The Blood Oranges
St. Urbain's Horseman
John Hawkes’s The Blood Oranges fails because it is the work of a contemptible imagination. Hawkes has always seemed to me more an unadmitted voyeur of horror than its calm delineator, but in this new novel the pretense that what is being described is horrifying is dropped, and we have only the nightmare vision of a narrator unable to see how awful he is. He is a “sex-singer,” a middle-aged expert in love who is frequently delighted to tell us in what good shape he is, how he looks in his trunks, how skilled he is in bed. He and his wife want and capture other people, in this case another couple, and they insist the world should learn to have its sex with the same impersonal, erotic ennui that is their staple emotion. Their insistence that they are flexible and free is belied by the rigid emptiness of their daily round: sit on the beach, climb a hill to see a peasant or a goat, screw expertly.
There is cruelty here that, because unadmitted, is not even palliated by the relish of sadism. The two men see a peasant girl in a barn and the narrator says: “Perfect, let’s hunt her down.” They do, and force her to strip so they can take pictures of her, and the other man is delighted by things like the hairs on her chin because he is making a collection of photographs of peasants: “That’s perfect. Now let’s just shove her over against the beam.” Great fun.
And when the friend decides later on that he doesn’t much like the idea of the two couples making a sexual foursome, we get lectured: “Need I insist that the only enemy of the mature marriage is monogamy? That anything less than sexual multiplicity (Body upon body, voice on voice) is naïve?” When the other man wants to keep his wife to himself, when the other woman collapses after the death of her husband and the departure of her children, they are to shape up, and to this standard: “It is simply not in my character, my receptive spirit, to suffer sexual possessiveness, the shock of aesthetic greed, the bile that greases most matrimonial bonds, the rage and fear that shrivels your ordinary man at the first hint of the obvious multiplicity of love.” This deeply unreceptive narcissism has so little aesthetic greed, furthermore, or even mere desire to write well, that we find, on almost every page, something like “The sun was setting, sinking to its predestined death,” or “And already the seeds of dawn were planted in the night’s thigh.”
Hawkes has many admirers, which means some will note that I have completely missed the fact that it is all a put-on; some others will suspect I am guilty of all those sins that Hawkes’s narrator so cleverly exposes in your ordinary man. So be. But when horror becomes a pastime it should announce itself or at least know itself; when reticence and shyness become the great human vices, then their opposites should be clearly and ably defended; when the man who does not want his wife sleeping around makes her wear a rusty and viciously designed chastity belt, then narrator and author should not imagine it is chastity’s fault; when life is insistently joyless it should not be called good, or even particularly tolerable; when people stop mattering to a novelist, the writing will suffer and the writer should stop.
Bernard Malamud’s case is altogether more interesting. He is a much better novelist than Hawkes to begin with, and he is still struggling to write good novels. Something goes seriously wrong with his latest, The Tenants, but we know, as we try to identify what and why, that Malamud has been there before us, calculating his difficulties, daring his possibilities, perhaps deciding that his way was the only way, despite its unsatisfactoriness.
He begins with a situation which seems, though obviously contrived, ideal for his morose and witty genius. Long ago Harry Lesser wrote a good first novel that no one read, then a bad second novel that was popular. For years he has been engaged in writing a third novel, one worthy of his talents and the years of his labor. As The Tenants opens he is having a terrible time seeing how it should end. He has decided he cannot move until he finishes the book, even though he is the only person still living in a condemned building whose owner is barred by the rent control laws from evicting him. One day Lesser discovers a young black with a typewriter in the abandoned apartment next to his. He is called Willie Spearmint and he is working slowly, painfully, and passionately on his very black and rather clumsy autobiographical novel.
The relation between Lesser and Willie that begins to evolve is filled with mistrust and inherited prejudice, but also with mutual respect for each other’s privacy and intense dedication to writing. The early scenes between the two work well because Malamud can accept them both as types without ever becoming gossipy or journalistic. Here they are in the middle of a party |in Lesser’s apartment where everyone is smoking hashish:
What’s your book about, Lesser?
Love, I guess.
Willie titters, rowing calmly, steadily, his muscles flashing as the water ripples.
It’s about this guy who writes because he has never really told the truth and he’s dying to. What’s yours about, Willie?
How’s it coming?
On four feet, man, in a gallop. How’s yours?
On one. Clop.
I’m gon win the fuckn Noble Prize. They gon gimme a million bucks of cash.
After me, Willie. I’ve worked since the ice age and tomorrow is another day…. What’s more I’m writing my best book. I want all the good people on both shores waving their little paper flags, all those grays and blacks, to admit Harry Lesser is King David with his six-string harp, except the notes are words and psalms fiction.
That’s Malamud sure of what he is about: clear, relaxed, gloomy, witty.
But there is trouble ahead. Malamud’s intuition tells him the relation between the two will fail even though both seem to want it to succeed, in so far as either cares about anything other than his writing. It will fail because Lesser is a Jew and Willie is a black, because those facts will come to mean everything to Willie and because Lesser can do nothing to prevent his becoming a victim. There may be something self-pitying about Malamud’s intuition, but there is truth enough, too. Malamud knows that Lesser will be a victim not just because Willie is an angry black but also because Lesser’s novel is about “Love, I guess.” Had he been writing a long short story here, I think Malamud could have simply followed his intuition and created a kind of fable that would make his asserted truths about the fate of Willie and Lesser seem the necessary facts.
Instead, he decided to write a novel, and in novels simple intuitions and assertions are not enough. The end of the book may have been clear to him, but the way to get to the end was not. Malamud offers us Willie’s white chick, with whom Lesser falls in love, and some of Willie’s black friends, who see no reason to treat Lesser with anything but contempt; he then lets these minor characters provide the impetus and motive for the final clash between the tenants. Lesser takes over the girl, in whom Willie is increasingly less interested, then Lesser tells Willie he has done so. Willie and his friends smash Lesser’s apartment and destroy his novel, the two meet with ax and razor and kill each other.
What might have been simple and powerful turns out to be blurry. After Lesser and the girl fall in love, she keeps insisting to him that she must be the one to tell Willie, if anyone does, so when Lesser does instead we have to think that all might have gone differently had the girl been able to handle it her way. Worse still, the girl is uninteresting and Lesser’s falling in love with her is foggy. We are not led to believe he wants her because she is Willie’s, yet we have no other explanation for a celibate man in desperate need of finishing his book suddenly becoming entangled like this, dreamily and dangerously. We can’t even say he does it to run from his novel. So all that is potentially most interesting about both Lesser and Willie becomes dissipated and then lost in novelistic workings up of plot which needn’t have been there in the first place and which probably would not have been there had Malamud seen he had a situation better suited for a much shorter story.
Inevitably, The Tenants will be compared to Mr. Sammler’s Planet because both are by Jewish writers of distinction and eminence, and both explore the consequences of discovering that New York is no longer Malamud’s or Bellow’s, Lesser’s or Sammler’s, and perhaps is not even habitable by them. Both novels lose their central urgency in a tangle of minor characters; Malamud’s should have been a short fable, Bellow’s a monologue. Neither writer has seen a way to bring a black man into a novel and still have it be a novel, though the blacks themselves in each case are rather impressively handled. Both seem to have reached at least a momentary impasse with the racial problem, yet knowing that each sees that problem as his world and frontier makes one hope they do not retreat now, but instead try to see how a full story would go that has Jews and blacks as its central figures. The other well-known frontiers, involving women and the young, are not for these writers anyway, and this one is every bit as important.
The two remaining novels under review are by much younger writers than Malamud and John Hawkes. They are also much longer and more ambitious and easier to recommend to someone interested in reading a good book. Both are full of faults, but both are so energetic, so filled with their authors’ expanding sense of novelistic powers, that the faults seem as much a badge of exuberance as a sign of limitation. Neither Mordecai Richler nor Joyce Carol Oates seems in danger of becoming first-rate soon, but they are good to read, to praise, to hope for.
Richler’s St. Urbain’s Horseman begins with a fine title and accompanying dust jacket designed by Alice and Martin Provensen. It is one of those current extravagant performances, with a raconteur for a narrator, Canadian (this time) and Jewish jokes and pain, lore about stages of life and recent history. If you don’t like the manner you can’t like the book:
Back in Montreal Jake made straight for the bar in Central Station, ordered a double whisky, and paid for it with American money.
“Montreal is the Paris of North America,” the waiter said. “I trust you will enjoy your stay, sir.”
Jake stared at his change. “What’s this,” he asked, “Monopoly money?”
Jake laughed, pleased.
“Canada’s no joke. We’re the world’s leading producer of uranium. Walter Pidgeon was born in this country.”
In the afternoons they studied for their bar mitzvahs at the Young Israel synagogue and at night they locked the door to Arty’s room, dropped their trousers to their ankles, and studied themselves for bush growth. Pathetic miserable little hairs, wouldn’t they ever proliferate? Duddy Kravitz taught them how to encourage hair growth by shaving, a sometimes stinging process. “One slip of the razor, you schmock, and you’ll grow up a hairdresser. Like Gordie Shapiro.” Duddy also told them how Japanese girls were able to diddle themselves in hammocks. Of course Duddy was the bushiest, with the longest, most menacingly veined, thickest cock of all. He won so regularly when they masturbated against the clock, first to come picks up all the quarters, that before long they would not compete unless he accepted a sixty-second handicap.
Well, that is the most familiar tone now in fashion; you can quote it easily, like it or not like it equally easily, feel superior to it at whim or peril.
The question is not, Is it art? but, Can you make a novel out of it? To which the theoretical answer is a forceful yes while the answer in practice is usually a qualified no. Malamud’s self-pity shrinks to nothing beside the self-regard of Richler’s narrator. There is nothing he will not try to package with humor and anguish: the Fifties, Jews on Germans, assimilation, modern London, Toronto, the sexual and hygienic trials of the middle-aged rich, the sexual revenges of the down-trodden, the tendency of lives to approach tabloid journalism. Richler’s aim is almost encyclopedic, and he knows full well he has left himself wide open to the charge that he offers nothing new:
Years and years ago, he recalled, another Jake, ponderously searching for a better way than St. Urbain’s, had started out on his intellectual trek immensely heartened to discover, through the books that shaped him, that he wasn’t a freak. There were others who thought and felt as he did. Now the same liberated bunch dissatisfied, even bored him. The novels he devoured so hopefully, conned by overexcited reviews, were sometimes diverting, but told him nothing he had not already known. On the contrary, they only served to reaffirm, albeit on occasion with style, his own feelings. In a word, they were self-regarding….
To read of meanness in others, promiscuity well observed or greed understood, to discover his own inadequacies shared no longer licensed him, any more than all the deaths that had come before could begin to make his own endurable.
A nice point.
For any novelist, the way out of the box that Richler so cleverly constructs around himself here is not to go on trying to convince others that they are not freaks, which is the usual praise of his kind of book. It is to test his style and his anecdotes and his autobiography by means of a real story. Richler senses this, and he tries to keep his narrator from being only another instance of charming and arrested adolescence. At the beginning of the novel Jake Hersh, a wealthy television director in London, is going on trial for participation in some wild sexual shenanigans. As we go along we gradually learn what the shenanigans allegedly were; near the end we come pretty close to knowing Jake’s complicity in them. And that is all carefully connected with Jake’s boredom with the present, his fear of death, his search for his tawdry but heroic lost cousin, the first St. Urbain’s horseman, and with his co-defendant, a really funny and grubby pervert from the East End.
But “connected with” is all we can say here. Richler wrote, before this, three rather ordinary raconteur novels, and he saw he needed a story. But the one he comes up with, neat and “connecting” though it be, is a raconteur’s story, shaggy and timed, incapable of testing anything. And the test of that is the narrative voice. If the story were really a story, the voice would alter as it encounters the changes the plot forces it to recognize; consult Catch-22, that very good novel, on this point. As yet Richler sees the need for testing with his story more than he knows how to do it. He simply is too attracted by his own gaudy attractiveness, and the only limits he allows for are those he defines for himself, not those discovered in a fiction. The voice in Catch-22 changes each time it retells its story, which means we do not end up where we began; the voice in St. Urbain’s Horseman is by comparison static, completing itself, encountering nothing anew. I like Richler’s voice, but wish it would give itself sterner tasks to do.
Joyce Carol Oates’s strengths are Mordecai Richler’s weaknesses, and vice versa. She is humorless where he is witty, filled with a pressing tale where he is chatty, deeply concerned with her characters where he is content with the masturbatory feats of Duddy Kravitz. Wonderland is a great anguished slab of a book, filled with real grotesqueness rather than with the cardboard wildness that Richler calls the grotesque. The novel opens with a December day in the life of an adolescent boy in a very small town in western New York. Something is wrong: the father is morose, out of work, his gas station is for sale and that greatly embarrasses the boy and his older sister; the sister and the mother quarrel at the kitchen table before school; the boy himself is sick to his stomach during a Christmas assembly. Step-by-step Miss Oates puts her pieces together beautifully until the father appears in the store where the boy works, yanks him out, and drives him home, and slowly the boy begins to realize that the father has killed everyone else in the family, and means to kill him. He runs, is wounded, ends in a hospital, the only one in his family left alive.
It is the best thing in all four novels, profuse and precise in detail, yet driven by a strong sense that something is still to happen. When this kind of climax comes so early in a very long novel one is left wondering if anything like this can be sustained, and how. The answer the rest of the novel offers is never convincing; it lurches and drives, often with considerable intensity, but as a whole it is obscure. It should be that this is a novel about a boy and man whose family is destroyed in a mass murder, but Miss Oates cuts that off by having the boy flee so completely in body and mind that he, and the novel, cannot register his past, and a book that cannot register its past is a book whose form must end up being created arbitrarily.
But the novel’s second long sequence is almost as good as the first. The boy goes to Lockport as the adopted son of a huge, corrupt, immensely persuasive provincial doctor, a figure at least as grotesque as the boy’s father. The family lives at meal times, when the doctor asks his children to give recitations, and they, and he, respond to the pressure he thereby builds up by eating and eating, each successful performance celebrated and defeated by more food. They are all very fat, and hungry all the time. The doctor’s wife finally tries to escape and asks the boy’s help. They flee to Buffalo, and in a particularly wild scene they eat two full Chinese meals and endless snacks, thereby rendering themselves liable to be hunted down by the doctor. Which they are.
If it all sounds grand and mad, it is. Miss Oates builds scenes and sequences of scenes very well; she has a fine sense of the way one powerful and grotesque person can transform everyone into himself, and this makes for some splendid writing. But then, as we watch the boy go through college and then medical school, it slowly becomes clear that Miss Oates means for us to take her wild and mad collection of people and know it is America. When in doubt, call it social commentary, and we realize that for all their many differences she and Mordecai Richler have much in common.
The effect of her book is of course much different from Richler’s: with St. Urbain’s Horseman you learn early on that the plot is mostly a hoax and so you can relax with the commentary; with Wonderland you are led to believe from the great opening bursts that something fine is going to happen, then you become increasingly depressed as Miss Oates dwindles her story into a metaphor for Modern Times that Richler could spin better in ten pages than she can in three hundred. She ought to be better than he is because she respects rather than regards herself, but she ends up worse. The idea that the boy keeps on trying to flee his past as he becomes a man is for many pages only an excuse to ignore earlier parts of the work. Gradually the story turns into a fable of loneliness and success, the inhumanity of great doctors, etc.—we might as well be reading one of the later novels of John Dos Passos.
Miss Oates’s talent is for unfolding horrors and mysteries in big scenes, which means that as we read we must be quite passive, letting her strip away each layer of apparently placid domestic detail. When she has no mystery to offer, when the horrors become banalities, we can realize this only after the fact, after the promised big guns have not gone off, and it may well be that Miss Oates is as powerless as we are in this matter. She seems to have to write herself into her big scenes before she can really know how they’re going to go, if they’re going to be good and if the guns are going to go off.
This is particularly telling at the very end of Wonderland. The boy, by now a doctor approaching middle age, becomes obsessed by the flower child waywardness of his second daughter. She writes him loving and hating and tantalizing letters from all over the continent and he finally tracks her down in a grungy Toronto street. She is there with her man, and there is a constant threat that the doctor will kill them both—and so become like his own father?—but the scene lurches hither and yon, the shootings don’t happen—because he is not like his father? because the times they are a-changing? Who knows. Father and daughter end up on a boat, where he is reduced to wailing: “All of you…everyone…all my life, everyone…. Always you are going away from me and you don’t come back to explain.” The doctor and his author, it would seem, are equally baffled. As the final clarity of a huge and ambitious novel, it is pathetically inadequate.
The truth, I think, is that Joyce Carol Oates is as yet only a writer of short stories just as Mordecai Richler is only a raconteur of gossip and anecdote. They don’t see well enough how life goes to sustain a whole novel, and each has let his great talents and energies obscure this fact. Both tend to lapse into thinking that their interesting and strange angles on life are really its central truths, and then to let that lapsing serve as a vision of our common contemporary lot. Since there is nothing they can’t write about, they tend to drift, to write about everything. Richler gives us a long account of a softball game on Hampstead Heath played by wealthy and middleaged Jews in show business in London. We are told their life stories, how they do at bat, in the field, in the market, in bed with this wife or that mistress. It’s all supposed to matter, but it doesn’t.
Joyce Carol Oates goes on for pages about her doctor and a woman named Reva, whom he has seen somewhere but can’t place, with whom he becomes obsessed, apparently for years, though it’s quite clear to her and to us that she isn’t worth it. He even leaves home to track her down to a shack in northern Wisconsin; she seems willing to go away with him, but it turns out his love for her is merely suicidal, and he leaves.
In Richler’s case, the softball game is only another excuse for display; in Miss Oates’s, Reva is only an invitation to write some big scenes that resolutely won’t come off and so turn into metaphors for the doctor’s need to run from life. In each case—and both authors have many more—one suspects the writer realized that a dead end had been reached, but to have deleted the episodes would have been to ask more strictly than either was willing to do what really belonged.
Yes, oh dear yes, the novel tells a story, says E. M. Forster despondently in Aspects of the Novel. He assumed the modern novel should try to liberate itself from storytelling somehow, but it turned out that modern novelists at their best were only finding new stories to tell and new ways to tell them. It’s not that we can’t get rid of story in fiction, but that to try to do so is to evade the central truth that to say what happens next is to say what you mean. Of course good novels do superb things in addition to telling their tales, just as inferior novels will have inferior stories that are nonetheless in their way often more fully completed than those of better novels.
John Hawkes’s story is as fully rendered as any of the four novels here being considered. If you accept its terms all else follows, and it is only the terms that are intolerable. But with Malamud, Richler, and Oates the question of story is more interesting and indicative of why their current novels do not succeed as well as they should have. Malamud’s trouble, his fuzziness about how to get from his premise to its conclusion, seems more a miscalculation than anything else, of a kind that plagues even the best of writers. He seems mostly to have overestimated his material, or to have imagined he was more interested in it than he really was. But he is an experienced and wise enough writer to accept this. If The Tenants does not finally work, then tomorrow, as Lesser says, is another day.
With Mordecai Richler and Joyce Carol Oates, however, one feels that all is neither already lost, as with Hawkes, nor pretty generally known, as with Malamud. They have rich talents and badly need to use them more rigorously, to accept their strengths as being by now given and assured, to acknowledge their weaknesses as defects of their virtues and so as something that must be lived with, looked into, slowly overcome if possible. There is great potential waste as well as considerable potential achievement in both of them. They need now to put themselves in the position of Malamud’s Lesser, paralyzed and refusing to finish until he sees how his story should go right through to the end and how that ending says his sense of life. So long as his novel is about something as vague as “Love, I guess,” he shouldn’t finish, and so he can’t.
That is the current lesson of this particular master. One of his epigraphs is from a Bessie Smith song: “I got to make it, I got to find the end.” Richler and Miss Oates have, in one sense, made it already; they still have got to find the end that will make the beginning and everything in between clearer and truly revealing.
A Put-On? December 2, 1971