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'McKay's Bees' Alive With Wit And Wonder

McKay's Bees book cover

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.

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.

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