A delightful young lady named Noni has learned from her doctor that she has only a very short time to live, due to a heart condition. Since childhood, she's been sweethearts with the idealistic Gil. As such things often happen, instead of marrying each other, they married different people, and neither marriage worked out; Noni's husband skipped out on her (with a good deal of her family's money) and Gil's wife died of medical complications while giving birth (the child passed away, as well). Now, with her own death looming, Noni decides to go to Mexico to get a quick, official divorce from her first husband and marry Gil before she dies. Gil is unaware of her illness. Blomberg, a mutual friend whose own love for Noni is problematically vague, accompanies them as a kind of chaperone. It is through Blomberg's eyes that the taletold in the third personunfolds. The story is told in three quite specifically, carefully delineated milieus: In the first, in Boston bars and restaurants (most of Aiken's fiction is set in Boston), Blomberg tries to solicit money for the trip from a skeptical benefactor named Key; in the second, the three friends make the journey to Mexico by train; in the third, they rendezvous with a Mexican friend named Hambo, who tries to help with the legalities of the divorce.
As the novel opens, Blomberg is waiting in Boston Common for Key to arrive, and, immediately, in the second paragraph, Aiken makes use of a Freudian symbol, that of a reflectionin this case, from the water: he "avoided looking at his reflection in the glassy water of the Frog Pond"; and the sentence continues, "which he was circling for the fourth time...". The motif of the circle is another familiar one in Aikenone of the novels that captured Freud's notice is called Great Circleand we'll come back to it in a bit, but I think it's profitable for us, as readers, to ask the question, Under what circumstances does it make sense to say a person is willfully avoiding looking at his own reflection? There's only one realistic answer, which is that he doesn't like what he sees (in mythology, Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection; this is the opposite). And, so, our curiosity is immediately piqued. As Blomberg goes on to tell Key about the highly improbable scheme, the question occurs to Keyas it surely does to every readerwhy does Blomberg have to go on the trip to Mexico? It seems inappropriate. Key speculates that Blomberg must, too, be in love with Noni:
So, you're willing to do all this, at the drop of a hat, and on a shoestringpractically give up your job, spend all your savings, run yourself ragged to raise money, work your head off and generally worry yourself to death, and all to provide a goody-goody little husband for the gal you're in love with!
Blomberg makes a surprising reply, which is that yes, he's in love with her, but here Aiken has him speak of a kind of love that is not sexual or romantic in nature but which, rather, is something close to the meaning of agape from ancient Greek literaturea sense of truly strong, deep affection, a genuineness of caring, possibly a super strong Platonic love. (Key is skeptical; Blomberg says, "Don't smile, such things do happen.") Blomberg refers to Noni as the "nakedest" soul he's ever met; she wouldn't avoid her own reflection in the water. In any case, Key comes through with the money, and it's off to Mexico.
The train to Mexico assumes the form of several things, not the least of which is a symbol of life, the process of living, itself ("the only remaining reality was the train"). It also becomes an anthropomorphic monster, later on, as it races faster and faster into Mexico. Mexico and its people are an exotic netherworld to the three Bostonians. After a time, we begin to focus in on Noni and her plight, and we come to realize that, in reality, she is going to Mexico not to marry Gil but to die and thus begin what Aiken calls the Great Circlebirth, life, death, rebirth. Blomberg thinks "Noni on the great circle to Mexico, taking her heart as an offering to the bloodstained altar of the plumed serpent..." Noni is (has always been?) a sort of unattainable goddess who intends to die well, and it's suggested that there's a sort of telepathy about this between her and Blomberg while Gil simply looks on as a clueless, well-meaning dunce. Preparing forand acceptingdeath must be something Aiken meditated upon constantly; when he was eleven, his father killed his mother and then himself, in a shooting spree that reads like one of today's horrific headlines. The shock of it was obviously something that dominated his life.
This idea of 'taking her heart to the bloodstained altar of the plumed serpent' is something to which each of us can easily relate. We've all known someone who doesn't have much time left, have all had to turn our heads for a moment while we wipe away the tears we don't want them to see.. It's too sad for words, unbearable really; and it's only because this kind of grieving pain is a nearly universal feeling that Aiken is able to challenge us so strongly with the idea of the Great Circle, with the idea of the dying person who turns death into the ultimate act of dignity rather than something to be mourned. This is Blomberg describing Noni to Key:
She plays the piano very badly, but more movingly than anyone else I ever heard, bar none. Always Bach, nothing but Bach. Gil can play rings around herGil could have been a professional if he'd wanted tobut it doesn't mean a thing by comparison. You ought to see her at a concerther face opens like a flowershe clasps her hands flatly together, and leans her face sideways on them, and goes a million miles away. I just sit and look at her, it's as good as the music. Better! How do some people do thatdoesn't seem quite fair, Key, does it, that some people have that astonshing integrity of living or loving, or seeing and feelingreally love and feel, while the rest of us poor guys have to wait and be told when to love.
In addition to the train, three other things function in preeminently in the novel. The first is the strangeness of oddish, hircine, singular Mexico to the three genteel, civilized, innocent New England souls; the second is a brief scene involving a "baptism" in the Mississippi River; and the third is the constant, even obsessive, evocation of the image of the heartthe bloody corazon of the ancient Indiansthat occurs throughout. And I'd like to quickly mention a concept that appears in all the critical literature about Aiken which is a bit out of our scope, here, but which the inquisitive reader should most assuredly delve into. This is the concept of consciousness, which for Aiken is synonymous with being human. In one of his plays, Archibald McLeish wrote: "The only thing that makes a man a man is his mind. Everything else you can find in a dog, or a pig, or a horse." That this uncomfortably true observation is a prime preoccupation of Aiken's in his imaginative literature is confirmed by a quick perusal of the scholarly books about Aiken on a site like Alibrisbooks with titles such as Conrad Aiken: The Priest of Consciousness or The Fictive World of Conrad Aiken: A Celebration of Consciousness.
It's not an easy task to weave transcendental philosophical meditations into a novel in a meaningful way and simultaneously keep the narrative moving, interesting, on pace. For example, in the case of this particular novel, quite a bit of exposition has to be given to the reader via means of the long conversation between Key and Blomberg that kicks off the book; the reader learns things at the same time that Key does. Later, when the majority of the action is limited to the confines of the train, the same device is employed with much more force, much more drama, though a case could be still made that things are a little too talky. Perhaps this is an inevitable consequence of trying to do philosophy by means of a novel. I don't know that there are too many American novelists who, like Aiken, have attempted this (Walker Percy? William H. Gass?). At the same time, even if the tale seems a little contrived, the images, the evocations, and the humanization of some weighty convictions make A Heart for the Gods of Mexico an importunate one, and a good introduction to our most major unknown writer.