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Days of the Dolphin


“Ted, I think you’re louche.”

I stopped breathing for a few seconds after I said it, one of those risky remarks you let fly when you someone enough to know they’ll get the joke, even if it’s - gently - on them. I’d just finished reading Ted Mooney's Singing Into the Piano, a novel that starts with a wildly implausible sex scene but as it goes on, betrays a fine-tuned and vastly sophisticated political sense. I had become friends with Mooney, but the friendship was new enough so that I felt relieved when he laughed at the louche remark.

"I am!" he said, sounding delighted. 

As I did after all of our conversations, I felt that I had grown closer to him.

The ability to see is not discussed often enough as an essential quality in a writer. About fifteen years ago, when I was in graduate school, I went briefly to an Italian psychoanalyst who talked about this quality, although she was talking about it in the context of love. But can love be separated from art?

This analyst did not employ the standard therapeutic language and she wasn’t emotionally supportive. Instead she referred to “desire,” a word that sounded antiquated and odd to my American ears. I understood why the refusal to indulge in cliche endeared her to the poets in my MFA program but most of the time I had no idea what she was talking about. She was gay, and with her mannish slicked back hair and the Italian accent in my ears, all I could think of when I saw her was an intensely homoerotic dance scene 1970 Bertolucci film The Conformist.

Despite this distracting association, I did get something out of our handful of sessions. She talked a lot about Jacques Lacan. Well, he'd been Picasso's shrink, so there was that. Otherwise, it all sounded like impenetrable French deconstruction, except for one thing. She boiled it down to this: All we really want is to be seen. You can give up a lot of unfulfilled desires: the trite ambitions, the competitiveness, even material security, knowing you're seen. By someone.

Is that love? Probably, of a kind. What is love, anyway? Who knows? Every angel is terrifying; lovers even more so. But we know when someone sees us. It’s palpable. We feel it, all the way through. What pleasure! What joy!

That is what it was to know Ted Mooney. Long before the Italian analyst, I had read Mooney’s first novel, Easy Travel to Other Planets. I used an excerpt from it in an anthology of edgy environmental writing called Naked: Writers Uncover the Way We Live on Earth. The story opened with an utterly convincing yet surreal scene of a woman, a dolphin researcher, getting it on with a dolphin in a flooded house.

It took Melissa nearly three weeks to grow used to sleeping in the bed that hung suspended from the ceiling of the flooded house and even then, even after she had surrounded the bed with shower curtains to protect herself from water splashed or slapped, she would find herself awake in the night's stillest hour, listening to the pump's dull pulse as it circulated fresh seawater through the rooms, listening beyond that to the sea's slow suck as it entered the cove on which the house was built, and from the center of her insomnia she would gaze up through the skylight above her at the meteor showers that streaked the Caribbean sky, and she would think: I am going to die from the strangeness of this. By morning I will be dead of the aloneness and strangeness.

Why wasn’t the water spilling out the seams of the windows or the doorsills? Who cared? If there is a more perfect opening to a novel, I have not seen it. Even in this first novel, based on the controversial experiments of John Lilly in the good old, bad old LSD days, Mooney, at 30, accomplished what all great writers do. He created a world. “One of the most original seductions in recent fiction... a novel of immensely tender feeling,” was the verdict in the New York Review of Books.

Published in 1981, Easy Travel to Other Planets won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction and was shortlisted for the National Book Award. Mooney's career was launched. Yet he continued to work for a living. Or rather, he saw for a living, as an editor at Art in America.

When I bought the rights for my anthology, I hadn't dealt directly with Mooney, so I was excited to meet him about a year ago. He liked the Journal’s combination of art and politics (sometimes in the same sentence, and almost always in the same story). I suspect he felt a kinship with our eclectic sensibility. Mooney's writing is dazzling and erudite, full of politics, art, money, and a dash of kink. The books are supernally intelligent; a critic might argue that if there is a flaw, it’s the sacrifice of narrative drive for instruction. I see something of the teenage Mooney in those occasional elucidatory paragraphs; the super-smart prep school kid in the army jacket, overflowing with ideas and the desire to share them.

We had dinner in New York, walking uptown on Broadway to a restaurant through a Dominican neighborhood. After that, we would talk on the phone. I don’t remember ever laughing more than I did on those calls. Later, I sent him pictures as I traveled around the American West. Mooney had been a hotshot, a U.S. Forest Service firefighter. He knew the attraction of a landscape that fills the frame. A Texas boy who went to an east coast prep school, he understood the fundamental national tension between the freebooting West and the European-influenced East. The country’s history is written in that dissonance. He promised to visit me in the desert, but insisted that he was dedicated to New York: the vivacity of street life, the intelligence he found there.

Ted Mooney urged me on in more ways than I can say, at one point making it virtually impossible for me not to apply for an editorial job that I knew it was far too late in life for me to get. The act of applying salved old wounds from my establishment youth.

“Actually I did have an idea how repellent you might find it to apply for a job at a publication named after our East Coast ocean--but I suggested it anyway. You are a great editor and writer who is not seeing print often enough. I thought it would be worth breaking your anti-East Coast taboo to let them hear from you.. Not that it signifies anything if the (name redacted) fails to snap you up on sight. They have their problems.”

Perhaps in the Italian therapist’s words, we each saw each other. I have never known someone so observant, so wise, so brilliant, so guarded at times, and yet so tenderly emotional.

I'm sure that others who knew him felt the same way.

A few weeks ago, I called but his voicemail was full. I sent a message but never got a response. I didn’t want to presume so I waited. Finally someone told me.

Ted Mooney’s heart gave out. He died on March 22, 2022. He was about three-quarters of the way through writing his fifth novel.

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Susan Zakin is editor of Journal of the Plague Years.

Seeing Is Believing ::: Byron Isaacs

Seen And Not Seen ::: Talking Heads

Dolphins ::: Fred Neil

Dolphin’s Smile ::: The Byrds

Friends ::: The Beach Boys

Time If There Is Time ::: Brian Cullman

Journal of the Plague Years

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