‘Novy’s Son: A Selfish Genius’ by Karen Ingalls

This is a long and painfully revealing story about the author’s father. He saw himself as “someone who was betrayed, who was never understood nor appreciated, but who is a genius of aristocratic blood”. His behaviour throughout his ninety-five years, however, deservedly earned him his reputation as “a ladies’ man, a curmudgeon, a son of a bitch, and an elitist.” It is a tough read.

Murray Clark, or as he later re-named himself to escape his debtors, Michael St Germain, was a selfish, self-centred, egotistical, alcoholic, sex-addicted sociopath. He continually trashed the opportunities presented to him while exploiting the generosity and patience of his parents and of the many women who gave him chance after chance. He let his two daughters down unforgivably, and barely appreciated their later kindness and forgiveness (particularly the efforts of his younger daughter, Karen), and always blamed others for his screw-ups.

Having lived through it, and perhaps in an attempt to say “Goodbye To All That” the author tells her father’s story in the first person from his point of view. It therefore unfolds as autobiography. Some moments must have been particularly painful to write about. “I was now seeing changes in Joan, who was more withdrawn, which caused me concern. Yet my time with Grace was more important. I simply no longer asked the girls any questions, as I did not want my fears confirmed that they were being mistreated … Part of me did not want to know what happened in Helen’s house to cause Karen so much distress. It might mean I would have to deal with it.”

The style is homespun, lifted and contrasted at the end of each chapter by the literary prose of Herman Melville. I couldn’t in every case determine the relevance of the end paragraphs to the events of the chapter, though I enjoyed each extract. In my e-version, the Melville paragraphs weren’t highlighted by quotation marks (though the author was always acknowledged). I think a paperback version of the book (with drop caps, the author’s name at the bottom of each page, words split by hyphens and so on) had been uploaded into the Kindle Store, resulting in a messy e-version, though it was always possible for a diligent reader infused with goodwill to navigate the text. My version needed a good, professional edit.

Murray does provide the reader with some valuable insights: his challenging of theology for example, and of social attitudes regarding sexual urges in adolescence. He asks some important questions. “With so many events and players in the course of history, is only one group of people the enslaved, the abused, the innocent ones? Is history not full of unfairness and cruelty?” There are also moments of refreshing honesty when he acknowledges his shortcomings. “I was too small for football, not fast enough for track, and couldn’t throw or hit well enough for baseball.” “It was not until years later I realized Richard just wanted to be with me and be like me. Actually, he turned out to be a better man than me.”

Did the author put those words into his mouth because he said them or because they were true? I asked myself that question many times. I thought this was a very brave book, and I do hope writing it brought the author some closure.