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 …
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Two People December 9, 1965