Professor Gene Farrington

It's obvious that Professor Farrington is one of those rare, refreshing breeds in academia whose zest for work only intensifies with age. In person and through his novels, he comes across as an embodiment of the eccentric-but-loveable professor archetype. (J. M. Giordano / July 18, 2014)

Veteran professor of English and drama at the Notre Dame of Maryland University, he boasts an impressive familiarity with all things lit that not only bleeds through the pages of his new novel, “The Blue Heron,” but inevitably pokes in and out of his everyday vernacular.

Which is why it might come as a surprise that, with such a broad frame of reference, Farrington’s most beloved and oft-used word is a common, four-letter expletive.

“Fuck,” he chuckles genially. “I spent three long years during the Korean War in the Marine Corps and learned to use it as an adjective, a verb, an adverb, a noun . . . pretty much every form possible.”

It is this linguistic tension between the archaic and the vulgar that opens “The Blue Heron,” the local author’s just-released, epic 585-pager that explores the fictional parallels between a pair of 20-something online chatters, David and Molly, and their ostensible historical predecessors. David and Molly are hotly contesting the many uses of Farrington’s favorite curse word when their chat room is intruded on by an unlikely guest: 16th century Native American Opechancanough.

The writer, a lifelong history buff, wanted to use the anachronistic figure as a reliable portal into the story’s historical dimension. “I found him a fascinating intrusion,” he says. “I got a dictionary of the Algonquin language, which most of the east coast tribes, including the Powhatan, spoke. All the words are literally taken from it.”

Farrington politely informs me that the mystery chatter’s name was actually pronounced Ope-eh-canaw-canaw, not the Anglo-butchered way I said it. He also explains that Pocahontas was never really romantically involved with John Smith, and that there probably wouldn’t have been an English civil war if Prince Henry had assumed the throne instead of Prince Charles.

This is all useful background info for those embarking on “The Blue Heron,” which is no small task, by the way—Opechancanough serves as an all-knowing, digital check on the historical accuracy of David’s novel, in which the main characters are a Fictional Molly and a Fictional David who is based on a Past David associated with the Powhatan tribe, unbeknownst to Present David. Past David is betrothed to Past Molly, who Present Molly is studying for her graduate thesis, all somehow brought together by fate. Get it?

Probably not, but wait, there’s more: Through his research David reconnects with a long-ignored and for all intents and purposes “evil” twin, also named David, of course, who comes to play a pivotal role in the novel. This spurs a manic, cross-continental search where all the characters dig into their respective family trees and societal ties, literally spanning the edges of time and space. And these are just the basics —going into detail would require a much higher word count.

It’s plain to see how this head-spinning narrative was a long time coming for Farrington. Originally a separate historical novel about the Jamestown tidewater region and the people who settled there, the novel has a genealogy not much simpler than that of its protagonists. In the end, “The Blue Heron” took nearly three decades to conceive and carry out. 

“It goes back into the ’80s, when I first completed the Jamestown series, so it was quite a long while,” he says. “I adore history, but it’s always been fiction for me. The postmodern version is probably about 3 or 4 years old—that’s just the way fiction happens.”

He still might not be able to shed that bookish quality that inevitably takes hold after a lifetime of college-level teaching, but it doesn’t quite taint “The Blue Heron” with the kind of writerly dryness one might expect. It’s obvious that Professor Farrington is one of those rare, refreshing breeds in academia whose zest for work only intensifies with age. In person and through his novels, he comes across as an embodiment of the eccentric-but-loveable professor archetype. (This image is colored in by his students’ comments on RateMyProfessors.com, which range from “hilarious, out there, wild” to “definitely not a structured teacher, but he’s different,” and “UMM . . . what can I say. He def. loves the ‘F’ word.”)

So, if the factual backbone of the story is enough to make your eyes glaze over, perhaps it’s worth pushing through and giving another shot—for every chapter on sea voyages to the colonies and dramatic turn within the 16th century papacy, Farrington works in a cornucopia of witty quips and innuendo, plus the occasional homoerotic sex scene.

Farrington is juggling a few more books now that “The Blue Heron” is complete, each seeming to veer further and further away from the academic, so absurd and intricate that they seem to almost purposefully dodge any sort of label. These include what the author described as a “gay detective series” (he’s on the fourth book now, publish date pending) in which the main character is kidnapped and taken to Turkmenistan, and a Korean War novel about separated twins.

Next up: “The story of a young boy who’s about 10 years old, precocious as hell, interested in photography, but he’s being raised in rural Iowa in the 1940s by a transvestite.”

Until then, Farrington is turning his focus back toward Notre Dame. “I teach an interdisciplinary studies class in Contemporary Communications,” he says, beaming, clearly excited by the prospect of sharing the dizzying final product with his pupils. “A mixture of fiction, art, film, and theory. And the novel they’re reading this time is ‘The Blue Heron.’” It’s sure to have quite the learning curve.