Loving Little Egypt by Thomas McMahon (Viking: $16.95; 260 pp.)
One of the pleasures in the writing of Thomas McMahon, scientist and novelist, is the lovely fit between his sentences and his characters.
McMahon, author of "McKay's Bees" and "Principles of American Nuclear Chemistry: A Novel," is interested essentially in one certain kind of character. It is the American as inventor, tinkerer, visionary; as a man who never puts his pants on the same way two days running, as a man who, slicing bread, may disappear for two years to follow some association concerning crumb mechanics.
Recall the opening sentences of "McKay's Bees," a classic of sorts about a New Englander who travels to the Western frontier with visions of vast fortunes to be made out of beehives and honey:
"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."
Bees and Inventors
Right there we have the inventor, sizing up bees and English in a particular aspect that, apart from a faint Kurt Vonnegut-like suggestion, doesn't quite belong to anyone else.
Or take a passage in "Loving Little Egypt." Its main character, Mourly Vold, is a blind prodigy who, by sheer reasoning and tinkering in the early decades of the century, gets the entire switching operation of the country's telephone network in his disinterested and benevolent power.
At the book's start, Vold's mother, a wealthy girl, first sees his tobacco-salesman father driving by in a horse-cart that carries an enormous swaying effigy of an up-ended cigar. Feeling foolish, no doubt, he looks sad. And McMahon writes:
"Ilse gave the sugar to the horse, and later she gave herself to the man as his wife, with absolute certainty that she could cheer him up. Her parents protested vehemently, and this added to her thrill. Despite many unsatisfactory performances on the part of her husband in the first year of their marriage, she continued to look for his good side. . . ."
McMahon, and his heroes, are always noticing things in unexpected ways. Mourly, who acquires the nickname Little Egypt, is raised in a small Cape Breton town. Almost sightless, he learns by his other senses and, particularly, by listening. He listens most to the oldest people in town, and this for an entirely practical reason. Being old, they were relatively stationary; being stationary, they were easy for a blind boy to find.
National Party Line
Little Egypt is sent to a school for the blind. There he makes a rudimentary telephone and discovers how to plug it into the Bell System. And through listening and learning the language of operators and supervisors, he is able to get anywhere he wants inside the system. He enlists a whole network of blind people who together constitute a kind of national party line.
Little Egypt's real power develops after the installation of automatic relays, activated by musical tones. He learns to imitate them, and before long he is able to do anything he wants: tie up the Eastern Seaboard, make all the telephones in a town ring at the same time, connect and disconnect callers and switch their connections in mid-conversation.
"He knew at every moment what was going on in a line, how every click and tone changed its status. He knew when he was in a local office, a toll center, a primary center, a regional center. He ran up the networks the way a squirrel runs through the branches of a tree. He jumped from one crazy place to another and never stayed long enough for his weight to be detected."
Little Egypt manages to send the phone company into a panic. He also panics William Randolph Hearst, who suspects foreign agents and drums up a campaign urging the capture of this potential saboteur. For a while, Little Egypt is a fugitive. In fact, however, his intentions are innocent; all he wants to do is convince the Bell System authorities that their devices are vulnerable and must be changed. Finally, after various comical demonstrations of his power, he succeeds.
McMahon is awkward at plotting. Little Egypt's adventures grow farfetched and are strung together fairly carelessly. The author doesn't seem to care much: He is out to explore the spirit, the mind, the ethics and the aesthetics of invention, and if "Loving Little Egypt" is clumsy, it is also stimulating and bold.
Early on, Little Egypt becomes the protege of the telephone's inventor, Alexander Graham Bell. And Bell's portrait, part factual and part fictional, is the heart of the book.
Free, Absurd Spirit
Bell was never able to match the early success which made him rich and famous. McMahon has him, in fact, work out early versions of many things that will later succeed in other hands: hydrofoils, iron lungs, and the X-ray treatment of tumors. But equally, he works on blind-alley schemes to breed sheep with extra nipples--so as to get more milk--and on a flying vessel powered by melting ice.
McMahon's Bell stands for the free, absurd, captivating and saintly spirit of discovery, where the line between what does and does not work is fine and ultimately not very important. What is important is the movement of spirit.
Bell's archrival, antagonist and the villain of the story is Edison, who functions not by imaginative leaps, but by a grinding thoroughness of experiment. This earth-bound prodigy, this monster of applied energy, makes a bigger mark, but it is science's poet, not science's exploiter, who is McMahon's hero, and who becomes the reader's.