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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

A Novel for Pandemic Times: Moby-Dick

Updated: Feb 9

Two decades ago, after completing Beyond the Wall, and sending it out free through a Puffin Foundation grant, I planned never to write again about the four years in Venezuelan prisons. Then in 2003 at my desk in Lima, Peru, a voice spoke the following words.


"Today an unexpected return from the Embassy. The same young woman whose name is Jan. I thanked her for the pen and paper. Punk was badgering Jan while I stood quietly to the side. She must have taken note of my demeanor and asked…if there was anything in the way of magazines and books that she might bring me.

Moby Dick?

She looked surprised. Melville's Moby Dick?


An embassy secretary, a woman we have seen often, looked uncomfortable with our banter. I gave a wink so Jan would know I had seen the woman's dour face.

At sixteen a teacher told me to reread Melville as an adult. Forty-eight ought to be old enough. Now I have time to read slowly.

Punk pushed closer to the table. What the f…, Viejo?

Ignoring my cellmate, whose Bronx world is four-letter, I told Jan I was trying to place her accent."




This will make no sense, of course, unless you have read Beyond the Wall and realize that a U.S. Embassy must visit U.S. citizens who are imprisoned in foreign countries and bring a monthly or quarterly loan. In Venezuela, other than two or three meager meals a day, nothing was provided to prisoners. Even a bunk had to be bought. And if you are not a writer, it might be unclear how a fictional work can begin, often with the voice of an unknown character. I filed these words away but dug out Moby-Dick from my books in Lima. For years abroad, I hauled around a hardcover of Melville's novel. And once again in 2003, I tried unsuccessfully to read M-D.

Then in 2004, we moved to the Northern Neck of Virginia. I taught classes, wrote articles and essays, completed a novel, Of Love and Circumstance in 2012, which Graywolf Press kept for almost a year before rejecting it. Eventually I returned to the voice I had heard in Lima, began tinkering with an epistolary novel set in a Venezuelan prison. This provided something to take to a writing group once a month, although no one seemed interested in an imprisoned attorney's letters to his sixteen-year-old daughter. No matter. The voice kept speaking to me. Although the character was fictional, it was influenced by an imprisoned attorney in Caracas, who had written one chapter of Beyond the Wall: "A Day in Reten La Planta."


Why in 2020 did I print a second edition of Beyond the Wall and write an introduction for it on July 4th? My reason was to assuage a deep fear that Trump would win in November, retain Attorney General Barr, and our country's judicial system would become as corrupt as Venezuela's. Lady Justice from the lawyer's room in Reten La Planta is an image forever in my mind. Now she is on the cover of the book's second edition, thanks to the artistic genius of Napa Valley's Cort Sinnes, a student in 1969 and a friend ever since.

The pandemic has made me determined to complete my novel. Earlier I had decided to offer a course on Melville through the community college's RILL program. And this past September I had planned to do a Melville tour: visit the house (now a country club) in the Berkshires where his paramour/muse lived, explore the Whaling Museum in New Bedford, see Nantucket, and eventually stand before Melville's grave in New York City. I had hoped to create a PowerPoint presentation for my May 2021 class, such as I had done for a course on Flannery O'Connor after visiting Milledgeville and Savannah, Georgia.

You know the end of this story. No travel. The multitudes in housebound cells without bars.

Yet last spring I began seeing articles about Moby-Dick as a popular read during the pandemic, not to mention the monomaniacal reign of the now deposed King Donald.


Next week: The Muse of Moby-Dick




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