Photo by dreambird used under a Creative Commons license.
Thomas McMahon, McKay’s Bees (Harper Perennial, 1986).
McMahon’s novel centers on Gordon McKay, who leaves Massachusetts for Kansas in 1855 with his new wife and some German carpenters with bees and plans to found a new city on the frontier. McKay has no strong affinity for abolitionists or slaveowners, though there isn’t much room for neutrality in Bloody Kansas. This novel is very much of a time, an impressive recreation of historical consciousness.
Google Books provides a preview. Here’s an excerpt. In 1987, Elizabeth Mehren profiled McMahon for the LA Times. Here is McMahon’s obituary in The Harvard Gazette and the obituary from The New York Times. Douglas Bauer (The Boston Globe) is not sure which gives him greater pleasure: finding someone who doesn’t know about the novel and explaining why he must read it immediately, or discovering a fellow admirer and falling into eager conversation about its droll narrative voice and its cast of charming eccentrics and its poetically taut lines. Timothy Foote (Time) says the book is a marvel of brains, brevity and sharp description. Amanda Schaffer (Bookforum) says that McMahon’s overflowing enumeration of human, biological, and mechanical peculiarities—not unlike naturalists’ sketches or case studies—largely defines the novel’s structure, and that his facility for sustained abundance, for quirky upon quirkier detail, accumulates into a tour de force. Dedda Pie calls it absolutely amazing. Phillip Routh thought it went stagnant.