'McKay's Bees' Alive With Wit And Wonder

McKay's Bees book cover
McKay's Bees
By Thomas McMahon
Paperback, 288 pages
University Of Chicago Press
List price: $16

Read An Excerpt

When Thomas McMahon, a professor of applied mechanics and biology at Harvard University, died unexpectedly a little more than a decade ago, he left behind multiple scientific articles; the design for the track at Harvard; a handful of patents, including one licensed to Nike for a new kind of sole for a running shoe; several books in his fields; and four entirely distinctive novels, among them McKay's Bees, my favorite. It's the kind of book that makes you want to sequester yourself away from the dinner table or the cocktail party when you encounter the rare other person who's read it, to wallow with someone else in comparing notes on its many delights.

Among them: its frequent hilarity; its occasional tender sexiness; the sheer erudition on display within its pages; and the modest, generous terms in which this last is offered. Do you want Darwin's theory explained? Why, it's about "the greenness of every living thing, its sexual purpose, and its mortal nature." Do you want to know, say, how to divide and multiply bee hives? You'll find it here. How to build a small funicular to get you upstairs without electricity? How to make a daguerreotype? Construct a kiln? All included for the price of admission, and all connected intimately to the foibles, the hopes, the aims, the character of the characters in this book.

And what an assortment of characters they are! First we meet the eponymous Gordon McKay, fat, industrious, wealthy, distractable, perhaps a bit stupid, who sets out from Boston in 1855 for Kansas — where he hopes to make a fortune from honey — with his new wife, 15 swarms of bees, and an entourage that includes a group of German music box makers and two alligators. His wife, Catherine, is vain and passionate, and she's married McKay in part to extract herself from her erotically charged relationship with her twin brother, Colin.

Sue Miller

Sue Miller is the author of several books, including Inventing the Abbots and The Good Mother. Her most recent novel is The Lake Shore Limited. She teaches creative writing at Smith College in Massachusetts. Mary Walsh hide caption

itoggle caption Mary Walsh

Colin is almost McKay's opposite — smallish for a man, modest and thoroughly competent. It's he who builds the kiln, for his sister; and then the funicular, a gift meant to win over Bernadette Blennerhasset, paralyzed from the waist down, who needs a way to get to the second floor of her house. ("No one ever courted me with so many building materials before," Bernadette says. "Is this the way you do it in Kansas?") There's the melancholic bee expert L.L. Langstroth, whose manual sets McKay in motion; the abolitionist Eli Thayer and his wife; and the naturalist William Sewall. John Brown makes an appearance here, too; and Louis Agassiz; and Presidents Lincoln and Pierce — all quickly, gesturally made complex and human.

Of course, there's a narrative distance necessary to accomplish all this in so few pages, but it's not an ironic distance or a satiric one, though there's often humor in it. Instead, McMahon's tone here seems almost Chekhovian to me — it partakes of that same gentle, rueful amusement. Witty, precise, tender, brainy, McMahon beckons us as Chekhov does to an enlarging generosity and wonder at all that is sad and funny and amazing in the world. Read it.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

Excerpt: 'McKay's Bees'

'McKay's Bees'
McKay's Bees
By Thomas McMahon
Paperback, 288 pages
University Of Chicago Press
List price: $16

Gordon McKay based his plan for a new city in the West on bees because of their energy. One never finds them disappointed or confused; they have their plans and they have their hopes and they love their work. In the morning, from the moment the sun touches the hives and warms them, the bees come forward and jump into the air. They are agricultural animals, like chickens and pigs, but the difference is their energy. There is, of course, the possibility for failure in anything—nectar flowers must have the wet and the heat in some reasonable proportion or they will give up. But the bees never let themselves fall into reveries of worry and speculation on their fortune. Instead, they conduct their affairs with confidence and optimism.

McKay could feel this confidence and optimism swelling up in his own chest. It was a buoyant feeling which often threatened to lift his feet clear of the planet. It was a feeling which made him restless and full of magnificent visions. He had an extravagant purpose now which made him get up before the sun. Each morning, he left the bed where Catherine lay in wide, disorganized postures and went into the library. In this room, where the windows extended from the floor to the ceiling, he wrote expansive letters to young men who had been with him at college. Dear Phillips, he wrote. I am emigrating to the West to become a pioneer and make a fortune larger than Copley's. My Dearest Copley, he said. You will never believe what I am about to do.

Langstroth on the Hive and the Honey-bee: A Beekeeper's Manual had been published in Philadelphia by the Reverend L. L. Langstroth in the previous year, and had fallen into McKay's hands by accident. Now he lived more within the book than with Catherine or his mother or his friends.

In May of 1855, his restlessness approached delirium. He would be awake again only for a few hours after coming to bed, at his desk making drawings and plans, or reading Langstroth. Catherine could find the impression of his great bulk beside her still in the feather mattress, and she could extend her knees into it, but Gordon McKay himself was more difficult to find and intrude upon in those months before they left for the West. Often she would look for him in every building of his mother's estate without finding him, and then one of the servants would tell her that he had taken the trap to Boston on an errand.

None of this matched Catherine's expectations of marriage. She had assumed, because of McKay's wealth, because of his friends, because of his appetite, that they would live their married life in good restaurants, and move from one to the other as they became bored with the company. At luncheon and again at dinner, they would live on great drafts of style, and spill it on the floor, and never care, the way they spilled the wines of the best French houses on the floor and smiled as the waiters mopped them up.

But instead, they had come to live on his mother's estate, and life had become a good deal less brilliant. They ate with his mother in a stone kitchen, and the old woman talked through the meal. In Boston, it had been generally acknowledged by pleasant people that Catherine was doing McKay a favor by marrying him, but his mother seemed to imply the opposite. She corrected Catherine on her pronunciation of French words. She was unenthusiastic about Catherine's clothes. She repeatedly asked whether Catherine played a musical instrument, and signed when she heard the answer.

In the first month of their marriage, McKay seemed to want to make up for his mother's lack of enthusiasm by taking his bride to bed immediately after dinner. This was made possible by the fact that the old woman had a weakness in her lungs, which forced her to retire early. On the pretext of planning to play cards, McKay would take Catherine into the parlor and wish his mother good night at the door. Then they would pass through the parlor and ascend the back stairs to the bedchamber. The moment the door was closed, McKay would allow his passion to explode open, like a fit of anger. He would rain kisses on his bride's face, and take her breasts in his hands. Often he would climax before he got his trousers off.

And this, too, came as a surprise to Catherine. Something she had heard, something which had been said or implied long ago by one of her school friends, had led her to believe it would go on all night. She had not been prepared for the suddenness of a man's feelings. Is that all? The question came to her with such force that she almost asked it of McKay. Is that all? There seemed to be a mistake. It seemed inconceivable that he was finished in such a short time. The first several nights, she waited, with her eyes open, supposing that he was only taking a rest and would begin again. But he lay there on his back, with his great length and his great breadth occupying so much of the bed, and nothing more disturbing his sleep than the occasional cough. The candle's light made a luminous forest of the hair on his abdomen.

In the morning, of course, he would be gone, and if he were not in the library, then he would have driven off to Boston to negotiate with someone about the planned journey to the West. To spare herself the company of his mother, she would linger most of the day in the bedchamber. She would read and work with her needles, and wonder what was happening to her. She had set out to do something fairly simple in marrying McKay, but it had become complicated. He had never actually misrepresented himself during their courtship, he had only kept his mouth shut. Someone else had always been talking, one of his friends or one of hers. Their friends had agreed they were a great match. They had sat at table in fashionable restaurants, surrounded by the envious, and grinned like cats.

In the afternoon, McKay would return from Boston. If there was rain, his clothes would be wet, because he was too distracted to wear an oilskin. This happened several times. Each layer of clothing would be wet enough to wring water from but McKay seemed not to notice. As she helped him remove his clothes, Catherine wondered whether he might be stupid. It was a possibility she had never entertained before their marriage. She wondered why none of her friends had ever cautioned her to consider it.

Among the people who came to McKay's house during this spring of his great restlessness was Catherine's twin brother, Colin Malloch, an engineer in the firm of Thompson and Gunn, Boston. He visited McKay's house in West Roxbury a total of three times, and remained as a guest for a week each time.

Colin and Catherine were fair in both hair and skin. They were identically the same height, somewhat greater than five feet, and while this did not mark Catherine was unusual among women, it was an inconveniently modest height for her brother. McKay, for example, stood a full foot taller than Colin, and this fact disturbed conversation between them unless they were both seated.

Colin and Catherine had been a couple all their lives. As children, they had been great treasures to their mother and to the neighboring householders. They had been washed in the same bath, and they had slept in the same bed since birth. Not until Colin left for school at the age of seven were they separated. During the years Colin attended university, they lived together in rooms at the top of a stone building on Mount Vernon Street. Even as adults, they still regarded each other tenderly. Not long after Catherine married Gordon McKay, Colin was also called into his service.

On his third visit to West Roxbury, Colin arrived soon after ten o'clock on a cloudless Saturday. He had come that morning from Providence, where business with another client had occupied him for two days. While he worked with his pens and topographic maps at a desk with a marble top, Catherine and McKay went outdoors together. They walked out into the tall grass. She took his hand as they climbed the slope of a pale hill. There was water running everywhere, after the rain of the night before, although the sky at this moment was the most acute blue.

"On a day like this," McKay said, "even I can feel some hope for New England. The sun comes down and boils these bare rocks until they get a little green on them. The country doesn't seem so mean on a warm day. The sheep all seem to cheer up. But it's only a lie. The facts are that this is a miserable, rocky country where nothing grows. We'll be much better off in Kansas."

The gravelly track made by sheep in the thin grass led them over a ridge and then down. The Indian grass gave up a hot smell. A part of this land had burned not many years ago, so that the path puffed up a fine dust of ash when one walked over it. Conifers grew in the shelter of warm ravines, and ferns. When they reached the water, McKay took off his clothes. At a confluence of two streams, there was a pool. He waded in. His arms made languid swimming motions under the water. His head parted reflections of spruce trees and blank rocks. Catherine soon wandered away and looked for flowers, while McKay lay in the water until late afternoon.

By evening, McKay had sustained a sunburn on his back, his buttocks, and his legs. It was a serious sunburn and his skin would eventually heave up great fluid-filled blisters, but this evening he had only the blush, the heat, and the remorse people feel when their excesses begin to cause problems. He retired to a cold bath, where Catherine brought him a towel before taking the book, rested on its spine on the edge of the tub, and opened it.

McKay himself had never kept bees; in fact, he had only once or twice before seen a hive, and these had been the plain wooden box hives of ancient design which had to be destroyed and the bees killed, in order to harvest the honey. Langstroth claimed to have discovered that bees will not build burr comb between the frames of a movable-comb hive when the space between the frames is kept within critical range of dimensions. This allows the frames to be removed and the honey to be taken without damaging either combs or bees. Thus each hive may be exploited for many times its own weight of honey in a summer season, and finishes each year stronger in bees than it started. Langstroth also said that often, by the system of nucleus swarming, as many as three new, good swarms of bees could be made in one season from an original one. McKay had written calculations in the margins to show how he might expect to increase his stocks of hives and bees each year if Langstroth's promises were good. The results were so incredible that he worked over his numbers again and again to see if he had made some mistake. He consulted Langstroth once more, and found that he had understood him correctly. The statements about profit and increase were clear and positive. One could finish every year with four hives for each hive he had at the beginning of the year. Supposing that he arrived at the new lands in Kansas with ten hives, McKay had calculated his wealth in hives after five years in the following way:

first year 10 × 4 = 40

second year 40 × 4 = 160

third year 160 × 4 = 640

fourth year 640 × 4 = 2560

fifth year 2560 × 4 = 10,240

In five years he would have over ten thousand hives of bees, each of which would cheerfully produce between eighty and one hundred pounds of honey in a year. This honey could be put into containers and transported by river to New Orleans, where it might be sold for export anywhere in the world. After the first year, it would be necessary to have an increasing staff to help with the work of dividing the hives and harvesting the honey, and so some of the profits would go toward wages. An isolated city based on bees would also need a wintertime activity. McKay was at this very moment negotiating with a group of Germans who made clocks and music boxes, and who were therefore also capable of making hives and frames to a high standard. They were eager to leave the Lowell factories where they were employed. McKay had offered to provide them houses and workshops.

The Germans were also pleased with the prospect of the land. McKay had sent them books written by travelers who were just then exploring the American Western country. In the illustrations, buffalo bathed in warm rivers. The forests were virgin hardwood. Kansas itself was watered by clouds shaped like spires. Between the clouds, sunlight came from enormous heights. It was possible to have rain and sun there at the same time.

McKay instructed Catherine to bring her brother in to him. Colin sat by the side of the tub in a straight chair for two hours that evening. While they talked they also drank whiskey and presently McKay felt numb enough from the cold bath and the whiskey to get out and put on his nightclothes. Both Catherine and Colin were required to help him out of the bathtub. McKay was a big man, with a tendency to be fat, even though he raged against it. Although he rode furiously, although he boxed, and even ran alone in the narrow tracks the sheep made across the hills, all his exercise didn't save him from the outrageous swings in weight which took him back and forth from a reasonably fit condition into that bloated shape which pried apart the buttons of his shirt.

Later, in bed, Catherine asked what the conversation with her brother had been about.

"I enlisted him," McKay said. "First I charmed him as vigorously as he has ever been charmed, and then I demanded that he come with us."

"Did he agree?"

"I think so, yes," McKay said. " He's considering, but I don't think he'll consider long before he comes bounding after us."

"Why did you suddenly command him to come?"

"He brought it all on himself. He says he hasn't got enough information from the maps I gave him to know whether we'll need locks on the river for year-round passage of the steamboat. Therefore we need him. If the river needs locks, we need him."

Catherine rolled onto her back. "And who did you say was going to look after him? I've got enough to do preparing meals for you without taking on someone else."

"You haven't prepared a single meal since we've been here."

"Of course I haven't, because your mother has a cook. But we're not taking your mother's cook to Kansas, are we?"

"Come, now," McKay said. "You can't be so opposed to looking after him. You two lived together for years. He isn't any trouble. He eats like a sparrow."

No trouble at all, if you pay him no attention. And McKay paid Catherine's brother very little attention. McKay's thoughts were all with the bees, and their prospects. On some days he was so distracted that he seemed barely to notice where he was. For his part, Colin had kept himself obscure. He was like a forest animal who stays in his den, and only comes out to eat and to look at the moon. But he was as large a presence as ever for Catherine, even in his obscurity. She knew where he was without looking for him, every moment. This was the way it had always been for them. They never called for each other, because each one knew where the other was, always. When they were younger, this had been a comfortable way to live. But now it was plain to both of them, although they said nothing about it, that this should change.

"He's young and näive," McKay said. "And he's never been farther west than Springfield. Coming with us will be good for him."

He wasn't so very young. He would be thirty this year, as Catherine would be. Someday soon he would want his share of the power that men hold over women. Catherine had known that he would want that power since they had been children together and she had seen by the evidence of his penis that he would become a man and would live in a world outside of her world. But the separation hadn't happened yet, in spite of her anticipation of it, her fear of it. They still knew each other's mind exactly. And now it seemed that their plan of growing away from each other must be put off again.

Excerpted from McKay's Bees by Thomas McMahon. Copyright 1979 by Thomas McMahon. Excerpted by permission of University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved.

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