From the shores of Mamacoke Island to the tables of Foxwoods Resort Casino, a debut novel by author Peter Wheelwright places the Thames River valley at a focal point.
As It Is On Earth, which was published last month, takes place in 1999 on the eve of the millennium. Each chapter covers one of eight days leading up to the end of the year.
“If one had to grab one overarching theme, it’s that we’re driven or motivated by the clash of nature and civilization,” says Wheelwright. “And the river is a kind of metaphor for that clash.”
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Wheelwright grew up in Pittsfield, Mass., but frequently came to New London to take the ferry to visit his grandparents on Fischer’s Island. He spent some of his childhood boating on the Thames River and witnessed the launching of the Nautilus. After working as a professional architect for 25 years, he became a professor at the Parsons School of Design in New York City. He teaches theory seminars to graduate students who are involved in environmental issues and says he is personally drawn to natural world and how we think about it.
Although Wheelwright has written for academic journals before, this is the first time he has written a novel.
“Academic writing is a bummer,” he said. “It’s a limited audience, and it’s preaching to the choir. And I wanted to tell this story about the clash of earth and civilization in a fictional setting.”
The book begins as protagonist Thatcher Taylor receives a call telling him that his brother, Bingham, has been sleeping on a fire escape outside his Hartford apartment. On the same day, his girlfriend tells him that she is leaving him to go to Mexico.
“That just sends him into reveries to his upbringing in Maine, which is complex,” says Wheelwright.
Among the complexities is the fact that Thatcher and Bingham are biological stepbrothers born exactly three years apart. In the story, Thatcher’s mother dies when he is young and his father marries her identical twin sister; this woman in turn dies giving birth to Bingham.
From there, Thatcher tries to figure out the relationships of his past and present. The story takes him to a number of local sites including the Coast Guard Academy, Connecticut College, Sub Base New London, and Mamacoke Island. The photograph of the island on the book’s cover was taken by a member of the Connecticut College faculty.
Wheelwright says he spent time in the area to familiarize himself with the geography, including a weekend visit to Foxwoods, a drive along the river, and hikes through the Connecticut College Arboretum, where Mamacoke Island is located. He said he followed John Irving’s dictum of writing toward the last line of the book.
“Every day I sat down to write I felt productive,” he said. “I didn’t struggle at all writing this book. It came to be very easily.”
Wheelwright said he is currently working on a book with a similar theme entitled The Door-Man. It follows a doorman at Central Park West whose proximity to the park keeps drawing him back to his experiences with the Civilian Conservation Corps.
More information on the book is available at the Fomite Press website.