It’s fall now and the season for amusement parks may have drawn to a close but if you’re looking for one wild ride, you could do a lot worse than pick up Mort Morte by David Henry Sterry. By turns absurd, hilarious and tragic, this fairly quick read tells the story of Mordechai Murgatroyd Morte, a young man who follows his mother through her unfortunate marriages to several physically and sexually abusive men.
The novel begins with these lines: “On my third birthday, my father, in an attempt to get me to stop sucking my thumb, gave me a gun. ‘Today, son, you are a man,’ he said, snatching the little, blue binky from my little, pink hand. So I shot him.”
Although the abusive element is merely hinted at in the character of Mort’s father here (who gives his three-year-old son a gun?), the farcical quality is immediately apparent and sets the tone for Mort’s experiences with his mother’s future and more clearly terrible husbands. As she moves from conjugal attachment with one man and then another, Mort ultimately finds new ways of ridding himself and his mother of their nonsense by acts of gruesome murder.
As Mort advances into his teenage years and moves to Rome, Texas so that his mother may tie the knot with Billy Bob Bobby Joe Willy Dick Bodine (BB, for short), the first hint of Mort’s own intense sexuality emerges in a lusty relationship with Muffy Thunderbuck, his school’s goddess of beauty and sensuality. “In out, in out,” Sterry writes in multiple consecutive paragraphs, representing the relationship in absurdly physical terms, which reflects equally on the emotional hollowness of the men brought into his life by his poor “milky” British mother.
Cleverly, however, into the apparent hollowness of the prose one can read some of the most serious of childhood traumas–vulnerability, helplessness at the hands of abusive adults and the kind of resilient self-reliance that is the sanctuary for young men lacking the benefits of a stable household. Both socially awkward and intellectually brilliant (the latter quality of which captured Muffy’s heart, or did it capture her legs?), Mort becomes the dreaded agent of his mother’s constant widowhood and also her savior as he rids her time and again of negligent, angry men.
The novel seems to reflect the story of a sensitive young man and his mother struggling to survive in a tough, unforgiving world. The final irony of the story, however, occurs after Mort, having blown up his mother’s latest beau, Bartholomew Dinsdale Dinkleberry, with a vial of nitroglycerine, finds that he and his mother will be kicked out of Rome. Following a self-pitying visit to Muffy Thunderbuck for some physical “comfort”, Mort returns home to find his mother has slipped out of town, stating in a note she has left behind that she has moved ahead and will “find a good boarding school for bright young people who don’t quite fit in, which we all know you are, pet, and you will join us later. Everything will be fine, most likely.”
Only, Mort knows nothing will be fine. His mother, he realizes in an instant, is in many ways the cause herself of so much grief and self-destruction in submitting to the abusive routines of so many bad men. Whereas Mort always believed in his goal to protect, he now–at the moment of maternal abandonment–realizes it was her destructive personality which, aside from earning her a great future through the wealth of one now-dead husband, has callously prompted her to leave behind an awkward son.
The monumental irony then is upon the discovery of abandonment. If children are often seen as wild uncontrollable creatures, their adult counterparts fare far worse in this writer’s treatment. Mort Morte is the engaging and unusual story of a young man who finds the one person to whom he is most devoted to be the primary agent of his worst suffering.