Hide Fox, and All After
Rites of Passage
In the month preceding the publication of Rafael Yglesias’s Hide Fox, and All After, his parents each published a novel too. It is such a charming feat—like nothing I can think of since Byron and the Shelleys agreed one autumn afternoon to write something set in their Swiss surroundings, out of which came “The Prisoner of Chillon” and Frankenstein—that it is hard not to think that at least one and maybe all three novels by the Yglesias family were written just to show it could be done. Rafael’s, written when he was fifteen, looks like such a work. It is short, amiably formless, one presumes autobiographical, about a few months in the life of a fourteen-year-old freshman at a pretentious private school in New York. But the wonder is not that it was written but that it is very good indeed, far from something one wants to congratulate because its author is young or because it may have been written because everyone else in the family was writing novels and Rafael decided to do one too.
What makes Hide Fox, and All After so admirable is the absolute trust Yglesias places in himself and in his material. On rare occasions an older writer has been more moving and perceptive about adolescence than Yglesias, but most who try fail because they need in some way to apologize or explain, to shape or to point ominously. Yglesias never comes close to doing any of these things. Near the beginning, for instance, is a series of conversations between the hero, Raul, and Alec, a boy four years older. The two take the occasion of their cutting school one day to discover they can become friends, and they do this by going at each other, ironically and earnestly, with all their knowledge of writers, actors, great men. Like this:
Alec became fatherly. “Ah, but who parts with his soul or being into fucking? Fucking, itself, is an art.”
“It’s an extension of art for you, I said that already. But I can’t fuck hypocritically. I have an infinite capacity for guilt.”
“But the way I make it into an acting part, why can’t you?”
“It would ruin all my imagery of loners, of insane blackness. It is the Hamletian rejection of Ophelia.”
“But Hamlet wasn’t mad.”
“He was mad in terms of the society. That makes him sane, of course. And that’s my madness—every time I see or hear about the embarrassments of adolescent sex, I am in real pain.”
“As long as a novel is about life in some time, some definite period, it must be about some class, because there’ve always been class struggles, and since it’s about some class, it’s social, and because it’s social, it’s political, and now you can relax and say it’s great art. Okay. But we’ve still got a little problem. What do you say about Beckett? There’s no definite time, or society, so essentially there isn’t a class. Okay, so what do you say about this? Dad has a simple solution—Beckett isn’t great.”
“But it doesn’t work. So you speak to someone else. Someone who believes great art must be political and believes that Beckett is great. So they’ll say, ‘Beckett isn’t located anywhere, just the way Kafka isn’t,’ but he’s still writing about middle-class neurosis.”
On it goes, for the whole first day of the novel, perhaps a quarter of the book.
One can imagine that when he wrote this opening Yglesias didn’t know it would end up being a quarter of his novel or the most fully rendered day in his book. But the result is just right. In itself the talk is far from remarkable, and one hardly wants to praise it on the simplistic grounds that serious kids talk that way. What matters is the trust. We are asked neither to be impressed by how much Raul has read nor to snicker at all the clichés about Shakespeare and Marx and Beckett. We are asked to care about selves struggling to be born, and we are instructed that it must be by means of this idle but solemn banter that Raul and Alec will discover each other, lurch toward and delight each other, so to test and develop the possibilities for friendship in a lonely world. Along the way Alec will be surprised because Raul has read a lot, and Raul will be envious of Alec’s sexual prowess, but these matter little compared to the miracle of friendship that Yglesias is celebrating.
The story, too, never betrays the trust by seeking climaxes or epiphanies. It follows the logic of the friendship, such as it is, and the logic that Raul thereby tries to make out of his life. The opening day of their friendship secure, Raul and Alec need the pretentious conversations much less and Yglesias needs less to render each day fully. The two of them dive deep, blotting out the world because when they are together the world has fewer ways to wound them, and their ironic attitude toward the world easily loses its air of rodomontade. They get stoned a lot, and take the leads in the school’s production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. They are good with grass, and marvelous in the play, making each other joyous because they are themselves when together, listless when apart. These are thus important and shaping events, but events nonetheless, and they pass. The friendship did not come about because of the school play, but it has a hard time surviving it nonetheless.
Raul rends its fabric when he tries to lose his virginity with a girl of Alec’s whom neither cares much about, and they drift apart, finally not willing to defy when parents intervene against them:
They talked of running away, neither for a moment seriously intending to. But the romance of it keyed them up, their vitality, hopes, and ideals suddenly free.
Yet this was fatal. Which one would break the acting, the scene, the love? Neither could do it separately, and a rare loss of sanity caused them not to end it together.
Alec finally said he would have to call his father. He was close to him, and he wouldn’t leave without first discussing it with him. Why didn’t Raul then say, “Let’s forget it”? He knew it was over, why did he allow it to drag on?
Again, he watched a mad suicide without stopping it. Though superficially no major rift seemed to be going on, Raul was breaking the rules of their game. He allowed this dwindling descent from the scene to reality. It was humiliation for both; a corruption of the rare contact they had. And he knew it.
And he can do nothing about it. He accepts and mourns Alec’s leaving his life because there is nothing else he can do, the descent and corruption are inevitable. In the end he forces the school to expel him, the fox hidden and some of the all after having happened. No Amory Blaine whining that he knows himself, but that is all; no Holden Caulfield made victim of an author’s need to make decisive actions and clarifications. The book is too simple and too good, Yglesias is too intuitive and too humble, for that kind of thing, and he does not once make a claim for his hero that we would not willingly make ourselves.
It may well be that Yglesias’s youth is what gives him his trust, his intuitive sense of scale and value, and that he will lose this as he becomes older and presumably more self-conscious as a writer. So vast hopes and predictions for his future are not in order. The achievement, though, is sufficiently there that one can use it to illuminate or judge the other novels in the present batch, all done by older and more experienced hands. It allows us to see, for instance, that George P. Elliott, a good and occasionally gifted man, has lost what intuitive fictional touch and trust he once had. Elliott is often an appealing critic, mostly because his finest qualities, his honesty and gentleness, can set him off to advantage against splashier and more professional academics. But of his fiction some of the early stories in Among the Dangs are the best; his novels always seem to struggle to be born, to be expressive in the flat style, to be interesting about characters not in themselves interesting—to struggle, but never to work. His latest, Muriel, it must be said right away, is a dull novel, and in it Elliott seems not only not to trust his characters, but not even to understand them very well.
Its epigraph reads: “The woman in this story loved her husband, whose love for her soured, and her children, who turned away from her.” Begin in a choir in a Kansas church, and with a girl who wants to marry a man because he has a beautiful voice that she thinks she can make famous, and you think you are reading Sinclair Lewis satire about ambitious American women. But no. It turns out that the man’s love for his wife was a pretty ordinary thing, capable neither of much sweetening nor much souring, unless it can be claimed that his insistent small nipping and his working for a vintner in the face of her ardent prohibitionism are signs that a great passion has failed.
In view of their incompatibilities, their relatively few ways of coming together, his lack of interest in his voice and her fearful coldness about sex, it is remarkable that they do middling well. Likewise, Muriel’s children do not turn away from her, and the harshest thing they can say of her is the loving announcement by her son when Muriel is old that her “system doesn’t work.” As, indeed, it does not. But given this the children are remarkably dutiful, handling her aging infirmities with a care and kindness that would be admirable in much more adoring children. Elliott either must think his characters are potentially rich and important, in which case their modest successes and failures would be a disappointment, or else he has not read his own book very carefully. Muriel is straightforward and ordinary, about straightforward and ordinary people, exactly the sort of book one would not expect an experienced writer to have written this far along in his career.
With one exception, the stories in Joanne Greenberg’s Rites of Passage cannot earn much higher praise than can Muriel. It is always hard to know about stories, because unless a story is very good there are few reasons why it should have been written at all except as experiment. Something happens, something gives a writer a spark, and he tries to capture it in a story. But even pretty good stories are only sparks, not fires. It may be that it is the fault of creative writing classes, where so much of our short fiction is written, where so many writers first learn to write, and where so many writers become teachers in order to earn their bread.