Stephen’s Landing by Gregory Vincent St. Thomasino, Adelaide Books, November 2020
Stephen’s Landing is a postmodern Bildungsroman, a complex fresco of cinematic positives and negatives, of multiple planes and universes, as the title itself suggests, for a neoromantic cosmic trope, characterized by a mix of enigma and possibility, weaves its way in and out of the book and protagonist Stephen’s thoughts. The connection between the name Stephen and the concept of the Bildungsroman is no coincidence: like St. Thomasino’s earlier “novel in parts”, Stephen’s Lake (xPress, 2004), this work of prose seems to be obviously inspired by James Joyce’s The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (whose own protagonist is named Stephen), using the same techniques of stream-of-consciousness, self-portraiture, and idiolect to create an ode to childhood and youth, though St. Thomasino is less picaresque and more ethereal than Joyce, and more of an impressionist than a radical experimentalist, in the sense that the narrative is fragmented in the way that an art exhibition is, in which the individual pieces come together to suavely and intuitively present a concept: “I can observe her dressing from my pillow. I am susceptible only to her hair. Wheat blond”, he writes (p. 5). Overall, it isn’t difficult to discern the tradition within St. Thomasino’s writing, but his chosen structure seems more akin to Théophile Gautier or Gérard de Nerval: “Susanna was sincerity. And now that I’ve remembered her for you, I miss her” (p. 51).
Bringing to mind at the same time Donna Tart’s The Goldfinch and Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Stephen’s Landing is somewhat metaphysical, as intimacy, magic, and mystery collide on the urbane and colloquial plane of New York City. Here, Stephen evolves from boy to young man, completing both his literal and sentimental education with the women fate puts in his way. St. Thomasino writes the atmosphere of youth especially well: Stephen’s philosophical yet humorous conversations with his friends and lovers, the awkward and hilarious moments of Stephen feeling cuckolded by a charismatic older man, all deliciously candid:
“In the war between man and woman sincerity is not always a virtue. And it reminded me of something Professor Torrez’s wife once said. To be one- hundred percent honest in love is infantile” (p.163)
Stephen’s narrative is also a lucid account of the social aspects characterizing modern and contemporary America. A mock-prophetic undertone rears its head here and there:
“With increasing certainty, and with ever increasing disillusionment, it was becoming clear to me how in college you must learn for yourself, how in college you must in effect teach yourself. Professors are a necessary matter-of-course which one must do his very best to oblige, that is pretend a disposition of conviviality towards, or else risk unpopularity. For professors talk to one another about their students, and word’ll circulate that you’re on to them, and they’ll make of you an object of contempt. You see, professors think they’re at the center of it all, that they are the heart and the students are the blood that flows. Well they’re dead wrong. At the center of it all is the curriculum, and the curriculum has progressive heart disease.” (p. 132)
Without being overtly reactionary, however, the narrative tone is decidedly philosophical and inherently nostalgic: “I think nineteenth-century America, or maybe, the turn-of-the-century, was a lyrical period. Because of the hopefulness, as hope is a sort of spontaneous feeling, a lyrical feeling” (p. 39). But in a game of light and shadow, the profane follows the ethereal often immediately – it is a deliberate technique that characterizes St. Thomasino’s voice, for this is not a romance novel, but a Romance of petty heroism: Stephen is a modern-day troubadour, humorous and quixotic: “I had accustomed myself to seeing her behind in every melon on the street” (p. 51). The dreamy aspects (“Even in the dark, I could see the color of her eyes. That kinesthetic Matisse blue, that would not be humbled by the dark.” [p. 219]) are often countered by the verve of a dark, eccentric humor:
“And I was thinking of Lydia’s mother, she once struck her husband in the ankle with a driver, seems they were arguing over the wood grain in the dining table, she was insisting it looked like a salmon steak.” (p. 253)
“I seem to have this habit, maybe it’s a disposition, but rather like some karma magnet, of gravitating toward these real hard-edged people. Real psychological hard-liners. Afflicted sorts. Sometimes they all merge together into one horrific personage, or purgatory.” (p. 129).
Yet as he witnesses the victimization of the women who are close to him, Stephen realizes that he lacks the fortitude of character and even mental health to do anything to either prevent their abuse or make amends: “This was not my episode, I told myself. Why did I have to bear witness to this?”, he asks himself. In fact, St. Thomasino does not shy away from revealing Stephen’s weakness, his giving in to an archetypal “flawed man” instinct as he gradually loses the illusions and ideals of the “boy-king” he once was. This fall from grace, however, leaves the door for redemption open, fulfilling the wisdom of the coming-of-age novel. A bold, erratic, wise, truthful and elusive story, Stephen’s Landing departs from the trend – in the best possible sense.
Andreea Iulia Scridon is a poet and translator. She studied Comparative Literature at King’s College London and Creative Writing at the University of Oxford. In 2020, she was awarded the University of Oxford’s STAAR Editorial Prize. She has a poetry chapbook forthcoming with Broken Sleep Books and a poetry book forthcoming with MadHat Press in 2022. These three poems are from her collection, A Romanian Poem.