Sunday, April 17, 2022

'The Lost of New York,' a novel by John Rigney, Jr. - how a hidden manuscript became a novel 70 years later

 


Hidden away for more than half a century, my late uncle’s novel,

The Lost of New York,  is finally a book (May 6, 2022).

So, why did I task myself with the arduous process of converting a faded stack of chapters into an actual book? Mostly because it fascinated me. I also felt a sense of familial loyalty, seeing as my late uncle, John “Butch” Rigney, Jr., preceded me as the first writer in the family, albeit unpublished. His hand-typed writing made its way across country –twice– before being published. The gritty and sad urban tale, set in early 1960s Bronx, New York, may be unfinished, but is a captivating time capsule.

It’s also a revealing roman a clef of Butch’s own life, cut too short in 1967.

 from the novel’s Introduction:

John “Butch” Rigney wanted to be a writer.

Stories remain amusing about his young life, growing up with a brother, Maureen, and brother, Kevin. His two sometimes abusive often drunk parents, helped him become what his sister called “a throw-away kid. Nobody ever gave him a chance, helped him out.”

John "Butch" Rigney, Jr.

As a youth, Butch went in and out of a series of reform schools for stealing, and jumping in a river from the Teufelberg Bridge, named after the Dutch Devil’s Mountain.

His brother was also a petty thief,
robbing a neighborhood diner.

In the early 1960s, Butch also served in the Air Force, possibly as a bargain for another jail sentence. He was stationed in Anchorage, and got out with an honorable discharge

A letter was sent to his mother –Mrs. John M. Rigney- mistakenly presumed to be his wife, of a package of papers that were left at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey.

The early writings of Rigney are dated 1963. These “papers” may have been his early drafts of short stories (not in this edition), perhaps the letter and scant scribbled notes. A few of the short stories are signed D.Cno. with J.M. Rigney as the mailing name.

Back in New York, Butch took writing classes, hand-wrote pages of multi-syllabic words as practice. He continued writing what became the unfinished Bugs in a Jar, the content of which is this edition. Some of those chapter are dated 1967, so it can be assumed that this work was his final. Another less complete work includes chapters for The Damned Deceived. An impressive novella-length short story, “Flat-Leavers” will be in the second edition.


How Butch managed to stay alive and work, his social interactions with fellow parolees, and the desperate needy romances of the women in his life, are captured in muted colors, and –between the self-taught grammatical limitations– often poignant lyricism.

By the mid-1960s then married, his sister Maureen took Butch to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, where a well-known speaker dared anyone who wanted to have a drink that he would give them two dollars. Butch responded to the offer a bit too enthusiastically, and was asked to leave.

His sister managed to attend the High School of Performing Arts, and soon escaped the impoverished ennui of Rigney’s world, with a marriage and move to Ohio, where she and my father raised our family.

While nearly every other family member visited us, and we them in the following decades, Butch remained a mystery. Rigney wanted to be a published writer. He had even sent one work to a literary agency, but it was returned by American Authors Inc. of Madison Avenue. Did he continue writing, give up, or did the reality of his life overtake any ambition? Or was it simply his addictions to alcohol, heroin and other drugs that took over?

The entire box of original pages was allegedly with Butch at his Bailey Place home when he died, of an overdose, with two ladies of the evening at his bedside, on December 6, 1967.

John "Butch" Rigney
leaves reform school

The manuscripts and letters were shipped to my parent’s house after they attended his funeral. The box of his writing remained there for decades, in a yellow plastic box. My curiosity, and penchant for annual cleaning and sorting of our home’s treasure trove of memorabilia and toys in our attic, led me to the box full of hand-typed pages held together by rusty paper clips, stained, with letters, and a few rent receipts for 3422 Bailey Place, The Bronx, 63, New York.

I couldn’t see which chapter went with which story, or if any of it made any sense, but it fascinated me before I was even a published writer. In 2005, I shipped them to my apartment in San Francisco. A few years later, they were sorted, scanned, converted to text, and edited mostly for punctuation and grammar, while retaining Butch’s unique self-taught literary style. The sad tone of desperation pervades the characters of Rigney’s stories, each intertwined with a needy sorrow and a na├»ve glimmer of hope.

  

John “Butch” Rigney wanted to be a writer, but died thinking he never could be. The sad thing is, he already was.

 

 Order The Lost of New York (publication date May 6, 2022; paperback $16.95, ebook $8.99) from your favorite bookseller, on Bookshop.org, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.com

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