Going to Patchogue
(Dalkey Archive, 2011; originally 1991)
When the Dalkey Archive first published Thomas McGonigle’s Going to Patchogue in 1991, it might have been quickly judged as a self-consciously avant-garde Künstlerroman in the American tradition, harping at the country’s stubborn resistance to fostering its artists. McGonigle’s narrator, named Tom McGonigle, is fixated on leaving his birthplace of Patchogue for more artistic climes, be they Manhattan or Bulgaria. But as much as McGonigle’s narrator would leave Patchogue behind forever, he can’t escape the town's mental grip, no matter how far he might travel; he’s been ineluctably shaped by the vicious boredom and pettiness endemic to small-town America.
Today, the isolation that propels McGonigle’s narrative is interesting in a way that it wouldn't have been 20 years ago because it’s become so foreign. The present-day outcast of Patchogue can fire up a web browser and follow the same boring literary gossip the rest of us do. The boredom of isolation, excoriated by McGonigle, has been replaced by a boredom of overstimulation. Now McGonigle’s Patchogue feels almost documentary in quality, the residents not entirely dissimilar to the insanity-plagued residents of 19th-century Wisconsin, conjured up by Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip, even as the town–the person of an old friend–rejects him and the New York City of the 1980s:
Of course, I’m sure. I stayed here and you left. You don’t know how decent people behave, living all these years away from this country and then living in the City. How do you expect to know how decent people live if all you do is associate with foreigners and City People?
Your father was a City Person, I said.
And so was yours . . . but they got themselves out of the City. What can you find in the City . . . just disease, I’ll tell you, disease and preparation for disease. (p. 99)
This is a young man’s book, driven with fury at the way things are: if Céline had the misfortune to grow up in Long Island, he might have written Going to Patchogue in the same scabrous style. And perhaps the problem with Going to Patchogue in 2011 is not with the book so much as with the audience the book seems to demand: angry middle-aged literary men with a pronounced taste for style. The audience exists of course, but it dwindles with time. And this is a problem foreseen in the book: Who will read this book in Patchogue? You leave Patchogue because no one can understand you in Patchogue; but while one can take the boy out of Patchogue, one can’t take the Patchogue out of the boy. Patchogue, as ever, refuses to care; Patchogue remains the same.
The words of this book have not changed, but the book has. Going to Patchogue deserves re-reading, lest we forget how Patchogue isn’t the Patchogue it once was.