In The Lede to Our Undoing, Donald Mengay takes us to 1970s rust-belt America. The era of civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights, as well as the birth of the environmental movement.
Twins Jake and Wren are raised in the white-flight suburb of Laurentine, not far from an industrial city ironically named the Forest City. The twin’s parents, Harry and Florrie, do their best to keep their offspring on the straight and narrow, according to principles common today in MAGA America, before it got the name. But the two are not good at coloring inside the lines. Wren falls in love with an African-American youth named Donald, and Jake falls in love first with Romeo and then Peacoat—with traumatic results. Their story is told by the family mutt, Molly, whose outsider status offers the reader a unique view on human culture.
Queer Forty: When did you start working on The Lede To Our Undoing?
Donald: The process took decades really. In a sense I began writing it in the early 1990s. I’d studied creative writing in college and had a desire to go back to it, and I met a poet named Lynn McGee, who became my writing partner for a time. Each week we traded our work and critiqued it. At one point I sent her a short story about a person who was speaking from the grave—I came up with the idea after helping a friend bury her cat in the traffic circle near a park in Brooklyn. When we were finished I couldn’t help thinking the cat had landed in the opposite of a peaceful resting place given all the cars whipping mad-dash around the circle. I wondered what the cat would say if she were sentient and able to speak. When I gave the story to Lynn she remarked that the voice in that story was truly unique, and new for me. It became a seed in the back of my mind over the next decade and a half. Clearly a long germination!
Why choose a dog for a narrator? Wouldn’t a human narrator have been just as effective–or more?
Donald: Well a human narrator wouldn’t have given me the chance to analyze human foibles nearly as easily because a human narrator would have been too close to the problem, so to speak. As a nonhuman animal Molly has a perspective no human “animal” does. What’s more, because Molly belongs to the family at the heart of the story—a family that serves as an allegory of humans generally—she has an insider’s view. Which is why a donkey or a horse would not have served the purpose as well. Dogs and cats, and some birds, live with humans and know them intimately. They observe us and know our strengths and weaknesses. What sets a dog apart is it lives in part on the end of a leash, or as the English say, a lead—hence the play on words in The Lede to Our Undoing. I wanted to play with the notion of a leash or lead as a metaphor for the way all of nature is tethered, or leashed, to the actions of human beings. In that way Molly herself is allegorical. She even remarks a couple times, Nature and I are one. That she is abused by the family in the story references the way we’re abusing nature and the environment, and have been for many centuries.
Excerpt from The Lede to Our Undoing
I’ve heard April is the cruelest month, and it’s true in a way. The rain drops down like tears, trapping fluorocarbons as they descend here in the Forest City. But the sun shows through from time to time, making it a hybrid state that I inhabit. I’m attuned to the world it creates that’s awash in blooms.
In this year of the plague, the first of two in his time and the one most people overlook, Jake considers himself lucky. Does he thank me now that he realizes, finally, that I had something to offer? About staying alive most of all—not just him but others too? They thought I was clueless, that I didn’t see color, that I existed in a world of gray, as though that were a bad thing. I’d argue it’s better than seeing things in black or white, or, worse, seeing only color.
Jake with a new-found vision, allowing him to notice me finally, which I sense all the way here. Those moments when he spirits himself into town I recognize his shoes as he jogs by, though they avoid darkening the ground where I am. It’s such a change from the way he and I were tethered for so many years, that is until he ran off and unleashed the others on me. As if he’d lost faith in his own kind, beginning with his own family. God forbid it should be just the two of us, a long-awaited meeting of souls—or soles as the case may be. Usually he spills from Donald and Wren’s, faking ignorance of my presence as though that night in December never took place. I know not only his tread but those of the others, though he assumes I’m oblivious. A mere swelling in the ground. A place-marker for what was. A memory interred. Anything but myself: a thinker like him.
I make nothing of it. I inhabit a different reality, tucked away from the pain and inertia, the weight loss and lesions in Jake’s world—run, Jake! What is there to recall me by anyway? A daffodil like any other. It too will droop. Toast it’ll turn. It’ll peter out in the sun. A ring of daffodils, a wheel of light, a circle of bulbs beneath the earth, and me among them.
If Jake can’t find me it’s because they never bothered to leave a stone. I heard him tell Wren that the one he found, just above, black and shiny and pooched at one end, the rock he pocketed unbeknownst to anyone, reminded him of me. To which I replied, Your heart, my dear. No, there was no stone or cross-sticks planted during that makeshift ritual—god forbid! He would’ve never stood for that, for cross-sticks most of all, which by then he’d renounced entirely. When the clouds don’t bathe me they bless me, stone or no stone, cross-sticks or no cross-sticks. Objective time abandons me. Now—a thing that doesn’t exist up there—has assumed jurisdiction.
For more information on Donald Mengay and his work go to https://www.donaldmengay.com.