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Best, Tom

When Literary Promise Is Not Enough


[clock] 46-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Fall 2014

Illustration by Jen Renninger (Photograph by Margaret Reynolds)

But when you once start to believe in being special, then you have to go ahead and try. They never believed in it. But I do. I am.

—Thomas W. Molyneux, “The Wrath Bearing Tree,” novel excerpt, the Greensboro Review, May 1966

Tom Molyneux was always going to be a writer. When we met as Harvard freshmen in the fall of 1961, we gravitated toward each other as friends, rivals, and fellow hellraisers who shared a literary bent. Neither of us came from money, but we had been sent to private schools that prided themselves on turning out young gentlemen, and we acquired some of the tastes, manners, and expectations of our wealthy classmates. By the time we graduated, we looked like prep-school poster boys. The intention was never to pass for something we weren’t, but to fit in and, of course, to prepare ourselves for the better things that were surely in store for us. And yet there was a kind of deception at work, a guilty uneasiness as we distanced ourselves from our families. Our literary ambitions, I think, arose partly from a desire to set the record straight and to claim an identity that was irrefutably our own. At Harvard, Tom and I lived in the same freshman dorm, joined the same social club, went to many of the same parties and outings, and both poured out our hearts—that is, our troubles—to the same Radcliffe woman, Cinder Stanton. 

Tom could be outrageous. He was ridiculously handsome, blond and blue-eyed, as dashing as some figure who had survived from the Roaring Twenties. To classmates who knew him only at a distance and by reputation, he probably registered as another rich prick, overdressed and hotheaded. On a balmy night only a few weeks into our first semester, Tom threw a party in his first-floor suite in Matthews Hall and the noise drifted out through the big open windows, drawing people from all over Harvard Yard. Before long the party had spilled out into the hallway and down the steps. The proctor, a small man who’d already had run-ins with Tom, came down to put a lid on it. He made the mistake of standing too close to one of the windows. Tom did not like being disciplined, and soon the proctor went sailing out the window.

That incident made Tom notorious and got him suspended. It wasn’t the only time that he was in trouble. In the fall of 1963, he was arrested after a Long Island debutante party got out of hand and the partygoers smashed nearly every window in a rented thirty-room house, an incident that made the New York Times under the headline, “Parents of L. I. Debutante Urge That Mansion Vandals Be Tried.” Tom was indeed brought to trial, and exonerated, but his standing as a wild man was now beyond dispute. One of my lasting memories of Tom isn’t even a memory of my own, but of Cinder’s: One night they were hurrying along a Cambridge street to get to a party when they reached a corner where a car was stopped at a light. Tom opened the door of the car and slipped into the backseat. He pulled Cinder in after him and gave the startled driver directions to where he wanted to go. He liked to make the memorable, bravura gesture. 

And his clothes—oh lordy, his clothes. No one dressed with more style, more panache. Back then the uniform was coat and tie, and my first college purchase, paid for with earnings from a summer in the oil fields, was a suit of worsted cheviot, light olive in color, with a soft luster and faint herringbone pattern. I thought I looked pretty swell in it until I stood beside Tom. His taste ran to shirts with bold stripes and white collars, houndstooth jackets with subtle overplaids and staghorn buttons, tassel loafers buffed to a soft sheen. His clothes had to cost a fortune, but he once had worked at a fancy men’s store and for a long time after he continued to get things at discount. Though he was of average height, he was fit and broad-shouldered and had a lean build that showed his threads to advantage. With his blond hair and the blue eyes and the rosy cheeks, he looked as if he might have been drawn with a child’s crayons, but the impression he made was never soft or weak. He always seemed a little dangerous. To describe him as he described a character in one of his stories, he was “all hard lined and shadowed and romantic.” 

We were the same age, but I always felt that Tom was older, somewhere out ahead of me, moving along a faster track. This was especially true when it came to writing. Within Tom’s nature, the fearsome party animal was paired with the serious writer who was already reading widely in current fiction and sending stories out to magazines like the New Yorker and the Atlantic. At Harvard in those days there weren’t many courses in creative writing, but Tom was admitted to a class taught by an eminent visitor, Peter Taylor. Until Tom told me about him, I hadn’t heard of Peter, hadn’t read any of his work, and certainly didn’t know that he was regarded as a master of the short story. The only writing class I took was from the grandfatherly professor who taught the beginners. I wasn’t yet prepared to stake my future on being a writer, though I did write a novel in that class, a drunk-daddy novel that was hopelessly autobiographical. 

After graduation, Tom and I headed off in different directions. By then, we were both married, a sign perhaps that we were aware of flaws in our steering mechanism. In 1965, with his wife Aldy, Tom went south and enrolled in the brand-new graduate writing program at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, where Peter was on the faculty. I married Cinder, got drafted, and spent a couple of years at a NATO headquarters near Heidelberg, Germany. In the comfort of an office that had once served the army of the Third Reich, I would read the Army Times, scanning the weekly list of those killed in Vietnam for the names of men I had gone to basic training with. All the while, Tom and I wrote to each other on blue, tissue-thin, red-and-blue-edged aerogrammes. I took his advice and applied to graduate school at the University of Virginia where Peter had just joined the faculty. Once again I was following a trail that Tom had blazed. 

 

2.

No one, I sometimes think, has a clearer knowledge of what he is about than Peter [Taylor]… That knowledge is so subtle and complex and often frightening that it can emerge, I think, only in stories, and of course he knows that. If he can’t say it explicitly and discursively, how presumptuous of me—or any of us—to try. How strange to set out with inferior gifts and less relentless will to say what we understand less fully.

—Molyneux, “Peter,” essay, Shenandoah, Winter 1977

To know Peter Taylor was to be swept up into a world that was brimming with people and stories. The first time I met him, we talked about the Army and the draft, about my tour of duty in Europe and his own military experience, about conscientious objectors like his college roommate Robert Lowell (who had gone to jail during World War II for refusing military service), and about the brilliant Randall Jarrell, who’d been his colleague at Greensboro and who’d said, when he first laid eyes on Tom and Aldy, “Who are those people who look like they stepped right out of The Great Gatsby?” Peter told me that when he read my application, he felt like Ford Madox Ford when he read D. H. Lawrence’s story “Odour of Chrysanthemums” and knew after the first paragraph that he didn’t have to read any further. I barely knew who Ford Madox Ford was, but I left his office walking on air. I’d met a real writer, and he had made me feel like one, too.

He had that effect on the young seekers who turned to him as a mentor, a protector, a father figure. In 1968, Peter was just over fifty and had published four books of stories and one short novel. For years his stories had appeared regularly in the New Yorker or, as he put it, he was “a horse in that stable.” He showed up on lists of best American short-story writers, alongside Eudora Welty and John Cheever. Peter had his pride and his vanities but never acted as if his success set him above anyone else. It simply wasn’t in him to play the Personage. Because he took genuine pleasure in others, he brought out the best in them. Peter wasn’t handsome in any conventional way, but he was a commanding presence in any room he entered. Something—the slanting mouth, the light-blue eyes, the humor lines that radiated out from the corners of his eyes—was always in motion in his face. When he was amused or intrigued, he would tilt his head back slightly and seem to gaze at some far-off horizon, as if recording the moment on a private inner ledger. “Really,” he would say, smiling, pronouncing it rilly, in a voice that was distilled in his native Tennessee.

“Once Peter chose you,” said Lawrence Judson Reynolds, “you were set. You were under the shield of Zeus.” Lawrence had been a graduate student of Peter’s, and a close friend of Tom’s, at Greensboro. In fact, Tom helped Lawrence found the Greensboro Review. Lawrence and I met when we spent a weekend at the Hornet’s Nest, a cabin that Peter owned in the mountains not far from Greensboro. Lawrence and his wife, Margie, had spent several weekends there with Tom and Aldy. Here was yet another benefit of being one of Peter’s favorites—he was forever buying and selling houses, and he encouraged us to use them so that they wouldn’t stand empty. During that year in Charlottesville, I was invited to his parties, introduced to visiting writers and editors, and generally made to feel not like a student but like a friend. 

Almost without my being aware of it, he launched my career. My first story was published in the Sewanee Review because Peter had quietly put in a good word with the editor, and it was Peter who godfathered my first job, at Washington and Lee. He believed that the best place for a young writer was a small college where the work could evolve without the pressures and distractions and influences of a bigger university. That was the same advice he’d given Tom. In fact, my career tracked a course almost exactly parallel to Tom’s, with publications in the same magazines, jobs at small colleges, and before long, fellowships that took us abroad for a year.

And Peter did something else, something more important: He showed us how we might live a life devoted to writing. He showed us how to comport ourselves. Simply by being himself, Peter transmitted the qualities of seriousness, humor, openness, generosity, loyalty to friends, respect for the past, an appetite for every kind of human story, and faith in literature as a way to give form to the muddle of human experience. His kind of writing life was to all appearances stable and respectable, comfortably middle class. He liked to quote the adage of Flaubert: “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois so that you may be violent and original in your work.” His wife, Eleanor, was an accomplished poet, and they had two children; they entertained often in a household where the visitor felt at once that courtesy and decorum would prevail.

It must be added, however, that Peter liked his bourbon and owned a silver flask seemingly as long as his arm. He belonged to the brotherhood of heavy drinkers, though he almost never lost control. Sometimes after a lively evening, he would find that Eleanor had drawn up an itemized list of his misdemeanors. Naturally, Tom and I seized upon such information as we tried to figure out how our mentor succeeded in balancing his family life with the chaotic impulses that he so clearly understood and that were always about to break loose in his stories. We needed to know how he kept the demons under control.

Tom and I tried to model ourselves after Peter. It would never have occurred to us to attempt to write like Peter, who was sometimes described as a “Victorian realist” and whose stories evoked a world that was long ago and far away. But we wanted his success and we wanted to move through the world with his confidence and charm. We would write our stories, raise our families, teach at small colleges, and say, with a little irony, for we hadn’t entirely given up our dreams of glory, that we wrote for God and a few close friends.

 

3.

I have some good news, I think. I have heard from the Rockefeller + have got a grant for beginning 1 Sept, 1968. It is still contingent [] Anyhow we are really excited + have had 2 bottles of champagne so far, but are showing moderation in that + in telling people lest we somehow jinx it.

—Molyneux, letter to Lawrence Judson Reynolds, July 24, 1967

When he wrote that letter, Tom was twenty-four years old and teaching impatiently at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania. He had sped through the program at Greensboro, where he’d completed a short novel, and seemed altogether in a hurry. He and Aldy had two sons, Tony and Jacob, born a year apart. When the Rockefeller came through, he made plans to spend the year in England and France. Though he would never have said so explicitly, he must have felt as if his promise had been confirmed and that his real life as a writer was about to begin. One of his stories had just been published in the Sewanee Review, a venerable quarterly where many a writer had taken an early bow. Other stories had appeared in Shenandoah and in the Greensboro Review. In letters to his friends, Tom kept track of his hopes and disappointments, speculating that on some distant day the letters might have value for “our widows and assigns.” Some of the letters are typed, but most were written in ink in Tom’s looping, left-handed, backward-leaning script, the free-and-easy sentences gleaming with offhand wit. They all end the same way: Best, Tom. 

In the late summer of 1969, at the end of my first and only year of graduate school, Cinder and I visited the Molyneuxes at their place outside Philadelphia, an apartment in a respectable old brick complex that had well-tended lawns and big trees. Tom and Aldy had just returned from Europe. They had spent much of that spring and summer in the south of France, in a house called “Les Romarins”—rosemary—where the driveway was lined with that aromatic herb. Tom hadn’t sold his novel, but with his publications, his fellowship, his knowledge of magazines and editors, Tom seemed to me like an established writer himself. 

Aldy we were meeting for the first time. She was petite and guarded, with bright blond hair and a porcelain complexion. Her father was a noted minister, she’d gone to Wellesley, and though she was lovely and gracious there was something about her—a touch of severity, a deep wariness—that made me feel at once that she and Tom were mismatched. He was in an expansive mood that night and showed us around the two-bedroom apartment as if he were pointing out the features of a grand estate. The furniture was dark, the floors were varnished, and the place felt unnervingly grown-up. In the old-fashioned bathroom, the kind where the sink has chrome legs and the tiles are small white octagons, Tom went into a story about how the dog wasn’t housebroken and how his son Tony, age three, had been putting the dog’s poop in the toilet. The boy had been following us on the tour. “We have a very smart dog, don’t we, Tony? He potty-trained himself. Don’t worry. We’re not going to have to get rid of him after all.”

Tom laughed when he told that story—laughed at the boy’s stratagem, at the dog’s doggyness, at his own role as the stern and scary paterfamilias. His laugh was a sound like krruh krruh krruh, a sound that rose up from the back of his throat. He laughed a lot that night. He had a slightly slurred way of speaking, making a sort of stutter as he got started on a sentence, but then the gears would catch and the words would come out in a rush. He and Aldy went all out to make that evening an occasion. In France, Aldy had discovered the magic cookery books of Elizabeth David and was easily the most accomplished and ambitious cook that we knew. We ate at a table set with crystal and china. A note from Cinder’s journal gives the flavor of our dinner conversation: “Steve and T. Molyneux agreed that the South would be a pretty good place to live if all the Protestants were Catholics, in the manner of southern Europeans.” There we were, a pair of callow sophisticates having fun rearranging the world to suit our pleasures. 

At dinner we drank plenty of wine, and afterward Tom and I got down on the floor to play with the model train that Tom had set up for Tony and Jacob. Tom kept making the sound of a train whistle, drawing out the chooooo chooooo, showing me how the little locomotive would back up to couple with the coal car, and how fast it would take the curves. He was as happy as I had ever seen him, feeling young and lucky and invincible.

 

4.

Meanwhile I still get too little done. At the agent’s suggestion I have redone the novel again. If it is turned down this time I am going to gather all the sundry dozen drafts + try to print them in a scholarly journal as a study in the evolution of a failure. Or perhaps start a home study mail order course with each draft as a lesson in revision. Anyhow the agent paid $5.50 to ship the thing to me, which I take as a hopeful sign—I am reduced to that, you see.

I have also done a long story which I like but I don’t know whether I like it because it is good or like it because I am afraid not to.

—Molyneux, letter to Reynolds, November 18, 1968

In the fall of 1970, Tom was teaching at the University of Delaware, and he and Aldy drove down to Washington and Lee where I had joined the faculty. They’d arranged to have the boys looked after so that they could get away for the weekend. Cinder and I were living then in a small house on a back road, a place that was impossible to find if you didn’t know exactly where you were going. When the Molyneuxes got to the edge of town, Tom called from a pay phone and I drove down to meet them at the main highway and lead them back to the house. For some reason, I thought it would get the weekend off to a rousing start if I challenged him to keep up with me on the drive. Night had already fallen, and the narrow road twisted under the trees along the bank of a creek. Having driven that road daily, I knew every turn, and I had to slow down a couple of times to wait for Tom’s headlights to show up in my mirror. Finally it got through my thick skull that Tom simply wasn’t playing this game and I slowed down altogether. His jaw was clamped tight when we reached the house and there were daggers in Aldy’s eyes. 

The memory still makes me wince. To go tearing through the darkness was stupid and reckless, and I can only think that I was acting out of some leftover sense of competition that dated back to college games of touch football and capture the flag and contests to see who could jump down the most steps of the grand staircase in the entry of our club. Some rivalry, anyway, was tangled up in the roots of our friendship, and it must have showed even when we were just talking shop. In the words of the wife of a writer pal on whom we paid a call that weekend, “The men? They’re out on the porch trying to figure out whose dick is longer at the typewriter.”

Well, of course we tried to impress each other. We dropped the names of writers we’d met and editors who’d turned down our stories. In this scrimmaging, though, there was something beyond competition. Not many people read Tom’s stories more carefully than I did, and I knew how much he could do with prose. Envy puts a bright edge on admiration. For as long as I’d known him, Tom was able to fashion sentences that had their own kind of dash and logic. Sometimes, he would get a little show-offy and trip over his own words so that he ended up sounding like William Faulkner or F. Scott Fitzgerald or whomever he happened to be reading, but usually the prose was uncluttered, with clean lines and a kind of spring-weighted urgency, a tension and rhythm that propelled it forward. 

One of the people Tom wanted to meet on that trip was Jim Boatwright, a friend and colleague of mine at Washington and Lee, and the editor of Shenandoah, where a couple of Tom’s stories had been published, including “Jimmy Outlaw.” It is the story of a fast-talking, street-smart, clothes-loving, young black hustler and ladykiller, and I knew after reading the first page that I had never written anything so assured and dazzling. Told from the point of view of a young white guy who works in a city jewelry store at Christmastime, the story—like a lot of Tom’s fiction—returns to the world he grew up in, the place where he must have felt most at home or where he had the most at stake.

 What makes “Jimmy Outlaw” shimmer is the way that Tom got Jimmy onto the page. Jimmy Outlaw swaggers and schemes and bristles with a wicked, gleeful energy. In his way, he is a brilliant artist. He is constantly giving the people around him the names he thinks they deserve; he immediately dubs the young white narrator “Money” and the store owner “Stack o Dollars.” He keeps any number of stories in the air at all times, including stories about the many “chickies” he is pursuing, and he has a pocketful of engagement rings—stolen, of course—to choose from when the moment arrives. Jimmy also has a weakness for clothes, and he takes his new friend around to stores that advertise as “Furnishers to Gentlemen.” It is clear that the author identifies with Jimmy and is dazzled by his ability to transform the drudgery of the workplace with his inventions. Never mind that the plot of the story is sketchy at times: “Jimmy Outlaw” is a brilliant piece of writing. 

That weekend, though, I felt for Tom. It was apparent that he and Aldy were fiercely unhappy. Anyone could see that he was always aware of Aldy, and she of him, and that they were storing up their grievances with each other. On Saturday night, there was a party at our house. We’d invited our usual crowd of faculty friends and a couple of students, but the word had gotten around and a mob of students turned up, some of them stoned. The house was so jammed that the floor was trembling underfoot, and people spilled out onto the lawn. Aldy was out there, in conversation with a student I knew fairly well, a smart and cocky kid with wavy hair and acne-scarred cheeks, a smooth operator. At some point I noticed Tom standing on the stoop outside the kitchen, nursing his drink, watching them intently. The next time I saw him, he’d gone down the steps to confront the student.

They were arguing about Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, specifically about the idea that everyone belongs to a karass and that the destinies of those in a karass were linked. The student had been trying to convince Aldy that he and she belonged to the same karass. 

“So you don’t believe there’s such a thing as a karass?” the student asked Tom.

“No,” Tom answered. “Nobody with half a brain could believe that bullshit.”

Both men had squared their shoulders. A crowd gathered in a circle around them, expecting a fight. 

“What’s with you, man? Lighten up.”

“I don’t like you coming on to my wife.”

“I’m not coming on to her. We’re talking, that’s all.”

“You’re an idiot.”

Tom and the student were face-to-face then, and there was some pushing, shoving, tugging. I think Tom took hold of Aldy’s arm and pulled her with him as he came back to the house. Aldy’s face was tight and pale with fury. I got rid of the students and the party ended soon thereafter. The next morning, Tom joined me on the stoop and made a shrugging apology about the way the weekend had gone. He told me that Aldy had been unhappy and thrashing about for some kind of spiritual comfort, trying one thing after another. 

I don’t want to claim or suggest an intimacy with Tom that didn’t exist. We were able to speak only in gruff, glancing ways about heartbreaking things. His life and mine were parallel in so many ways that I sometimes felt I understood him when, really, all I understood that morning was that he felt trapped and helpless. In our fiction, we tried to write about pain and confusion, but we didn’t admit to each other and usually not even to ourselves that such things had any sway over us. That just wasn’t who we were.

 

5.

Why don’t people buy my stories? Why does the flu come to me? Why is it sunny + brozen [sic] skied when I must work? Why do my gums bleed in the morning? Why don’t I take the old delight in farting? Why is Rolling Rock beer an inconsistent product? Why does the shuffleboard table slant away from my curve? Why am I in Newark Delaware in this spring of my young life?

—Molyneux, letter to Reynolds, April 16, 1974

After that visit to Lexington, Tom pulled back as people do when there is trouble they can’t fix. I kept up with him through occasional phone calls and letters. I also got updates via Peter, so I knew that Tom and Aldy separated, then got back together, then divorced. Aldy moved to Massachusetts with the boys. Tom did the predictable things—got the sports car, drank too much, slept around. He cast about for other jobs and hoped that Peter, who kept returning to Harvard as a visitor until 1975, might be able to help him find a job somewhere near Boston. He missed the boys and was perpetually short of money. At Delaware, even though he got tenure, he was increasingly restless and disenchanted. 

Still, he never failed to mention in his letters the stories or the novel he was working on. His work seemed to take precedence over his private life, but perhaps that is because he saw it as his refuge, the one place not yet tainted by failure.

There was no doubting his dedication or seriousness. At one point, he announced that he had decidedto stop writing for a while, feeling that he had “reached a dead end in being able to say what I can with vague almost sentimental responses instead of knowledge.”I don’t think he really did stop, but over and over again the letters expressed a need and desire for clarity. His prose kept getting leaner and tighter without losing its music. He lamented his inability to sustain or even believe in a plot—his main weakness, I think, and one that I shared. Our fiction was rooted in our experience and we wrote for many reasons—to feel useful, to practice the only craft that had ever fascinated us, to find the stories that might help us make sense of our lives. “What I make,” he wrote, “must be my stories.” 

The disappointments kept piling up. Tom read everything, and he knew that the landscape of fiction was changing in the Age of Aquarius, a perky label for a turbulent time. The kind of realistic fiction that Tom and I wanted to write was often dismissed as “mainstream” or “conventional” or “irrelevant.” Writers such as Donald Barthelme and John Barth and Thomas Pynchon seemed to have seized the high ground. Fiction writers started calling themselves by many different names: fabulists, surrealists, metafictionists. They certainly didn’t want to be known as storytellers, and the very word story smacked of an orthodoxy they were out to abolish. There was even an anthology called Anti-Story. In a 1967 essay that amounted to a manifesto, “The Literature of Exhaustion,” Barth suggested that it was as naïve, presumptuous, and embarrassing to write a traditional novel as it would be to build a gothic cathedral. Editorial tastes at many magazines had veered away from our kind of vernacular realism to what Tom sometimes called the “trivial sore eel”—the trivial surreal. He went into detail about how fashionable new writers were favored even over writers like Peter, who found that his stories were no longer wanted at the New Yorker. “They have replaced me,” Peter said, “with someone named Ann BEE-att-ee.”

Before long, though, Peter would become a fan of Beattie’s work, and Tom and I both admired her stories as much as we could admire the work of anyone our age—a little younger, actually. She was doing exactly what we wanted to do, working in a familiar tradition but somehow catching the precise urgency of the moment. She was exactly the kind of writer who should have come after Peter; he wrote about a middle class that still believed in itself, and she wrote about a middle class that had lost its faith and its way. In any case, she arrived with a fanfare that made us sick with envy.

Illustration by Jen RenningerTo be clear, Tom and I didn’t just dig in our heels and curse all newfangled, games-playing writers. Tom loved the stories of Grace Paley, and in “Signs of the Times,” an essay published in the American Scholar in 1973, he sings the praises of William Gass. But he did make a case against the glittery new writers: They didn’t care about individual characters. Assuming that everyone was in more or less the same dreadful predicament, and that their readers already knew about loneliness and despair, they wrote about conditions instead of writing about people. 

Their fiction was often brilliant, Tom admitted. It caught the accelerated grimace of the age. But in a passage that still rings like an anthem, he stated his faith in fiction that is rooted in the particularity of individual experience. 

To be sure, if our goals are worthwhile, we will fall short of them. We will in countless ways flub our lives. We will go astray in our loves, be rejected by our children, tell tales on our best friends, covet, look the other way, wonder about our courage, walk for days in the world without recognizing it. All people will. But the same people—or some of them anyhow—will renew those loves, forgive those children, sustain those friends, will come out of a quiet house at dawn after a troubled and sleepless night and stop still at the thin precision of the low moon, the biding steadiness of an elm, a mysterious and solitary light in a neighbor’s window.
So long as the subject is people, or particular people, those contradictions are possible, and with them the splendid ambiguity and complexity and wonder that they generate. Such contradictions have traditionally been fiction’s province and it is by such contradictions that fiction has extended and altered our lives. 

Tom’s essay was dead on, I thought, and it was frightening. It acknowledged that the kind of stories that we were trying to write might seem a little fusty. When we read the work that was getting attention—not just in the New Yorker, but in Esquire, where Gordon Lish, a.k.a. Captain Fiction, kept introducing new writers, and in what might have been the best literary magazine ever published, the New American Review—it was impossible not to feel that we were missing out. We couldn’t just ascribe it to changing fashions, either, since writers like Beattie and Barry Hannah and Tobias Wolff were more or less in our camp, and they were making names for themselves. 

I remember laughing with Tom about a note I got from Captain Fiction, who rejected a story of mine, then changed his mind, asked to see it again, and rejected it again. Twice rejected! He must have wanted to make sure that I got the point. 

Naturally, I took this as a hopeful sign. 

 

6.

This has been a dreadful spring but the fall was fine + we look forward a lot to the start of June. I’ve got a new story almost done + the first 1/3 of a novel, both of which please me though the prospect of publishing seems oddly remote, almost a neutral topic now. Kathy [his second wife] starts law school in the fall + much of our planning is devoted now to trying to come up with some way to get her back + forth there w/out leaving us so poor we can’t afford wine or so tired we can’t drink it without collapsing. We both want to be rich, live 4 days a wk in NYC, 3 at the beach, w/2 mos/yr in France, drink gin on the first day of spring w/out hangovers, work mornings, walk afternoons, drink $10/bottle wine w/simple food, have a car that we don’t need + that runs reliably, own neat pictures + otherwise live effortlessly as some God somewhere no doubt intended sometime.

—Molyneux, letter to Reynolds, April 19, 1975

At almost the same time that Tom married Kathy, a former student of his, I took up with a student at Bryn Mawr, where I was then teaching. My first novel, Kin, was published in February 1975, the same month that my marriage to Cinder ended. The book “evoked with candor and compassion the traps that await the unwary idealist in today’s de-mythologized South.” It says so right there on the dreadful, cheesy-looking dust jacket. However, many people told me I looked good in the author photograph. The brief review in the New York Times found the novel to be lacking “enough action, or even activity, to maintain the reader’s interest.” There were a few short reviews in lesser places, and some friends were able to say nice things. Others tried and bogged down in that ghastly hemming and hawing that makes you cringe. No matter how hard I tried to focus on the good things—Eudora Welty wrote me a letter!—I recognized the feeling in my bones as the chill of unsuccess. 

Bryn Mawr wasn’t far from Wilmington, Delaware, where Tom and Kathy— dark-haired, dark-eyed, a law student at Villanova—had bought an old row house to restore. When I saw them together, he performed for her a little, I thought, but that is something I could hardly fail to notice. I had my own younger woman to impress. Tom and I were in touch more frequently, and it would be difficult to overstate what it meant that he invited me to Delaware to give a reading in a series that he had put together. Publicly and privately, he did as much as anyone to make me feel that Kin had been worth writing. I had an exact idea of how hard it must have been for him to see my novel in print. I’d gone to Delaware for other readings and enjoyed myself—enjoyed the parties, the good conversation, the company of his colleagues, especially his closest friend, the poet Gibbons Ruark. I knew that Tom had a litany of complaints about Delaware, but still I felt envious about the kind of literary environment he and Gib seemed to be making for themselves and their students. 

When I went to Newark in May 1977 to give a reading, Kathy wasn’t around. She was up in Philadelphia studying for her exams, Tom said, but his voice was flat when he mentioned her. He was obviously preoccupied. Conversations with him started and sputtered, and he griped, without any of the usual leavening of wit, about his neighbors. He showed me a new story, “Peut-Être Combien?,” that was just coming out in the Virginia Quarterly Review. When I congratulated him, he grimaced. He said, “Ten people will read it.” 

I can’t remember exactly where I sat to read that story, only that it felt odd to read it in the same house as Tom. Every sentence made me aware of him. The protagonist—I might as well call him Tom—is haunted by the loss of his wife and child. Everything that he has counted on, everything that seemed so set in his life, has fallen away. He has gone to visit a friend who lives in Paris. The women he sees are described with aching precision. He visits places that evoke memories of Ernest Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and he wonders about moving to Paris and making a new life. “Perhaps he would live successfully with someone then,” he thinks. “Someone anyhow sure and easy, not jumbled, frightened, and lashing as Susan had been.” One late afternoon, he is walking the city when he comes to the former site of Les Halles, now a fenced-off excavation crater, huge and “suddenly dimensionless.” Paris, the City of Lights, has gone dark. It has vanished into this abyss. When he is able to lift his eyes from the pit, the protagonist sees prostitutes in the shadowy streets. “Désirez-moi?” one of them asks. “Peut-être,” Tom replies. “Combien?” Maybe. How much? How much does it cost to sleep with a woman? To love a woman? There is a price, possibly a terrible price, and he doesn’t know if he wants to pay it. Doesn’t know if he can pay it. He has a vision of his former wife standing against the white wall of their bedroom, her fingers scraping the wall:

“I didn’t choose,” she is saying, the words running together on the gasp of her breath. “I didn’t want this. I didn’t choose any of it.” Her clawed hand comes forward and pulls down her face, marking it with paled bars.

What could I say to Tom about that story? I could read it only as a statement of his own desolation. During the day and night I spent with him, he was distracted and abrupt. He complained about the dirt bikers who had started using the nearby park and disturbing the peace. He was insulted by the treatment he was getting from a restaurant where he and Kathy had recently eaten. The waiter had spilled something on Kathy’s dress, and the restaurant refused to have it replaced. He had the correspondence with the restaurant, the bills from the dry cleaner, the threatening letter he had written with a detailed description of the dress. The color raced under the skin of his neck and cheeks when he talked about it. Sometimes I knew from the look in his eyes that he was somewhere faroff. In a men’s room in one of the university buildings, he took a leak and turned away from the urinal, standing there with his penis in his hand, seemingly dazed, utterly lost, until a pair of students clattered in and he came back to himself with a shudder. There was a flicker of a grin on his face when he asked me if he’d been talking to himself.

 

7.

Your letter seemed still more depressed than mine. All around me that seems so. I don’t think any more it’s just those of us who want or wanted to write who are feeling closed off + weak willed. Perhaps it is just a question of getting older, of reaching an age where consequences become more apparent + direct and, so, possibilities seem thinner + more scattered. []

I’ve got nearly half a novel done. I think much of it is good but find it hard to work on it, no longer being able to dream sustainedly or grandly of its being eventually published. It’s hard to turn out 200 pages when you expect that you’ll be the only person to read it + that the paper expenses ought to be budgeted under hobby or indulgence. And the truth is that when I look around, read various new novels or quarterlies, I get still more discouraged. 90% of them seem to me wastes—symbols of energy that might have been better spent shining shoes or doing sit ups or cutting grass, making some gesture anyhow that would make things seem clearer around us, and I’ve had too many chances + favors by now to believe anymore that I’m better than these people + just not recognized.[

But I do look forward to the fall if only to indulge a hobby + take my 20th last chance . . .

—Molyneux, letter to Reynolds, August 1, 1975

Two weeks after I saw Tom in Delaware, I closed the books on another semester and drove down to the place I considered home, a cabin I’d built in the Virginia mountains. Before turning into my lane, I pulled over to say hello to a neighbor who was out in front of her house, playing with her kids. From the way she glanced at me, from her slow and uncertain pace as she walked toward the gate, I knew she had grave news. She stopped several steps away, her arm draped over the daughter who corkscrewed into her hip. 

“Your friend,” she finally said. “Your friend Tom.” 

He was dead. He had killed himself. I cannot remember the details of how my neighbor happened to be called, or by whom, but over the next several hours I talked to Gib Ruark and to Peter. I learned that Tom had taken sleeping pills and that a memorial service was going to be held the next morning in Wilmington. I intended to go. Peter, in North Carolina when he got the news, had left at once so that he could attend the service, weeping as he drove home to Charlottesville. That night he was nauseated and unable to sleep. He phoned Gib to say that he wouldn’t be able to attend the service, but the next morning, feeling well enough to drive, he frantically set out and got as far as the Delaware state line before realizing that he was too late. The service was already underway. From a pay phone, he called the funeral home, and the phone rang and rang, unanswered.  

I never left the cabin at all. I couldn’t bring myself to make that journey. My excuse to myself was that Gib had told me the service was going to be brief and mostly for university people, but I knew he was trying to be considerate, giving me permission not to attend. Anyway, I didn’t go. Other people I knew, people my age, had committed suicide, but no one who’d been as close as Tom, no one whose dreams and ambitions were so similar to my own. Could this be how the adventure ended? This defeat? I saw Tom’s death as a statement about the futility of the life we had both chosen. I felt paralyzed by grief, confusion, anger, bewilderment, and a personal, selfish sense of betrayal. Everything I thought I shared with him—purpose, gusto, passion for a craft, and the expectation that it would last us a lifetime—was cast into doubt. And I couldn’t help thinking of the long aftershocks of his suicide: Tom was a young father. He’d seemed devoted to his sons. The Tom who killed himself wasn’t the man I had known, and his death seemed like a failure of courage, imagination, and love.

For many years I fenced off his death as if it were a radioactive site. I tried to avoid thinking about Tom, but his ghost has stayed with me. 

And so, decades later, here I am, trying to come to terms with his death, or more precisely, trying to forgive him, trying to forgive myself. From others who knew and loved him, I have learned more about his last days than I knew at the time, but his suicide remains unfathomable. I know, for instance, that he wrote suicide letters to his sons. I know his marriage was falling apart—something he didn’t tell me when I last saw him—and that Gib had been worried about him for weeks. Tom had told Gib that he couldn’t bear the thought of having to tell his two sons that another marriage had failed. On the night before he took the pills, Kathy had been at the house—the one they’d been fixing up together. When he spoke to Tom on the phone late that night, Gib was surprised to learn Kathy had been there and he was worried enough to ask Tom to please consider coming over to his place, or letting Gib come to him. Tom said no, he would be fine. He was going to drink a glass of wine and turn in soon. The next morning, when Tom did not show up at the university, Gib asked to be let into his office. Tom had left a suicide note. Gib called his wife, Kay, and they drove to Tom’s house. The police were already there. Tom’s body was there. He’d left another note for Gib, saying that he’d been all right when they talked the previous night but that he had awakened at five. The last words he wrote were to let Gib know he hadn’t been lying the night before, to make it clear that Gib had done all he could, to absolve him. The note was scrawled on the back of a makeshift calendar on which Tom had written rules for himself. No coffee after nine. No wine before five. Check Wilmington for things to do. He had devised a reading schedule that called for devoting two hours to the Bible, to European history, to contemporary short fiction. Humble, hopeful rules, the resolutions of a man who was still trying to save himself, and yet they seem—they were—desperately, pitifully inadequate. 

The service for Tom was held at the Mike Mealey Funeral Home in Wilmington. After going back and forth about whether to make the trip, Lawrence and Margie Reynolds drove up from Richmond, arriving just as the service was beginning. The place was crowded. The air conditioner dripped. Everything about the Mike Mealey Funeral Home, beginning with the name, would have offended Tom’s sense of style, Lawrence thought, as he stood in the back of the crowd that had gathered and tried to hear the man with the prayer book and Bible over the noise of the air conditioner. Lawrence resolved to write down everything he could remember about that day, to record all the details of his coming to know, and believe in, Tom’s death.

But Tom was my brother. We were the sons of Peter. He was Scott Fitzgerald and I was Hemingway in our fantasy literary world of Greensboro long ago—not so long ago really, but seeming now long ago, and lost, oh God, lost. Really lost now. As final as death.

After the service, Lawrence and Margie went to a reception at Kathy’s parents’ house, where Lawrence met Tom’s mother and father. When Mr. Molyneux shook his hand and said he was glad to meet him, having heard so much about him from Tom, Lawrence could not bring himself to say anything. 

How can you I say anything to Tom’s father without the echo of what we are all really saying in the background: “It’s a hot day.” (Your son is dead.) “Did you drive down this morning?” (Your son is dead.) “We just got the news yesterday.” (Your son is dead.) “Hadn’t seen Tom for over a year.” (Your son is dead.) Finally, I say nothing.

As I set down those words, I feel the rawness of Lawrence’s grief and find myself wishing that Tom had been able to imagine the way that others would feel his death. I wish that he had been able to imagine Peter weeping as he drove home, or Cinder writing in her journal on the night before Tom’s suicide (initially, she was told that Tom died that night). She was living alone then and hadn’t seen him for years, but in her own despair she remembered him. 

Tuesday night I just cried ceaselessly from about 8 to 11 and contemplated the subject of suicide in a fairly coldblooded fashion, deciding pills would be the only possible method. Earlier in the evening I’d thought of Tom Molyneux’s remedy of imposing a fictitious order on his life. Saturday, I learned he’d killed himself, with pills on Tuesday. 

I was stunned by this vision, visitation, coincidence, whatever it was. About such things I am far less sure than I used to be. Cinder can no longer recall exactly what she meant when she wrote about Tom’s “remedy of imposing a fictitious order on his life,” but I know something about the faith of the fiction writer and how, when the fiction fails, there is nothing left but the abyss. For Cinder, though, even in her grief and despair, there was something else—a memory, a connection, an affinity with another suffering soul. The night before he died, a night when she contemplated death, Tom was profoundly alive for her, and I cannot stop myself from thinking that it made her feel less alone. 

But on the night of May 17, 1977, Tom must have felt unendurably alone. From what I have read, most suicides do. No one could relieve his pain. In Tom’s stories, the main characters feel their isolation as a curse. The young man at the center of Tom’s last story, “Visiting the Point,” a story published posthumously in the Summer 1978 issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review, feels an agonizing separation from his companions and from the women he desires. The story won an O. Henry Award, and it was selected for VQR by Ann Beattie, who declared it to be the best story she’d seen during her stint as a reader for the magazine. The editor’s note says, “Tragically, Ms. Beattie made her pronouncement on the very day it was learned that Mr. Molyneux had died suddenly in Delaware.” What might it have meant to Tom that Beattie had chosen his story? What would the O. Henry Award have meant? Would it have made any difference? A futile question, but after all these years I am still trying to figure out a way that his life might have been saved. 

I can’t really imagine what it is like to awaken in the pre-dawn darkness and be unable to bear the thought of living one more day. Tom felt dejected, morose, ashamed; he believed that he had failed in love and work. But why did his failure seem so final? Why did he take those goddamn pills? I will never know, but I keep coming back to the lonely voice of his stories. Loneliness is such a commonplace, the punch line in sentimental songs, but it can feel like damnation itself. I imagine that Tom believed, as many writers have, that if he could stare down that loneliness in his writing, he could escape it. In his stories, he could be known to others as he was known to himself, in all his contradictions and his suffering and his glorious, tragic ambiguity. Maybe as he shaped his sentences, he caught some glimpse of the world he longed for, a world in which the promises of romance and talent might be fulfilled and where he could “live effortlessly as some God somewhere no doubt intended sometime.” 

Those last words are Tom’s, of course. I miss him. I miss his laugh and I miss the days when we sat around and told stories and dreamed about the way we would furnish our rooms in the resplendent house of fiction. I can’t begin to imagine how my life would have gone if Tom hadn’t been a friend, if he hadn’t made it seem that writing was a fine pursuit and marked a course that I could follow, and at this distance, when so much has worn away, the gratitude endures like love. I will always wish that I had gone to the service to stand with Gib and Kay and Lawrence and Margie and the others who gathered in that dismal funeral home to honor a gorgeous man. For years I have felt guilty for not going, and I suppose this attempt to remember Tom, these pages I have written, is a way of making amends. As I have reread his stories and letters, as I have copied his words, typing them on the keyboard and watching them appear on the screen, he has been as near as thought. Nearer, in truth, than he has ever been. Near enough to honor him, and to bid him farewell. 

3 Comments

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Leslie's picture
Leslie · 2 years ago

I was at the funeral at the Measley Funeral Home. It was as you describe but in Newark Delaware, not Wilmington.

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Linda's picture
Linda · 2 years ago

I knew Tom at the UofD.  Your words are of him have been both wonderful and a little unsettling.  My memories of him were mixed with a deep sadness from his life ending too soon (he'd told me to get the letter for Gib if he didn't show up for work) and with many down-right good times.  Reading your BEST, TOM article has been therapuetic and gave me some relief from the sad feelings that seem to surface something triggers a memory of him.  The beautiful, good-humored man, which you clearly describe,  is definitely the memory to keep.

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Robert from Australia's picture
Robert from Aus... · 2 years ago

A very moving account of a writer about whom I had previously known, I am sad to admit, nothing.

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