for the Journal
What a hectic life Chapman Murphy leads. Helter-skelter might be a more accurate description of the tangled braiding of Murphy’s professional and personal lives.
Murphy is the kind, well-meaning protagonist of Bill O’Neill’s second novel “Short Session.” The title refers to the month-long session the New Mexico Legislature holds in alternating years. The Roundhouse is one of the book’s settings.
The novel’s numerous scenes and their chatty dialogue seemingly fly throughout the book.
Murphy is development director for Hope House, a respected nonprofit halfway house for New Mexico parolees. So he’s learning the art of “the ask.”
Because Hope House is suffering from a cash-flow issue, he’s lobbying lawmakers to appropriate $200,000 to the Corrections Department for stopgap funding he says is needed to keep the doors of the halfway house open.
Woven into that story are several parallel narratives.
One narrative is Murphy as a newbie to New Mexico and its politics.
He’s learning the ropes of lobbying. Murphy brings into legislative committee hearings well-dressed, well-spoken male and female parolees from Hope House. They explain how the program is doing good work by helping them turn their lives around.
A native of Iowa, Murphy graduated from Brown University before moving to New Mexico. Murphy is also learning about running for public office. He’s the Democratic candidate for an Albuquerque state senate district.
We see him as a Mr. Nice Guy – maybe naive – smiling and chatting during his door-to-door visits, trying to win the backing of longtime Hispanic families – and recently arrived Republicans – in his senate district. And fending off aggressive, unleashed dogs.
And there’s the narrative about Murphy’s personal life. Central to that narrative is his hot-and-cold relationship with his girlfriend Emily; the temperature drops when Murphy devotes so many hours – too many as far as Emily is concerned – fundraising, dining with cohorts and playing pickup basketball with pals.
He’s in his early 40s and a lifelong bachelor. Murphy does like his solitude.
The novel opens with Murphy’s wacky thinking on why he wants to run for the state legislature. The reasons “were less than pure. I wanted to play in the annual House/Senate Charity Basketball Game, I admit it,” he tells the reader. “And then there was the red license plate,” the other reason he wanted to run. “I have no idea why possessing the honor of that (lawmaker’s) license plate had such a pull for me, it just did.”
Some paragraphs are ambiguous and wander into different subjects sometimes linked by poor transitions that editing might have cured. Chapter 29 begins strangely. Murphy refers to “the inlaid marble that spells out our incomprehensible state motto going as grows, or something like that.”
Murphy’s head (or maybe the author’s) is turned around. The motto is the Latin phrase “Crescit eundo.” It translates as “It grows as it goes.” Which really does makes sense.
A related point in this passage: It doesn’t say where that inlaid marble is located. Maybe the reader is supposed to know. I think it’s in the floor of the rotunda of the Roundhouse in Santa Fe. O’Neill has also written a book of poems, “The Freedom of the Ignored,” and the novel “Panoramic Diaries.”
He is a Democratic state senator representing District 13 in Albuquerque and he’s worked for non-profits, focusing on jailed juveniles and adults. Maybe O’Neill based the fictional Murphy character on himself.