Stranger than any episode of “The X-Files” is David Duchovny’s transformation into a novelist. This isn’t another sad case of those celebrities Who Just Do Stuff. Duchovny actually demonstrates some literary panache. Starting in 2015 with “Holy Cow” — narrated by an itinerant Holstein — he’s been publishing charming novels that glitter with silliness.
His latest, “Miss Subways,” is an old-fashioned romantic comedy that takes its title from the posters that featured attractive working women on New York subway cars for several decades starting in 1941. But the story’s real inspiration reaches back many more centuries to the tale of Emer and Cu Chulainn in Irish mythology. Consequently, this may be the only novel ever to start with epigraphs by W.B. Yeats and Ed Koch. Take that incongruity as fair warning for the blarney that lies ahead.
Our heroine, Emer, is a talented first-grade teacher in modern-day New York City. Like this novel, her personality is marked by what Duchovny calls a “charismatic, universal, lighthearted melancholy.” At 41, she’s already spent several years encouraging her boyfriend, Con, a failed academic. (He supports himself by writing book reviews, which may be the most fantastical element of this fantasy plot.) Ignoring her own desire to write, Emer works as Con’s unpaid assistant on his research about the intermingling of religious and mythological beliefs brought to America over the years.
What little we see of Con’s slapdash thesis doesn’t inspire much confidence that he’ll ever find the success that Emer thinks he deserves. And what we see of Con himself makes it difficult to fathom Emer’s devotion. “If Twitter mated with Malcolm Gladwell . . . and moved a little to the right,” Con says, “that’s me.”
But that’s hardly the weirdest spawn in this tale.
One night while sitting alone in her apartment worrying about Con’s fidelity, Emer is visited by a little Irish doorman. Even if you don’t recognize the name Bean Sidhe as the Celtic fairies who foretell death, you’ll pick up on something odd about this profane visitor. (But don’t call him a leprechaun; he hates that.) Brushing aside Emer’s questions — and ours — Bean Sidhe explains that Con has offended the gods of Africa with “his right-wing-spin shenanigans,” and he’s about to be murdered by Anansi, the West African trickster god. Emer can save Con only if she vows never to see him again. “To prove your love for him,” Bean Sidhe says, “you have to let go of your love.”
Before you can pick the petals off a shamrock, Emer wakes up in a revised version of her life — without Con. She’s just a middle-aged grade-school teacher muddling through with a vague sense that something’s missing. “All the images from last night receded and fled from any sort of specificity,” Duchovny writes, “replaced now by a deep, pervasive feeling of ambient loss, of being bereft. Bereft of what, she did not know.”
What follows is a Celtic version of “Groundhog Day,” as Emer meets a charming man name Con and learns once again that they cannot remain together. But Duchovny is in no hurry to cycle through that doomed romance. “Miss Subways” is definitely single-tracking, with lots of unloading along the way. If you can get yourself to sit back and stop focusing on the destination, there are plenty of oddly charming incidents to enjoy. Duchovny is particularly funny on the antics of schoolchildren and their uptight parents. He’s also got a great ear for the anxieties of dating, and the sweet comedy of middle-aged sex.
When heady quotations from the likes of Carl Jung and Kierkegaard appear on the walls of the subway cars, it’s tempting to wonder if the spirit of Con’s pseudo-
intellectualism hasn’t infected the novel a bit too deeply. But Duchovny isn’t just another pretty face. With an undergraduate degree from Princeton and a master’s degree in English from Yale, he handles these references with discernment and wit. And the novel is spiked with memorable little insights such as this superb description of Emily Dickinson: “She was able to perch in a twilight world between sense and nonsense, full of dread and hard truth, yet still retain an essence of the mundane, a whiff of her uneventful life, spent as a conscientious objector, hiding in plain sight in Massachusetts, to an establishment not yet ready to read her.”
As a certain slant of light hits these pages, you’ll also see mythical creatures like colors in a crow’s feathers. Sometimes, it’s a literary allusion to Persephone heading down to the subway; other times, Emer thinks she might have spotted Sobek with his crocodile head or Golems gathering in abandoned stations. In further iterations, Con seems so irresistible that he might be a gancanagh from Irish legend. And Emer’s grade-school principal seems to vacillate between two realms like Frank Morgan in “The Wizard of Oz.”
Literalists will find this exceedingly frustrating. As Bean Sidhe warns, “There’s no sense to be had here anymore. We’re past all sense of sense.” But more serious subjects rumble beneath the surface of “Miss Subways.” Emer’s childhood realization that she can never become a Catholic priest has long separated her from the church, leaving her with an aching “memory of that oneness with the holy.” Meanwhile, her father is adrift in dementia. And a couple of careless abortions has left her infertile and mourning. Such dark elements provide emotional ballast to what might otherwise have been a merely silly tale.
That darkness can’t permanently overshadow the story, though. This is, after all, a classic romantic comedy — not a grim Celtic myth. It’s a novel that wonders, “How steadfast is your belief in what is real?” — just the kind of question Agent Mulder might ask.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and host of TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By David Duchovny
Farrar Straus Giroux. 320 pp. $26