Mortal Leap
by MacDonald Harris (1964)
Boiler House Press (2024)
355 pp

For years Brad Bigelow at the Neglected Books blog has been covering books that are almost completely forgotten. I was so happy to learn that he was editing a series of new publications of such books for Boiler House Press, in a series called Recovered Books (see Brad’s post on the venture here and see the Recovered Books line at Boiler House Press here). The most recent book in the series is MacDonald Harris’s 1964 book Mortal Leap. Brad originally wrote about this book in 2008 and says in that post that the book never even had a paperback run; furthermore, at that time, despite the fact that Harris’s 1976 book The Balloonist was a finalist for the National Book Award, none of his books were in print (that did change a few years later when The Balloonist was reissued by The Overlook Press, which is how I got a copy finally). I love when books that were forgotten but worthy come back, so I hope that Recovered Books goes on for a long time.

But this post is about Mortal Leap itself. Although this was only Harris’s second novel, it is confident, even brazen, as it dishes us a cynical, bitter man in crisp, philosophical prose.

When the book begins our protagonist is looking at himself in the mirror, reflecting on how he got to be not only where he was in life but also who he was in life.

Behind the scars, behind the swimmer’s tan, is something that even I myself have half forgotten: elusive, shadowy, the ghost of an old identity. There are times when for weeks on end I don’t think of it, when everything is familiar and reassuring and I imagine I have always been as I am now. But the shadows are still there, and then I ask myself — why not? Isn’t it possible to carry shadows inside you and still live, love, sleep, be happy or bored like these ordinary people who are the same all the way through, like cheese?

Besides, who’s made out of cheese? I never did understand them, these cheese-people. Who doesn’t have a dark place somewhere inside him that comes out sometimes when he’s looking in a mirror? Dark and light, we are all made out of shadows like the shapes on a motion-picture screen.

It’s the perfect setup for this book about identity and images.

Then we skip back in time to when he was a young man growing up in Utah in a Mormon household that he just didn’t care to remain within. He’d sneak philosophy books and novels into bed at night, but when his father, who was the local bishop, came to see what was going on he figured it was better to pretend he was looking at a pornographic magazine. That created the break, and before he was even officially an adult our protagonist finds himself on a bus to California, trying to start over with no particular past and no particular future.

This is the first of a few different “mortal leaps,” or salto mortale, he takes, leaps into the void, hoping to abandon one footing and finding a rope that will swing you to another. But this is not the main mortal leap. That actually comes some distance into the novel, after our hero has worked on a ship, done time in jail, and then works on a military ship in the Pacific in the early days of World War II. The central mortal leap comes when he is badly burned and feigns amnesia, only to have the frustrated military medical staff fly in a woman who claims that, yes, he is her husband, Ben Davenant. He goes along with this, but immediately he “felt something precious and irretrievable slipping away from me: my right to nothingness.”

The remainder of the novel has him making a new life with another man’s past. This has been shown, of course, in other stories, but the philosophical underpinnings of Mortal Leap felt unique to me. Though for the most part our protagonist remains an unlikable man, I think that’s part of the point: his exploration of what make a person a person and is there any possible way to see under the surface of skin and actions to get to know a person kind of requires someone who is thoroughly disaffected. That’s not to say it’s easy; his character arc starts firmly in the misogynistic camp and doesn’t get too far from that starting point, though at least he starts to consider what it means to love.

Aside from the misogyny, which some may see as an important element for the story’s themes but which to me did feel a bit gratuitous, I did have another minor quibble that I’ve worked through: the general structure of the novel as a whole. It’s not super long, by any means, but it has some long passages that as I read it I felt strayed far from the main themes. I already mentioned that the main “mortal leap” happens much later than I would have thought possible given the book’s blurbs (basically the halfway point). This is after many episodes in the life of our narrator. But it strikes me now that since this is a book about knowing someone, it serves itself well by having a character do plenty of things he will hope no one finds out about. When he becomes a new person, do these prior acts have any bearing on who he is now? I was always interested, even if I couldn’t always understand just what any particular episode had to do with the theme specifically. But now I am happy to say they helped me get to know the extremely dark shadows our narrator would later know were under his placid surface.

With all of the mortal leaps and all of the silver screen illusions lurking the story, Mortal Leap is a compelling and thoughtful book, and I’m confident it will stay with me. I’m so glad it’s out again.

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