Australian Barry Aitchison was a loyal member of the Internet Writing Workshop. His wit and humor kept us on our toes, challenged and entertained, sometimes offended, never bored. He’s the first workshop member I know of to just…die…on us. A long silence is not unusual for a writer, but one devoted member did some research and learned he had died.
I had bought his one *published* novel and reviewed it while he was alive, and I’m glad I took the time to do that. He (and many other authors) seemed surprised and pleased that a reader really “got it” — read his book, laughed, and grasped the spirit in which it was intended.
In memory of Barry, I’ll repeat my review here. Later, I’ll try to resurrect some quotes of his from old emails, trusting it’s legal to share his wit with the world.
SYNOPSOS: One Sunday evening, the town of Parcival, USA disappeared. It was Tuesday morning before anyone in the outside world noticed it was gone. There was something decidedly odd about Quentin C. Coriander. For one thing, no one in Parcival could ever remember seeing him arrive. One day the house was empty, bare as winter trees. Next, there was Quentin on the porch, reading the Parcival Post or doing the crossword. From then on it was usual for townsfolk to nod at Quentin as they passed and to receive a cursory nod in return. It never evolved beyond that. Quentin never encourage conversation. No one in Parcival much bothered to keep an eye on Quentin. What they didn’t know was that he always had his eye on them… Miss Alice Merriwether’s Long Lost Cakes is a transdimensional science-fiction satire that riffs on 1950s B-movies, Midwestern stereotypes, and small-town America. Cover design: Elspeth Fahey.
Okay, we haven’t regained Douglas Adams, but Barry Aitchison’s wit, humor and insight remind us that lights still shine in the world of books. In addition to helping us laugh at ourselves, Aitchison celebrates something I particularly like about humans — our ability to adapt and survive.
“Miss Alice Merriwether’s Long Lost Cakes” made me read passages aloud, laughing, to whoever would listen. The back cover sold me: One Sunday evening a town went missing, and it was Tuesday morning before anyone actually noticed it was gone. I loved reading how the townsfolk reacted to their plight–it’s as funny as the back cover promised.
But there’s more to the story than satire and humor. I admired these “hicks” for their enterprising and stoic spirit. How the people pull together, organize and plan for the future is a great story by itself. Above all, it’s a testament to the American frontier spirit. In the face of unthinkable events, the people waste no time on existential thoughts about their fate; they forge ahead. They argue, but they always *act.* Say what you will about American insularity or our relentless optimism, but this reader was rooting for Parcival.
I love every character in the book. I especially love/hate Miss Alice, the title character. Barry, thank you for including her recipes to tantalize the reader. I had to applaud Alice for thinking her culinary genius is as much a gift to humanity as art, music and literature. She may be delusional, but her cakes have a power to entice that she herself lacks. Her efforts with eligible bachelors are hilarious, but the havoc she can create with cake is almost the motive force of the plot. Her cake baking may not cause to Parcival to fall right off the map, but when the town stranger and the sheriff realize they cannot both be recipients of Miss Alice’s cakes, I laughed until the thought “men are really like this” came to mind.
Okay, my dad “really is like that,” but not my husband, because we Midwesterners are not all “like that.” Admittedly, I saw my dad all over Parcival, much as I wanted to insist that we Midwesterners are not as unthinking as Aitchison might portray us. E.g., before I could protest the line “Mensa doesn’t trawl too hard for members in small Midwest towns,” I counted far more people in the poke at our insularity: “After all, what is the point of knowing that the world is round and that Europe is not just another state of the USA? What good does it do knowing that there are cultures around the world that can compete with the Midwest intellectually? Midwesterners are nothing if not practical.”
While such comments are obvious exaggerations for the sake of humor, there’s truth in them. Go ahead. Laugh.
I love “The Small Town Musings of Russel Cowes” and the reasons he offers for the “permanently stunned look” that causes Midwesterners to appear stupid. Settlers of the Great Plains “endured the worst weather nature can whip up,” such as the blizzard of 1888 (true story, lurid details), 40-below-zero winters, hot, arid summers, prairie fires, grasshopper plagues, dust storms, floods and tornadoes. “Wouldn’t all that be enough to make your face look like you were expecting the next disaster to come along any minute?” Other writers have lauded the hardiness and stoicism of Midwesterners who descended from this stock, and here, I think, Aitchison’s humor affirms rather than demeans.
Narrated from multiple viewpoints, this story evokes the humanity of Stephen King’s “The Stand,” while the adroit, satiric wit brings to mind Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” It stands alone as a marvelous debut novel. Each character is so memorable, I never struggled to keep track of who’s who. The teenagers are so funny, and Karen (Karen! Karen! Karen!) would make a fine “founding father” (well, mother) of a new town. Let’s just hope Miss Alice never runs out of cake flour.
- Paperback: 228 pages
- Publisher: Velluminous Press (May 15, 2006)
- Miss Alice Merriwether’s Long Lost Cakes & Further Arcane Inducements to Wonders http://www.amazon.com/dp/1905605056/ref=cm_sw_r_tw_dp_nsektb16VFY5Z4DK