Slowly, By Thy Hand Unfurled
Sex has almost ceased to be a topic in contemporary fiction and has become a terrain. No frontiers of expression need to be advanced; there is nothing in sexual practice or language that has not been used by now in novels. Now sexual novels can take place comfortably within those frontiers. There will always be police and clerical harassment, but at least a state of tension—rather than blanket suppression—has been established, and American novelists may now write about sex of any kind without having to “dare” or to insist that it is beautiful or to equate it necessarily with love.
A pleasant consequence of this virtually complete freedom—which exists of course among writers more than in society—is James Leo Herlihy’s recent novel Midnight Cowboy. One of Herlihy’s earlier books, All Fall Down, was one of the best of the post-Salinger flock of novels whose theme is that growing up means to be corrupted. Herlihy’s version described in poignant little prose arcs the changing feelings of a teen-age boy for his parents and older brother. His new book leaves the world of innocence that is muddied by sex for a world that is innocent in the midst of sex, with a protagonist who is a sexual entrepreneur. Joe Buck is a twenty-five-year-old Southwesterner, an illegitimate child who was brought up by his wayward grandmother. After her death, he makes his way, eventually, to New York in a new cowboy outfit (although he has never been a cowhand), believing that he can earn a fortune studding for rich ladies. But he is not a knowledgable operator; he is an ignorant, likeable gull. He has never really had a friend and has never really been taught anything. All he confidently knows is the sexual act, and he has believed the myths he has heard about the use he can make of his youthful vigor in the big town. Those myths have filled the vacuum in him of knowledge and ideals.
He arrives in New York to take and, of course, is taken. In some months he makes only twenty dollars in the way he hoped (he gives money to his first Manhattan conquest); he makes a very little more by various homosexual practises; he has to steal and cadge to live; but in the course of all this, he makes the first friend of his life—a runty, crippled Italian-American pickpocket-pimp from the Bronx.
In these sunset years of Tennessee Williams’s circumscribed talent, and as the freedom for homosexuals to write frankly has given them the chance to write romantically, we have become wary of the theme of the young stud’s search for communion in the nightworld. There are several questions that can justifiably be put to this book. Do we need still another dumb-brute hero? Do we need still another gallery of grotesques when, for over twenty years, grotesquerie has been substituting for the large emotional experience that is missing in conventional life? Isn’t the quest for the terrible beauty of West 42nd Street the equivalent of the 1935 quest for beauty in sweat-stained overalls? Isn’t the acceptance of these characters and themes often as glib and fashionable as was that of much proletarian fiction?
To all these charges Midnight Cowboy must in theory plead guilty. In practice, however, it is vindicated. Herlihy quickly disarms us. He conveys a close, affectionate, saddened concern with Joe and Joe’s milieu, and only rarely seems to be showing off about either. The prose—despite a few slightly soggy moments—is both hard and imaginative. The dialogue never falters; Herlihy has an unerring and witty sense of the way each of his people speaks: a Texas sadist, Greenwich Village partygoers, an East Side poule, a Midwestern masochist. Because of the combined ease and intensity that he brings to his story, it flows past with affecting verity, never tedious though sometimes familiar, and technically almost scamless. (There are too many author’s predictions: “And on that afternoon, something happened that would change his life.”) I note that it contains the best vernacular-poetic descriptions of intercourse that I have read since Shelby Foote’s Follow Me Down. But it is not the good details, it is the general rightness of the whole book—a simple ballad of a simple-minded sexual adventurer—that creates interest in Joe, his need, his peculiar sentimental education. At the end, when Joe puts his arm around the runty friend who has just died next to him on the Miamibound bus, Herlihy reaps his reward. We wince with compassion. The accomplishment in this book is small, but it is admirable.
Donald Windham’s novel Two People is an account of an American’s homosexual affair in Rome, which bears the high praise of E. M. Forster, Tennessee Williams, and Truman Capote. Capote says: “One is reminded of Death in Venice. Windham’s poetical evocation equals Mann and his insights are often truer.” Poetry and insight seem to have been confused here with factual detail. This novel is written in cardboard prose with characters to match; it is unruffled by emotional effect and it is faintly creditable only for a writer’s-notebook portrait of a Roman family. On this last score Luigi Barzini says: “The real character is the City and its two millions of people stratified at every imaginable historical level, from the remote middle ages to the present day.” If Windham deserves this praise, what is there left to say of Manzoni and his Milan? Or even Moravia and his Rome? It is awesome to think of all the writers whom Windham has swept onto the dust-heap.
In this book destined to wither in a season, an American businessman has a quarrel with his wife in Rome; she goes back to New York and their children. On the Spanish Steps he meets a youth who goes home with him for money. They commence an affair. The man falls in love; the youth, although he does not reveal this, is more interested in girls. First-rate fiction has been written—may, in fact, be said to be needed—about the eruption of homosexuality in unsuspecting married men; but in this dull book we are never made to feel how the impulse grew in the American, how it colored and altered his emotional life, or even what he thinks about his marital future as he leaves to rejoin his wife. At the end:
Marcello shook the hand that Forrest held out. Then he took the American by the shoulders and kissed him on each cheek, as Italians do their close friends and relatives.
(Compare Ruddigore: “I wager in their joy they kissed each other’s cheeks/Which is what them furriners do.”) This is the level of the other revelations in a book that has all the quiet assumptions of a reticent poetic gem, all of them, however, totally unsupported by the text.
Sex-as-dynamics is used quite differently in Romulus Linney’s second novel, Slowly, By Thy Hand Unfurled, which is in an old American literary tradition. It is a tradition of rural dissection (usually New England) that first shows the tree-lined streets with the white picket fences and the neat houses and churches, then strips the skins off the inhabitants to reveal the moral cesspools under the (usually) Congregational hides. It is a tradition that runs from Hawthorne through Eugene O’Neill to Grace Metalious.
Linney tells the story of a middleaged woman in a small town; the time is unspecified but it seems late nineteenth century. The novel consists of a journal she kept for over a year. The diary method is neither immediately attractive nor fully satisfactory. Initially, it seems too egregiously a device, especially since in this case every word has to come through a not-quite literate character. Moreover, in order to preserve the journal form and the pace of the woman’s perceptions and imperceptions, much trivia have to be included for verisimilitude. Yet the book holds and grows. We see that the method has been used so that we will get all the events at first entirely from her point of view; later, we get the truth of them, or additional truths, from what she tells us of the reactions of others. This interplay among the facets of truth underscores the grimness in the story. A foreboding of doom is established early, and without strain; and the narrator is eventually disclosed as an angel of horror, unwittingly spreading death and some destruction, always sustained by religious belief. She seems at first—and also at last—a highly devout, dedicated, old-fashioned wife and mother. But we know her at the end as an unconscious lesbian and the probable cause of the deaths of her three children.
The deceptions and self-deceptions under the Victorian pietism are epitomized in the hymn from which Linney takes his title:
Slowly, by Thy hand unfurled
Down upon the weary world
Falls the darkness. O how still
Is the working of Thy will.
The diabolic implication—the god wreaking destruction through his subjects’ loving acceptance—fits well this account of a woman whose various cruelties never breach the citadel of her own moated consciousness. Her journal is her priest, and at the end of her confession she addresses it:
It has been you who held me up when I was failing, yes, that’s right. Without you, I would not be here at all, I feel. I would be under the dark waters, but you have helped me cross them.
The diabolic god has preserved her faith and thus has worked his will doubly.
The existence of monstrosity under whited sepulchre is no longer news, and its disclosure is no longer artistic novelty. Linney’s achievement here proves yet again how little art needs to depend on either (as, in a quite different vein, Herlihy proves, too). Sometimes he lapses from invigoration of the familiar into mere novelistic cliché: for example, the son is a painter of anachronistic and shocking genius whose work, after his death, is burned by his scandalized mother. But Linney has written a good piece of what may be called glandular Gothic. It is more than a successful period-work, its horror is relevant. Self-disguises are eternal. Our self-rationalizations may now be Freudian rather than pious righteousness, but the darkness has not stopped unfurling.
Two People December 9, 1965