes for him, first at sea, and then for a while on land -- and then Victor gets him a spot on a rickety ship, which is where he experiences the Second World War. The life is one of routine, and he sees:
It would go on this way and I didn't know how to change it. To change you have to hae a new point to start from, and I didn't know how to find this or what it would be.
       The point finds him, offering a dramatic rebirth -- first in the moment, when: "I no longer had any idea whether I was dead or alive, underwater or in the air. My hands pulsing, I sank naked through the blackness" , and then in a long hospital reconvalescence. He leaves everything behind -- "ego, name, identity" -- and starts fresh, not revealing to anyone that he remembers anything of his past. With his fingerprints burned off, he is unidentifiable by the authorities, but eventually they send his picture around to various families of men who were missing in action. A woman, Ariane 'Ary' Davenant, comes to see if he is her husband Ben --and when she easily decides he is, he lets himself slip readily into that role.
       Ary is capable and efficient, breezily accepting his condition and taking command of the situation. 'Ben' goes along with her and it -- wondering about being found out, but finding that no one really questions his identity. He finds himself in a different circle of society, and watches himself, trying to fit in -- reading Evelyn Waugh ("If I was going to be a member of the leisure class I might as well start reading some of their books") and boning up on areas he's ignorant of ("I bought a book on wine and studied it covertly, the way I had read dirty magazines in Spanish Creek"). Ary's family is well-off, but Ben eventually also establishes himself as an entrepreneur; he becomes a new man, fitting ever more comfortably into the role he had assumed and slowly also shaping it to his will. If there was a time when: "I ddn't know who I was", he settles into a satisfying identity for himself.
       The past ultimately doesn't come back to haunt him, but does show up as a reminder. It's someone else who observes:
I don't think you have any control over who you are -- it just happens.
       In part, the narrator-turned-Ben's story suggests as much -- but he also makes decisions along the way that do determine outcomes (and identities). Ary's attitude and actions play a significant role in his adjusting to his new identity; she always seems to know what she is doing -- and how to handle him -- and a nice touch at the end is in revealing just how well aware she is what she has been doing.
       It makes for a very solid existentialist exploration, while all the while being a consistently engaging read -- Harris managing to avoid weighing down the work too dryly-philosophically. It's a compelling narrative, not just the basic story and the evolution of the character in it -- a double Bildungsroman, after a fashion --, but also in its details, the gritty part of the life-account, with Harris particularly good on the routines one falls into.
       The new edition of the novel is bookended by an Introduction by Jonathan Coe and an informative Afterword by Steven G. Kellman -- more useful supplementary material than one usually finds.

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 June 2024

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Mortal Leap: Reviews: MacDonald Harris: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       American author MacDonald Harris (actually: Donald Heiney) lived 1921 to 1993.

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© 2024 the complete review

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