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Thomas McMahon: Ira Foxglove

McMahon’s last novel, published posthumously, is clearly an early novel, if not his first. It seems to be set in the late Sixties – Britain still has shillings and pence while France still talks about nouveaux francs. Like his other three novels, it is deceptively light-hearted in style and brings in his scientific experience. The eponymous hero, Ira Foxglove, is in his early forties. He has recently had a heart attack and has not fully recovered from it, both physically and mentally. His wife, Portia, has had enough of his keeping the apartment in the dark and his general behaviour and, at the beginning of the novel, leaves him (in Boston) to go to England. The novel is essentially about his quest to get Portia back.

Portia had polio as a child but got better by intensive swimming and is now a top swimmer, which is what she intends to do in England. (She also taught Ira to be a good swimmer.) Ira teaches in a college but is also an inventor. When their daughter, Henley, got burnt, he tried to invent a kind of dressing that would not stick to the wound. He failed in that but managed to invent a fabric that was light-weight, stain-free and durable. No-one was interested but he persuaded his friend, Neptune, to buy it for five hundred dollars. Neptune did so, reluctantly, and has now made a lot of money out of it, so much so that he now owns an airship. Neptune likes to fly to Europe in his airship, stopping off in Iceland for a bit of fishing and, on one trip, takes Ira along so that he can visit Portia and, also, Henley, who is studying mime in Paris.

Portia is living with an Indian (who took her in when he found her starving in a railway station), though there seems to be no sexual relationship between the two. When Ira arrives things are tense and he soon heads off to Paris, where he receives a much warmer reception from his daughter, who advises him to forget Portia. He gets involved in her mime group but, more particularly, he gets – reluctantly – involved with one of her room-mates, Peaches. However, his involvement with Peaches (to Peaches’ disgust) leads to another experiment involving a tomato and an artificial heart and a probable invention, rather than anything too sexual. All’s well that ends well but McMahon cleverly makes sure that the ending is not tacky. It’s not a great novel and probably not as good as the other three but McMahon tells such a good story and tells it so convincingly, seemingly light-hearted but with definite serious intent, that you cannot help but admire his work.

Publishing history

First published 2004 by Brook Street Press