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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

This is not the cover to Lesley Wheeler’s new novel Unbecoming:

Except it kinda is. I mean that is the John Audubon illustration of an American Cross-Fox from his 1851 The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America that Lesley researched and selected for her cover art. The font is the same too — or it almost is. The proportions and placement of Lesley’s name are a little off from the actual cover, and the fox isn’t framed inside the title letters there either.

The actual book’s design is by Aqueduct Press’s Kathryn Wilham, and it’s a lot more legible, especially when viewed online as a thumbnail, which is how book covers tend to be viewed these days. The above design is my own arty tinkering, done while Lesley was revising the final draft. It’s such an exciting book, I wanted to be part of it.

Of course I was already part of it. For me reading Unbecoming is like gazing into a funhouse mirror. The parts are familiar, but their placement and proportions are off. The novel is most definitely not autobiographical, and yet it does take place in a small southern town that isn’t entirely unlike Lexington, VA. The main characters work at a liberal arts college that isn’t entirely unlike W&L University. The narrator’s English department isn’t entirely unlike our English department — though that’s probably true of any small liberal arts English department?

The narrator really really isn’t Lesley, but she is a new department chair — a position Lesley suffered through a few years ago. She also has a daughter and son, similar ages as our son and daughter those same few years ago. Her husband is also struggling to establish his own foothold in academia, same as me before switching from adjunct to tenure-stream not so long ago. His name is Sylvio, which is nothing like Chris, and he’s in psychology, which is nothing like creative writing, let alone comics studies. Lesley sends him off to teach for a year out of state, a fate I’ve somehow avoided, despite the improbability of our both securing tenure in the same department. Supernatural forces may well have been involved.

Oh, that’s another difference. Lesley’s narrator has superpowers. Like Lesley, she’s a magical thinker — only with more definitive results. Though I don’t discount the possibility, I’m not aware of my wife ever stopping a careening car with her mind. It’s such a smart, superhero-reversing premise. Instead of her mutant abilities blossoming with puberty, the narrator’s erupt with menopause.

Or perimenopause, since I recall the first scene of the first draft opened with a menstrual blood bath. Those opening pages evolved the most during her multiple revisions. I miss the bathroom scene–because why shouldn’t that kind of blood be front and center in a supernatural thriller?–but it’s probably best that she blotted it down to a couple far less horror-soaked sentences now buried several pages in.

The whole novel is haunted that way for me. Not just by our own parallel universe, but by all of the shifting scenes and sentences I read as she revised, fine-tuned, re-revised, and revised again, and again. I tell my creative writing students that revising is writing, that a first draft is just manufacturing clay so you have something to work with. I think Lesley’s first draft took six weeks — same as William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Jack Kerouac claimed that On the Road only took three and that he didn’t revise a word. He was lying. It took ten years and six drafts.

The old title was The Changeling Professor, which I liked plenty, but the new title is even better. It has it’s own haunting real-world origin story, which is not mine to tell. I’ll just say it’s the best repurposing of a gratuitous insult I’ve ever witnessed.

I also have to admit that my funhouse vertigo is fair comeuppance, since I subjected Lesley to the same for years. When I started writing short stories nearly twenty years ago, my first batch featured a married couple with a similar resemblance/non-resemblance to us. I strung them through about ten stories, thought I was done with them, but then discovered another ten — all disturbingly focused on the wife’s adultery and subsequent pregnancy. Sorry about that, Les. And thank you thank you thank you for not making Sylvio cheat while away in the Carolinas.

After almost getting that novel-in-stories published, I switched to another parallel universe set in yet another small college town within easy driving range of DC. Lesley hasn’t named the college in Unbecoming, so I’ve decided it’s the same as in my long-time but still current novel-in-progress, The Patron Saint of Superheroes. Maybe it will become our not-so-private Yoknapatawpha county.

Meanwhile, check out Lesley’s starred review at Publishers Weekly The last sentence is the best: “Readers will be taken with this powerful and deeply satisfying tale.” That’s not magical thinking. That’s just plain true.

This, by the way, is the cover of Lesley Wheeler’s new novel Unbecoming:

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