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: