The Lost of New York a novel by John Rigney, Jr.
Hidden away for more than half a century, my late uncle’s novel is finally a book.
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loyalty, seeing as my late uncle, John “Butch” Rigney, Jr., preceded me as the first writer in the family, albeit unpublished. How his hand-typed writing made its way across country –twice– before being published is told below. 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, Jr. (1937-1967) wanted to be a writer.
As a youth, Butch went in and out of a series of reform schools for stealing, and even jumping from a bridge in the Bronx into the Hudson River. He and his brother and sister enduring abusive parents before each leaving as teenagers.
Growing up hearing stories about his young life growing up with his sister Maureen and brother Kevin remained amusing, despite his two sometimes abusive and alcoholic parents who helped him become what his sister called “a throw-away kid. Nobody ever gave him a chance, helped him out.”
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.
Back in New York, Butch had taken writing classes, and 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 chapters 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 published in a second book. Some of the chapters are dated 1966, so it can be assumed that this work was his final.
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 manuscript and letters were shipped to my parent’s house after they attended his funeral. The box of his writing remained in our attic 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 stained onion-skin pages, along with letters, a few rent receipts for 3422 Bailey Place, The Bronx, 63, New York.
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.
His social interactions with fellow parolees, and the desperate romances of the women in his life, are captured in a blunt yet poetic style.
By the early 1960s, his sister Maureen (my mom), then married, 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.
Maureen managed to attend the High School of Performing Arts, and soon escaped the poverty and desperation of Rigney’s world, with a marriage and move to Ohio, where she and my father raised our family.
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. After being stored in our Ohio home for decades, I shipped them to my apartment in San Francisco. The manuscript pages were sorted, scanned, converted to text and edited, mostly for punctuation and grammar while retaining Rigney’s self-taught writing style. A sad tone of desperation pervades the characters of his stories, each intertwined with a tone of sorrow of a lost era.
John “Butch” Rigney wanted to be a writer, but died thinking he never could be. The sad thing is, he already was.