One of Thomas Rogers’s many gifts as a novelist is his ability to imbue the less appealing realities of both love and landscape with a gentle, elegiac beauty. Rogers writes about adolescent boys and the industrial towns of eastern Indiana. Nothing, at first glance, could excite less admiration. Yet, in Rogers’s loving hands, drunken frat boys are revealed in all the sweetness of their humanity, and the fires of steel mills decorate the evening sky like sunsets.
Rogers publishes a book about every ten years, which may help to explain the relative obscurity of so remarkable a writer. Confessions of a Child of the Century came out in 1972, a mad, brilliant, ambitious book in which a young man named Samuel Heather sweeps through the middle of the last century with the intellectual and linguistic assurance of Nabokov and the emotional reason of Dr. Seuss. It is a very funny book, shifting effortlessly from the absurdities of growing up the son of a midwestern bishop, to a college boy’s ardent first affair, to a magnificently terrifying and surreal battle scene, to an entertaining bout of Korean prison-camp brainwashing. Confessions becomes abruptly, unexpectedly dull and pious toward the end, but that is a small price to pay for the flashing virtuosity of the first three quarters.
Rogers’s next book, At the Shores, originally published in 1980 and now reissued in paperback, is an entirely different undertaking. It is a quiet, modest novel, and it is nearly perfect. The shores of the title are those of Lake Michigan where Jerry Engels, a high school student in the Forties, has always spent his summers. Jerry’s family has a cabin in a country-club community, planned in the Twenties and never quite finished, called Indiana Shores:
His lake, his shores, his dunes, and woods, and swamps were as wonderful and improbable as the Bohemian coast, for there, in sight of the towers of Chicago across the water, with the open hearth furnaces of Gary only sixteen miles to the west, he had shuffled along the beach through singing sand, seen flocks of bluebirds resting on the telephone wires, and walked through fields of bottle gentians.
Jerry loves the lake. He loves the beach and the live dune. He loves to swim and to run. But mostly, Jerry Engels loves girls.
Part One of At the Shores is called “The Boy Who Liked Girls,” but it could have been the title of the novel itself:
For as far back in his consciousness as he could go there had always been three women in his life: his mother, his sister, and his girl. The difference was that Mother and Sister were always the same women, whereas the role of girl had been filled by what seemed like a cast of thousands.
He treated his first girl, a disheveled doll, with apache roughness, dragging her around by an arm or a leg. Yet he loved her. He refused to go to sleep unless she was beside him, and he could still vaguely recall the strange feeling—it might have been pathos—when he observed her one day hanging by her head between the slats of his crib.
Jerry loves little girls his own age, bigger girls who are his sister’s age, and grown women like his teachers and his mother’s friends. He loves the maid and he loves the girls he sees from the car when stopped in traffic. Girls are everywhere Jerry looks, surrounding him like sunlight. He is both a connoisseur and an indiscriminate disciple:
He could not even remember the name of the girl in first grade who sat next to him on the rug while Miss Miller read stories. One morning during story time she vomited almost into his lap, and he was astounded to see she had had carrots in her stomach. No one he knew ate carrots for breakfast. It made that girl even more fascinating, and for days thereafter, he watched her closely, wondering if she were going to vomit again. She never did, and gradually he lost interest in her. His tendency then and for many years thereafter was toward fickleness and promiscuity.
Jerry is a generous lover, unbowed by carrots, and Rogers is a generous writer. In his easy, matter-of-fact prose, Rogers manages both to recall the innocently baroque observations of childhood and to anticipate the less innocently baroque attractions of later life. He recognizes, and respects, the seriousness of Jerry’s childhood loves. He creates a world of scuffling fist fights, the agony of misaddressed Valentine’s Day cards in school, and the harbor that is home:
Long after [Jerry] could really tie his own shoelaces, he pretended that he needed his mother’s help. He would sit on the blue linen carpet in a patch of sunlight in which he could see motes of dust dancing and raise first one foot and then the other. He did not watch how his mother tied his laces; he concentrated on her face bending toward him through the dusty sunshine.
For Rogers, childhood itself is a beloved doll hanging by her head from the slats of a crib.
When he is ten, Jerry’s family moves from Whiting, an industrial town in Indiana, to Chicago. From his fifth grade class at the University of Chicago’s famous Laboratory School, Jerry rambles into the next phase of love. There is a girl who lets him see her newest batch of tiny pink baby pet mice, but there is also a girl who kisses him in the closet at school. In ninth grade, after years of these wanton crushes, he falls in love with Rosalind Ingleside, and Rogers makes it clear that Jerry is even more in earnest, more possessed—more in love—than ever. For sex has sauntered into the worshipful, ecstatic meadow of Jerry Engels’s fifteen-year-old imagination, and Rogers welcomes the arrival of this newcomer with such subtlety that we never even see the author open the gate. Jerry’s new, alarming feeling seems to have belonged there all along. Look at this passage, for example, when Jerry and his family have already migrated to the shores, and Jerry miserably waits for the arrival of Rosalind’s family at their summer house nearby. Jerry’s mother, noticing how unhappy he is, tries to comfort him:
“She’ll be here soon.” “I know,” he replied. His mother smiled encouragingly. He could feel her hip against his, her hand lingering on his forehead, her whole motherly presence bending over him as when she used to tuck him in at night…. And at that point he felt like throwing himself into her arms and sobbing out, “Oh, Mom, I’m so horny.”
The tender absurdity of this moment, the comic depth and delicacy, is one of the things that distinguishes this coming-of-age novel from so many other tales of awkwardly lustful teenage boys, or girls, for that matter. Perhaps Rogers, looking back from a distance of forty or so years, had an advantage over younger chroniclers of adolescent angst, but, somehow, in At the Shores, he has captured the fragility, the beauty, and the impossibly transient nature of adolescence. The moment when innocence meets the end of innocence is Thomas Rogers’s glory. The sweetness and pain and humor of Jerry’s exchange with his mother allow us to glimpse, to remember, that brief instant when sexual awakening was still sheltered in the warmth of childhood, when sexual feeling was still seamlessly a part of all that came before, rather than a betrayal of childhood, or an escape from it.
Jerry is a teenage boy obsessed with sex. He can think of nothing else. He jerks off and plots seductions and ends up going to a prostitute. But for Rogers, and so for us, there is something pure about Jerry. Jerry is a poor student, a flirt, a fickle boyfriend, a seducer of nice girls. Irresponsible and impulsive, he is even something of a stalker, breaking into Rosalind’s house and rifling through her drawers. Yet throughout the novel Jerry remains irresistible and oddly wholesome. “This was not how he had been brought up,” he thinks when he is inside Rosalind’s house, examining her bathing suit:
On the other hand it did not seem wrong. It seemed curiously right. It was as if he were being carried forward by some great power that was elevating him above himself and providing him with a flood of fresh ideas and new impulses. He knelt to examine a pair of sandals in Rosalind’s closet. He picked one up. He sniffed the leather.
Jerry calls himself “an erotic pantheist or a pantheistic erotocist,” but what he is, really, is alive. He is alive to everything, even a pair of leather sandals.
The intersection of eroticism and pantheism is love, and that, of course, is what makes Jerry Engels so engaging a character. When Jerry fails to throw himself in his mother’s arms and seek her maternal sympathy for his state of constant arousal, he seeks solace, instead, by returning to his yard work. But even digging in the heat of the day is no escape:
…How could he concentrate on the job he was doing when he was excited by the play of his own muscles, by the hum of the bees in the locusts, and by the hum of a sewing machine in the cabin where his mother was making a slipcover for the couch?
Jerry is in love with the physical, the natural, the domestic—he is in love with the world.
Rogers describes the topography of that world—the long shores of Lake Michigan, the clear waters, the distant Chicago skyline, the cherished industrial scents of Whiting—with such unexpected richness that Jerry’s beloved landscape, so fresh and at the same time so blighted, helps us understand Jerry himself. Rogers makes Jerry’s excitement expansive. To love the world, he is saying, is a kind of generosity—a generosity of vision, at least. And in his liberality, Jerry is grateful for the joy the world affords him:
He thought of girls as a kind of blessing. When he saw a girl like Betty Lomax walking through Belfield Hall with a fresh flower tucked in her hair, he felt like kissing her out of gratitude for having bought that flower and put it in her hair.
But the same impulse that opens the world to Jerry also closes Jerry off. So amazed is he by his own feelings, so elevated, so full of love for his own need to love, that he is sometimes callous in ways that a less sensitive person would not be, and Rogers reveals his hero’s unheroic qualities with solicitous but scrupulous irony. Jerry, caught up in his own admiration for Rosalind and the miracle of her affection for him, does not notice how unhappy she is that their relationship takes a sexual turn. When, completely overwhelmed and out of her depth, she finally turns to her mother who, naturally, puts a stop to the affair and packs Rosalind off to boarding school, Jerry is truly, dizzyingly shocked.
This is the character, loving and selfish, whom Rogers sends off to college in Jerry Engels. This new novel is refreshingly old-fashioned. People drink, fight, drive too fast, give each other crabs, call each other faggots, and die from fraternity pranks—all without self-consciousness. But even in this pre-PC world of corsages, highballs, and frat pins, Jerry’s naive promiscuity, so fresh and full of wonder on the shores of Lake Michigan, is met with new challenges. In At the Shores, Rogers celebrated the sweetness of a boy’s hunger for experience. In Jerry Engels, that hunger has ripened and seems, at times, to be softly, darkly (though comically) rotting.
The book begins with Jerry on the quad of Penn State howling in psychic pain after being dumped by his fiancée (the recipient of the aforementioned crabs). His roommate, Begler, tries to cheer him up by driving him to a bar near the main gates of the Altoona mills where they drink boilermakers, and Jerry picks up a fat forty-year-old woman who takes him home to her disheveled house, waves a shotgun at him, and, most shocking to Jerry, has no sheets on the bed. He has been shot at before, by angry husbands. He has stolen a car, planning to drive back to Indiana and kill the boy who stole his last girlfriend. (Sadly, he ran out of gas, but he was able to hitch a ride with a truck driver who paid him five dollars for a blow job.) Jerry has been hauled up the flagpole naked. He is failing out of his major. And he’s only a sophomore.
Jerry Engels is a romantic farce, and Jerry is a kind of existential, romantic clown. And like the best clowns, he is utterly sincere. His love of women has not deserted him, though his promiscuity is no longer limited to mooning after little girls with bows in their hair. A prostitute gives him the crabs he passes on to his fiancée. He loves the prostitute, and his unforgiving former fiancée, anyway. He loves every woman he has ever loved. His openness and love of all the world seems rather seedy to all the world, except Jerry himself. He explains everything in terms of love, saying,
It’s always love that gets people in hot water. If you look out for yourself all the time and never go overboard about anyone else, you can sail right through life and end up rich and respected.
There is little danger of Jerry ending up rich and respected, but there is every possibility of hot water. Home in Chicago for his vacation, he gives his best friend’s little sister his frat pin, not hoping to seduce her, just trying to help her fend off an overzealous suitor. This of course is misunderstood, even by Linda, the little sister, who falls in love with him. Jerry also befriends a fellow student who worries that she is a lesbian, gallantly offering to introduce her to the mysteries of the heterosexual act, just so she will know what she’s missing. (He meets her in a drawing class. He’s the nude model.) And then there is Elizabeth, his freshman English teacher, who is eight years older than he is. He runs into her on a ski weekend, and they, too, fall in love.
Jerry juggles these three inappropriate females with a mixture of innocence and cynicism that is strangely reassuring. He really is a cad, but since he doesn’t seem to know it, and would be quite distraught to find out, I, for one, was perfectly content to keep it to myself. He sails along, impervious to any feeling but love—no shame, no guilt, no fear. On one night, he takes Anne, the proto-lesbian, out to dinner (in Elizabeth’s car) and has to borrow ten dollars from her to pay the check, though he does manage to dig up a dime to leave as a tip. In typical Jerry Engels fashion, this is a moment for happy reflection:
Then they were outdoors in the cold night air scented by the Tyrone Paper and Pulp Works. Jerry inhaled deeply. Tyrone always reminded him of Whiting…. He liked industrial smells. There were few sensations he didn’t like, or at least find interesting enough to provide food for thought. Even not having enough money to give the waitress a real tip intrigued rather than embarrassed him.
Jerry’s openness often approaches complacency in this novel. He is a far less sympathetic fellow than his younger self. But his cheerful equanimity usually carries him through. After dropping Anne off, for example, Jerry considers an after-dinner visit to Dolly, a “semi-professional” out in Slab Cabin trailer park, then, realizing he doesn’t have any money with which to pay her, he happily drops off Elizabeth’s car keys with a little note and—the deft Rogers touch—a poignant gesture of uncomplicated affection:
He folded his note, and slid it into the mailbox after the key. Then he stood for a while letting his fingers wander over the mailbox grille. Finally he bent and kissed the grille. It had a funny taste, probably of Brasso and dust.
Rogers has packed Jerry’s innocence into his college trunk and sent it off to Penn State. If it fits less like gentle pathos now and more like slapstick, the sweetness does occasionally show through.
Elizabeth is just finishing her doctoral thesis on Blake when Jerry gets involved with her. Forced by a neighboring old lady with Nazi sympathies to memorize poetry as a child, Jerry is able to recite these lines from Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience:
We are put on earth a little space
That we may learn to bear the beams of love.
This is the subject of the book, certainly, although it is does not seem to be Jerry who gets the education in the bearing of beams. Those lessons fall instead upon his three girlfriends, and not always successfully. With Anne, Jerry begins posing nude for her privately, trying to break the ice. In one of these sessions, when Jerry is posing as Blake’s Glad Morning, he gets an erection. Anne demands he lower his staff, but he takes hold of her instead. “‘Don’t yell,’ he told her, ‘I’m not going to hurt you.’ He realized, too late, it was what rapists usually said.” This particular lesson results in a splintered door, broken lamp, and cracked lacrosse stick. But the whole Anne incident is typical of the simultaneous obtuseness and exquisite solicitude that constitute Jerry’s loving perception of the world around him. Jerry, in fact, genuinely cares about Anne, an awkward and lonely girl, and he ultimately helps her articulate her sexual confusion and shed some of her shame by blithely reeling off his own homosexual encounters. He is so outrageous himself that he makes her feel quite normal.
With Elizabeth, too, though she is older, has already been married and divorced, and is far better educated than he is, Jerry is the lover, the one from whom the beams emanate, not the one who must learn to bear them. He cooks for her. He cleans and paints her hideously run-down apartment. He fixes her car and throws out the potatoes rotting in her cupboard. He buys her more stylish clothes and he lectures her, and the reader, on love. His philosophy is puerile, but then, so is he, which redeems both of them a bit. Jerry, the boy on the beach, drifted and daydreamed.
This Jerry also drifts, but the daydreams have become a philosophy: “The most important thing in life is to be true to your deepest needs, and the deepest need of every living person is to join with another living being.” Neither the comic charm nor the cockeyed gallantry of youth, even in Rogers’s hands, can hold up long beneath the burden of Jerry’s theories. With all his philosophizing, Jerry is finally a perpetual adolescent who never really accepts the pain he causes other people in the name of love. He may cook his English teacher an omelet and repair her furniture, but he remains sublimely irresponsible. Most of us see that as a phase, not a doctrine. Even so he remains irresistible.
These are novels set very much in the past—a time when there are rules about cutting in at the cotillion but no rules about hate speech. Jerry’s high school and college are as far away and long ago as fairy tales. Yet Jerry never seems quaint. The novels never feel dated. There are always boys, in any age, and with Jerry Engels, Rogers has created a character who reminds us of that. There are few writers who have the tact and the heart and the humor, not to mention the interest, to write such intelligently playful novels about boys—real boys, as Peter Pan would say—familiar, flawed, and human. We’re lucky that, every decade or so, Thomas Rogers gives it a whirl.