Jonathan Bayliss; wrote huge Gloucester novels

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / April 22, 2009
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With a literary ambition that rivaled James Joyce or David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Bayliss of Gloucester took on the big book, not once, but four times.

The first three of his quartet of novels about Gloucester add up to more than 2,300 pages, and he was putting the finishing touches on the fourth in recent months. That page count, however, may substantially exceed the number of readers who have attempted, let alone finished, his books of unconventional fiction.

Unable to interest a publishing house, he published the first three himself and later placed scanned copies on the Internet for all to read. He may have used a narrator in one book to voice his own thoughts when he said the volumes were written "unsupported by any more sanguine hope than that the effort will become known to a friend or two, here or there."

Mr. Bayliss, whose life away from his writing desk included stints in Gloucester as city treasurer, administrative assistant to the mayor, and director of management services at Gorton's frozen seafood company, died April 15 in Addison Gilbert Hospital in Gloucester of complications of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 82 and had lived in the North Shore city for more than 50 years.

"There were two Jonathans," said Peter Anastas, a writer, friend, and Gloucester native. "There was the business executive, the market analyst, the controller at Gorton's, the administrative assistant to the mayor. . . . The other side is Jonathan the artist, Jonathan the writer. He got up early in the morning and wrote and wrote all weekend and wrote on his summer vacations and achieved an enormous amount of work."

Yet for all the energy Mr. Bayliss invested in his writing and work, "he was a very, very responsible father, because his father had left his own family at an early age," said his daughter Catherine of Gloucester. "Even though he wanted to devote his whole life to writing, he took his family responsibilities very seriously."

Mr. Bayliss wrote two plays in addition to the novels "Prologos" (1,089 pages), "Gloucesterbook" (607 pages), and "Gloucestertide" (663 pages).

Anastas stressed that "the books are fun to read," but added that "a lot of people don't have the time or the inclination to read this kind of experimental literature.

"It wasn't that Jonathan purposely made the books obscure or difficult," he said. "Jonathan said: 'I'm only writing the way I want to write. I don't know how to write any other way. To say what I need to say, this is how I have to write.' "

The books encompass "what the novelist calls a 'counterfactual history' of one American place, 'Cape Gloucester,' whose principal municipality is 'Dogtown,' " Anastas wrote in Northshore magazine in 1996, reviewing "Gloucestertide."

Anastas said Mr. Bayliss intentionally invoked Dogtown, a name applied to rugged inland terrain straddling Gloucester and Rockport and an abandoned village therein.

"He doesn't call Gloucester 'Gloucester' in the novels, he calls it 'Dogtown,' which is the name for the central wild part of town," Anastas said. "He relates the city to its wild part, to its uninhibited part, to its wilderness, to the part where a lot of its eccentric history was played out."

Mr. Bayliss's own history had its share of eccentricities. His parents were Harold Balos and Lois Henderson Balos; his mother changed the spelling after his father abandoned the family to poverty, Mr. Bayliss's daughter Catherine said.

The family lived in Cambridge and southern Vermont, she said, and Mr. Bayliss attended a private school in South Windham, Vt., as a scholarship student before entering Harvard at 16.

A year later, he left to join the US Navy and served in the Pacific during World War II.

After the war, he finished a bachelor's degree in English at the University of California at Berkeley.

Anastas called Mr. Bayliss "an artist who lived and worked and understood deeply the real world, the world that everybody else lived in and went to work in, the world of running businesses and starting businesses."

His resume reflects a breadth of experience. Mr. Bayliss counted among his jobs apprentice toolmaker and machinist in New York City, buyer for a California bookstore, and sales analyst at Carter's Ink Co. in Cambridge.

"Everything he did, he plunged into, and he had new ideas about new ways of doing business," his daughter said. "He wasn't just a 9-to-5 guy to earn a living. He couldn't help but be very involved in anything he tackled."

He also took on politics, serving on Gloucester's Democratic committee and writing political essays.

In the early 1970s, his daughter said, he saved enough money to write full time for five years. In 1985, he retired and wrote full time again

"His writing was clearly the highest priority for him," she said. "He was very conscious in the recent past of time ticking away and was working extremely hard to get his final manuscript ready for production."

Though undaunted by the paucity of readers, Mr. Bayliss wished there were more.

"Jonathan tried as hard as any writer I know to find a mainstream publisher," Anastas said. "It was a source of tremendous frustration to him that he couldn't get the kind of reading that he felt the books deserved and that those of us who knew Jonathan and knew the books felt that they deserved."

Because Mr. Bayliss wrote complex fiction that ranged freely over the natural, political, social, business, and cultural aspects of Gloucester, some authorial analogies seem obvious, Anastas said, particularly given the length of his books.

"If someone were to ask, 'Who could I compare Jonathan to?' I would compare him to Thomas Pynchon, compare him to David Foster Wallace," he said. "I think someday this will be understood. I think someday a publisher will come along and want to republish Jonathan's work in some form."

In addition to his daughter Catherine, Mr. Bayliss leaves another daughter, Victoria Bayliss Mattingly of Fairfield, Iowa, and Traverse City, Mich.; a son, Geoffrey of Gloucester; two half-sisters, Brigitta Balos Troy and Rowena Balos, both of Los Angeles; and his former wife, Doris Lee Sturtevant Bayliss of Gloucester, to whom he was married for 18 years.

A memorial service will be held at 6:30 p.m. Monday in St. John's Episcopal Church in Gloucester. His ashes will be placed near his mother's in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.