The Wishdoctor’s Song

wishdoctorThe perfect song. Mallecho Wishfort, who everyone simply calls “Witch”, has one wish and goal: to write “the perfect song”.  Though he’s supremely gifted and seems capable of anything, it may be the one thing he can’t do.

Witch is one of main characters in Hunter Steele’s 1984 book The Wishdoctor’s Song.  The author’s second novel, it follows the adventures and mishaps of one Peter Squirrell, a university psychology student in early 1970’s Scotland. Squirrell moves into a basement apartment in the house of the Wishfort’s and becomes entangled in the lives of the large family – particularly in the life of Witch. Witch is the epitome of smooth.  He’s self-assured, gifted, admired and desired by all, and the ultimate representative of the late 60’s/early 70’s counterculture. He’s the uber-hippie.

Squirrell is the opposite. He’s hesitant, inhibited, lacking self-confidence and lacking experience (especially of the sexual kind, much to his chagrin.) He’s both repulsed and allured by Witch and Witch’s lifestyle. Squirrell represents a “normal” middle-class person tempted by the freedom of breaking from society’s constraints.  And, of course, tempted by the free love that goes along with the hippie lifestyle.  It’s no coincidence that the names “Witch” and “Squirrell” so accurately reflect the attributes of their names.

As the book jacket reads, Peter Squirrell struggles to “make his own way in the cut-throat world of peace and love.” He grudgingly becomes friends with Witch, though we can’t help but wonder if Witch is just humoring Peter, or perhaps using him (in fact, Peter has the same nagging doubts). Witch’s sister, Helen, also appears to be using Peter, though his sexual trysts with her make it easier for him to ignore the doubts he has about their relationship.

Squirrell always sees things in a “grass is always greener” way. To him, everything about Witch’s world, and everything about the women he idolizes look ideal and out of reach. Yet, little by little the cracks in his fantasies appear and he begins to see through to the real life hiding behind them – even with Witch, whose fairy-tale life may not actually be all that idyllic.

Add to the story a struggling young folk rock band with a controlling manager, Witch’s ex-girlfriend (who’s the band’s lead singer) and Squirrell’s professor’s tragi-comic sexpot wife. When Witch is recruited for one of the professor’s unorthodox experiments, things begin to slowly spiral out of control in all their lives.

Music is a force uniting the characters, something they all have in common, whether through playing it, listening to it or befriending musicians. Steele’s eye for the details of early 70’s music tropes is spot-on as he describes a performance by Janie Carmen, an Emmylou Harris/Stevie Nicks cross who has managed to escape the constraints of the local Scottish scene and attain stardom:

“The White Ravens came on and plunked several slick country numbers. Musically they were streets ahead of the TwangGang, but their stage gear consisted of ordinary jeans and shirts, they smoked cigarettes and drank beer while playing, half the time with their backs to the audience, and generally gave a formidably sedative performance. Consequently, when Janie Carmen made her entry, stunning in a lace-trimmed backwoods-style pink dress over her famous bare feet, the effect was like the advent of Santa at a children’s Christmas party.

‘Janie,’ a hysterical American cried above the general yells, “you got more class than the resta Hollywood put together. You know that?’

‘That sure is kinda you fellah,’ Janie replied, smiling coyly as she straightened the capo on her pearl-inlaid guitar. ‘Now, a song very dear to my heart…’
Mr. Tambourine Man

Next: a Carmen song, pretty, ladylike, recalling a lost world of crystal fountains on distant mountains, with a tinkling harp background. Janie had less raw charisma than Cindy [lead singer of the TwangGang], but she had developed her talent to the utmost, and her audience-holding power was hypnotic. If Cindy’s voice was like dancing sunlight on a frosty morning, Janie’s was like the mellow warmth of a harvest evening: dusty golden, compellingly lazy, full of lotus promise.

This siren-like quality intensified as she sang Suzanne, making us wonder if perhaps Janie was Suzanne…”

Steele has a fondness for metaphors and similes and the book is riddled with them, some quite inventive, such as “Wheeling seagulls mewed low above me, like electrocuted cats…” or “Professor Newbigging was eyeing Beano with the detached interest of an undertaker regarding a comedian who doesn’t know he is about to have a fatal heart attack.”  Occasionally he over reaches a bit, though, in passages like “His long fair hair was freshly washed and waved like a girl’s in response to the breeze that eddied like a confession of nature’s fickleness across the lawns rolling down from the gallery to the hot houses.”

The underlying philosophy that Witch lives by and that the book attempts to convey is that how we experience life depends on how we look at things. Life is what you make it, in other words.  Squirrell is very pessimistic, constrained, and often faces life with frustration. This makes him feel insecure and depressed.  Witch has a completely different outlook and reaction to life’s ups and downs, despite (we eventually find out) not having things all that great.  It’s just that he deals with trials and tribulations with a sense of humor and with an accepting, zen-like attitude.

There’s lots of sex, drugs and rock and roll in The Wishdoctor’s Song, but not in a gratuitous, exploitative way. The book is filled with humor and describes the counterculture and college youth world of the early 1970’s in what I imagine is a fairly accurate portrayal.  One gets the distinct impression that the author is intimately knowledgeable of this world and lived through it himself.

The Wishdoctor’s Song is an undeservedly obscure book, but it would make a great movie.

Oh, the perfect song? I don’t think I’m giving too much away when I tell you that Witch doesn’t write it. “The perfect song” is an incredibly subjective idea and perfect is in the ear of the beholder, after all.

[Hunter Steele published a few more novels – all of which look quite interesting– and then founded a small publishing company called Black Ace. According to his website, a new edition of The Wishdoctor’s Song is due for publication, though I don’t know how old that information is. You can find used copies fairly cheaply on ebay, amazon and similar websites.]

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