An Author Explains What’s in a Name

In her review of my novel “Drowning” (Sept. 6), Elaine Kendall contended that only Victorian novelists would deliberately name their characters so as to encourage readers to draw some subtle or not-so-subtle connection between the name and the character’s personality, and that that habit now has been long out of fashion. That’s not true.

Toni Morrison didn’t entitle her novel “Song of Smedley.” She chose Solomon for good reason. Norman Mailer’s bullying macho hero in “An American Dream,” a kind of raw jock, is named, appropriately, Rojack. The venturesome scholar pursuing a mythic, romantic quest in A. S. Byatt’s “Possession” has Roland as his first name.

I named my fictive family the Downers because the sound of that word so clashes with its connotations. Downer, with that long, open, how-now-brown-cow vowel, is truly a beautiful sounding word.

A Midwestern boy, I grew up in a town which had the loveliest name ever: Lake Forest. But the beauty of that name was matched by the name of another nearby town in Illinois: Downers Grove. When I was at Harvard in the early ‘60s, the handsomest student there was named Downer. I felt this family I’d created, a family that has doted on beautiful things for nearly a hundred years, deserved a beautiful last name.


By the late ‘60s, of course, the word had taken on additional and more colorful meanings. Bummer; a Quaalude or its clone; a really bad trip. And those innuendoes I found very useful for my novel.