Cleaning up Duncan

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Until the winds of Hurricane Sandy made it impossible, I spent the last week trying to dry and clean up three unpublished Duncan Miller manuscripts I never wanted to see again. When a small group of Byrne Miller’s “adopted” children gathered to read them the first time, in 2009, we decided as a group that it was indeed not Byrne’s fault that her beloved Duncan’s work had never been published. Byrne had described Duncan as having “borderline schizophrenia,” and he ultimately died from complications of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. But even those of us considered part of his extended family never realized how much his mind must have tormented him until we read his manuscripts.

I won’t go into detail but nobody in their right mind would want to read what Duncan wrote, let alone publish such thoughts. Gary and I buried them in 2009 as a sort of compromise – getting them out of our house but not going as far as burning the last known copies of a man’s life work.

It turns out three years being buried in black plastic lawn bags does little to preserve typed manuscript pages that were already fifty years old when they went into the ground. Dirt I expected, but water somehow seeped through the plastic lining of the manuscripts and spores of a bright yellow mold now crust each page. The archeologist who helped us find the hidden stash, Larry Lepionka, advised me to divide the stacks into smaller piles and when they were completely dry, to take a pastry brush to every page. While I dusted off each page, on the very same porch that Duncan loved to watch the river from, I forced myself to re-read one of the manuscripts. After all, that was the whole point of digging them up again.

I am writing about Byrne and Duncan’s years in Santa Fe and “The Air-Drawn Dagger” was the first of two novels Duncan began there.  Ostensibly, it’s about prejudice toward a group of people he calls “Hispanos” by which I gather he meant Mexicans of Spanish descent. But the plot doesn’t matter because you can’t get past the sexually explicit language. The vocabulary might have been a factor of the times – Duncan’s later novels would have been influenced by the beat generation and authors like Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg. But what disturbs me is more than the shock value of profane words. Duncan wrote in first person, about everything from rape to incest. I can only imagine, as I’m sure Byrne did, that these scenes came from something deep and wounding in his past. All I know of it is that he was estranged from his Charleston family and never allowed Byrne to make contact with them even when he died.

Reading the work of someone whose long-ago death means he can’t explain himself is a little like finding your father’s secret stash of pornography. You want to believe that it doesn’t mean anything, that reading nasty isn’t the same as being nasty. But you never see him in quite the same light again, and you judge his future actions, and the stories of his past, through a different lens.

What I struggle with now is how much, if any of it, I should reveal in the book I am writing about Byrne’s life. Duncan’s writing is an integral part of Byrne’s story – for the sixty years of their love-filled marriage she introduced him as a brilliant novelist. Yet after he died, she told me that her only regret in life was never getting him published. Her life included struggles like one daughter get electro-shock therapy as a young child for schizophrenia and the other daughter being killed by a drunk driver.  But it was this sense of failing Duncan that kept her up at night and I think she hoped that I would find a way to remedy that after she died. Maybe I have. Perhaps through writing about Duncan and his great love for Byrne, the essential truth of him will have a voice. But deciding how much to reveal will be what keeps me up at night.

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