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After 3 decades, author Hilary Masters' 'Post: A Fable' arrives

| Sunday, Aug. 7, 2011

On Nov. 28, 1977, Sports Illustrated published an excerpt from a new novel by Hilary Masters about a hunt for passenger pigeons. It was cited as a work in progress, but little did the editors know how far off the book's publication was: It would take Masters, who lives on the North Side, 34 years to find a publisher for "Post: A Fable."

"Nobody knew what to do with it," Masters says. "They couldn't figure it out. It is kind of a whacky book, so most of the mainline publishers, who always have a problem figuring out what they want to print and what's going to sell, wouldn't have it."

The story is so old that one of the characters, Kimball Lyon, the fictional governor of New York, was based on Nelson Rockefeller, who died in 1979. Through the years, Masters updated the story. Notably, after 9/11 the author incorporated a terrorism angle.

Masters admits he'd more or less given up on getting the novel published. The manuscript sat in a file cabinet until a few years ago when Master's wife, the writer Kathleen George, urged him to submit it again. The BkMk Press, affiliated with the University of Missouri-Kansas City, finally decided to publish "Post" this year.

"Writers reach a point with a manuscript where it doesn't seem to be moving anywhere," he says. "So you put it aside."

Masters admits that part of the problem with finding a publisher might be because of the novel's unusual structure. "Post," he admits, doesn't really have a plot, and primarily features conversations overheard by a special investigator B. Smith, who announces himself throughout the text as "I, B. Smith." The cast also featured Pickett Snead, a book reviewer who is more or less in shackles throughout the novel ("It's kind of a revenge," Masters laughs), and Leo Post, the son-in-law of the late governor who welcomes Smith to a fortress-like retreat on Leek Island on the border between Canada and New York.

"Post" lacks a true plot. Instead, it is built around the concept of people talking to each other, and the book's structure was influenced by "The Satyricon," written by Gaius Petronius, Nero's advisor on matters of extravagance and elegance in the first century A.D.

"I started reading it when I was a kid," Masters says. "It was my father's (Edgar Lee Masters) edition, and all the really erotic passages were in Latin. In a way, I learned Latin translating the passages that were a little sexy for the publication of that book. ... It's just a lot of jokes people told as they sat around and ate supper, some scabrous, some funny, some political."

Masters satirical bent is evident throughout. One of the late governor's innovations was to pave over Manhattan into the Perpetual Parking Plaza in order to ensure it's not a target for terrorists attacks. The governor also sells off New York landmarks, notably the Flatiron Building, where Washington Irving lived, to McDonalds, and the Chelsea Hotel to an amusement park in Crawfordsville, Ind.

It is the passenger pigeon motif, however, that brings the various strands of the story together. The Sports Illustrated story, titled "A Hurricane of Death," describes a hunt in Mauston, Wisc., during which millions of the birds were killed.

"I think it was a fabled bird in a way," Masters says, noting that fables invariably involve animals of some sort. "When it existed it was unbelievable. In all the reports we have of it, whenever a flock would arrive in a community, it just seemed unbelievable. Nobody could believe a flock was that big. It was kind of a fable, not something you expect people to believe.

"As somebody said, when something frightens us and we are in awe of it, we seem to have a natural instinct to control this in some way, if not obliterate it."

The last passenger pigeon, named Martha, died in 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoo. It is estimated there were between 3 billion and 5 billion passenger pigeons in the mid-1800s.

Additional Information:

Capsule review

'Post: A Fable' features Hilary Masters' exquisite facility with language. Even the simplest sentences in this offbeat novel brim with humor: 'Etymologically speaking,' one character says, 'Smith must be the beetle of all names; there are so many of you.' What 'Post' lacks by way of plot, it more than makes up for in Master's ability to tell stories through clever dialogue.

• Rege Behe

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