Carol Hill’s Let’s Fall in Love has such a bad title that one quickly feels driven to invent others. Like Let’s Get Away from It All. On page 3 we are in “Zurich: 1:22 P.M.,” on page 4 in “Leeds: 4:01 P.M.,” on page 6, “Rome: 4:17 P.M.,” and, still on page 6, “The Riviera: 6 P.M.” In Zurich a girl is running naked through the snow toward her papa; in Leeds two British agents look at the same girl in a newspaper; in Rome Anna denounces the tardiness of Plato with “Fuck Italy, first the Fascists and now a pimp who can’t tell time”; on the Riviera someone called “I” is asked by his friend Santiago as they look at a girl on the beach: “I’m going to rape her, do you care to watch?” Then, after the rape: ” ‘Did it strike you as prurient?’ Santiago asked as we drove along the highway, the night air fragrant with the smell of honeysuckle and the sea.”
Or maybe it should be called Let’s Pretend. Anna, in Rome at 4:17, says, as she is raped on the Riviera at six, “Remember, I must be in Milan by eight.” She is a courtesan who charges $10,000 a trick, and she is also a deep sea diver, a gymnast, an expert gambler, billiard player, and bank robber. She is also at the center of an uncertain number of international plots, all derived from New York Times news stories, printed verbatim here.
Simpler still, we can call it Let’s Do It: “waiting and moaning then, asking Lola to come back, come back and suck her while the vibrator was up her ass, and Lola would, suck and tongue, and bite, bite gently, and then hard until Anna breathing heavily called out for him, now, now, and Plato came in.”
But of course finding names soon becomes tiresome, though nowhere near as soon as the slight interest derived from having it all written by a woman, since one would otherwise have sworn it was vulgarized Pynchon. After such pleasures disappear, there’s not much to do except to wait until Martin Bormann shows up at the end. A dutiful reviewer must get there; others are more quickly released, and into saying: Let’s not and say we did.
Geoffrey Wolff’s The Sightseer has to be better than that, and it is, but it is one of those books that keep lurching from a little better to a lot worse than they should have been. If Hill’s muse is some derivative Pynchon, Wolff’s is Hawkes: Caleb Sharrow, sightseer, narrator, moviemaker, familiarly treating life only as the stuff of art; Caleb’s brother Noel, twin, antagonist, speaking in the name of reality, morality, religion. Wolff works hard and often quite well to keep their antagonism something loving, something other than dialectic, but sometimes he cannot resist, and then we get moments like this:
Noel finally spoke to me, spitting the words. “You’d blow up the world to film its end. Wouldn’t you?”
I answered him gently. “No, but if it were coming to an end, I’d like to spend my last few seconds shooting the event, and imposing some sense and beauty on it.”
“I answered him gently” indeed, and Wolff will make sure that Caleb is in for it somehow. But Caleb is not so simply determined that he cannot be allowed a few instances of smug, flat, but perfectly intelligent observation, such as this of some skiing companions:
All wore V-necked sweaters, solid colors, dark green, dark blue, dark red, and cuffless, heavy corderoy britches, and sturdy walking boots with soft, worn, dark leather uppers. They laughed often, throwing back their heads to put some muscle in their pleasure. They drank ale and hard cider in awful quantities, but did not get drunk; they were polite to waitresses and one another, but were never formal. They did not say at the predictable moment after dinner, “Let’s find some pussy.”
Not people, but, still, things cleanly seen.
Wolff’s point is that sightseers never learn, become so insulated they cannot hear, even when others are shouting against their complacence. Noel shouts, as does a simple sailor whose lovely boat Caleb inadvertently sinks, and there are mutters from a boring Turkish mystery family into which Caleb marries, and from everyone near the end when Caleb willingly corrupts his leading man to get a good performance. But in order to keep Caleb from becoming hopelessly dull as he fails to hear over and over again, Wolff can think of nothing more to do than go exotic and episodic—Vienna, the Alps, Istanbul, the Greek islands, home in Vermont—but the point is all too simple and obvious to be able to stand its constant repetition, and Wolff knows no other way to rat on his narrator. He scrupulously avoids using brother Noel as an instrument of getting through to Caleb, but that in turn means that after a while Noel is just traipsing along behind. Wolff is no dummy, and there are moments of good observation and others where Caleb’s detachment is truly ghastly. But for the most part the book drifts, a short story idea used to fill a whole novel.
Hill and Wolff write as they do because of the books they’ve read, and David Madden and Richard Price as they do because of the lives they’ve had. Unquestionably that has to be at least a step forward, simply because in Bijou and The Wanderers we will find such things as human doubt and guilt and sorrow and, at rare moments, articulate love. There are troubles for both novels, and Bijou has longueurs that make one sometimes long for some of Carol Hill’s mindless globe-hopping. But they were not written just to see if they could exist.
Bijou is awfully long, and it covers no more than a year in the life of Lucius Hutchfield, aged thirteen, resident of the small city of Cherokee, Tennessee. Perhaps a single passage can help show why it is so long, and why someone might want to read it:
Sometimes in the office, Lucius looked at the ad material, the mats for newspapers, as Hood unwrapped them, like a magician practicing out of sight of audiences. But he was always bewildered because Hood, who was in charge of the theatre and the stills, didn’t seem thrilled about it, didn’t seem to deserve his good fortune. He got magnificent ad copy for The Big Sleep, Courage of Lassie, Of Human Bondage, the whole layout arranged differently in black and white from the colored posters Brady put in the still-stands against the walls. Looking at the posters, Lucius liked to toll out in his head the names of the directors: William Wyler, Mervyn Leroy, John Ford, and producers, David O. Selznick, Mark Hellinger, Samuel B. Goldwyn, Walter Wanger, Darryl F. Zanuck, and the men who wrote music, Dmitri Tiomkin and Max Steiner, and a few of the script-writers, Philip Yordan, Lamar Trotti, Robert Riskin, Philip Dunne, W. R. Burnett, Ben Hecht. Though far below the stars, everything else had magnitude.
The time, one quickly sees, is 1946, and at one time or other we are bombarded with names of movies, songs, and best sellers, with newspaper and newsreel headlines. Lucius writes stories, dreams of being a writer, and gradually moves from stories based on movies to stories based on popular fiction to stories based on his own life, which in turn is based on that of Thomas Wolfe.
Now I am only a year older than Lucius Hutchfield, and was raised in a small city not unlike Cherokee, so Madden’s description of which movies came to which theaters, his detailing of the plot of To Each His Own, his thrill at Bette Davis—“You’ll see her deceive with all her cunning, so she could love with all her heart”—must be something I can follow and remember about as well as anyone. Lucius’s sense of the war as an event that had deep but unreal effects on adults is precisely mine, so that it easily became analogous to sex, which Lucius and I were also discovering then, though Lucius was somewhat more mature than I in his dim realization that girls were people whose feelings could be hurt.
In a sense, then, I am close to Madden’s ideal reader. Yet long before I felt Bijou was terribly long, I felt first nervous and then repulsed by it, in the same way one can feel about a roman à clef when one knows who the people are behind all the characters. The nervousness arises the moment one realizes how much work one is doing for the author, how much supplying from one’s own memory is going on, how blank it must all seem to an innocent reader, of a different place or time, who cannot do this work. The repulsion begins when one sees that what makes the book so static, so long, so unresponsive and even irresponsible about itself, is the use of nostalgia, pure, unruffled nostalgia, as the impulse behind the entire creation. Long before one wants to call the book bad in any sense it becomes intolerable.
Nostalgia is one of the impulses behind a great many very good works of literature, and it is probably present even in the most self-disgusted autobiographical works. Rightly used, nostalgia helps to create the girlhood of Maggie Tulliver, the unified boyhood of Henry Adams. Surely it is nostalgia, furthermore, that urges such writers to get the touches and smells precise. But nostalgia, by itself, traps moments into images that are beyond intelligence and reproach, beyond the interference of the older person doing the remembering. All the movies Lucius Hutchfield saw in 1946, all the books he fondled, all the songs he heard, all the letters and stories he wrote, all the days and weeks, all are important, and equally important. Listen:
When he reached the main floor, the boys were flipping up the seats for the Negro clean-up crew that worked all night.
A little girl came running back in. Her mother and father stood in the outer lobby. “I lost a lost article.”
“You all find a Margaret O’Brien pocketbook?” Lucius yelled from the balustrade.
“Didn’t know you owned one,” said Elmo, snorting.
Not perfect, but simply and precisely rendered, such moments, even if they were done in Madden’s nostalgic sleep, because the naming is right and the naming is all Madden can or need do.
But the importance that nostalgia gives to names and places is precisely what deprives nostalgic creations of humanity, since all feelings are equally important and equally pleasureable. No understanding is needed, no shaping or judging can take place, in Bijou. In a moment as well remembered as the one above, Lucius is last in line at a gang bang in the movie theater where he works, and after it is all over Lucius starts lecturing the girl because “Don’t you know Jesus doesn’t like for you to do it with boys?”
“If Jesus is in your heart, you don’t find guys that go with you just so they can do it with you.”
“But you did it to me.”
“I know, and I’m ashamed of it. You know what they call it, don’t you?”
“Being a whore. And Listen, honey, promise Jesus you won’t do it no more.”
“Will you be my only sweetheart? Then we can do it.”
“Did you like it when we did it?”
“If we could do it in a bed like we’s married, I would.”
The girl is pathetic, Lucius is awful. There’s no reason he should know what he’s doing here, moving from cant to confession to abuse to leering curiosity, but there is reason that Madden should know, if only to register the way Lucius’s guilt will be transformed into something else as time goes on. But no, Madden is nostalgically beyond such knowing, and unfortunately that means he doesn’t care who Lucius Hutchfield is, for all the attention he has apparently lavished on him. When moments are trapped in this way, they can be lovingly and precisely written and still be beyond the power of the writer to save them.
The kind of simplifying and deadening impulse that seems to have overtaken David Madden—who, I hope I’ve shown, is in many other respects an exemplary writer—also seems to be gnawing away at the edges of a much younger writer, Richard Price, writing about a much more recent time, the early Sixties. Price, born in 1949, writes about teenagers in a gang in the Bronx, and never quite loses the sense that what he’s describing has some of the idealizing finality of life as he saw kids two and three years older living it. Yet all this really is only at the edges of The Wanderers. To write about New York gangs at a time when radical matters were facts of life, but not paramount, is to evoke other works, even if only The Amboy Dukes or West Side Story. But Price dispels that impression quickly, and one realizes that is the way it was. If the problem of nostalgia lingers, the problem of authenticity does not.
The first and most important thing Price does is to divide the gang up into a series of short stories, so the gang exists here approximately as it exists in the lives of its members, important but not everything. Parents, brothers, and sisters are not just shadow figures. School, football, sex, the future, all are allowed to play their parts once we understand that the gang is not the only center for these lives.
The gangs of other fiction are all codes and rites of passage; Price’s Wanderers are good, lonely friends, unable to confer manhood on anyone because Price knows it can’t be done, at least not as an act. Joey Capra is small, and his father, a former Mr. New York, beats him up—that is not his story, but is the stuff of his daily life. Eugene Caputo fears not being able to screw because when erect his cock goes down instead of up; Perry LaGuardia has to endure his love of his impossible and dying mother, and his rich and snotty Long Island brother; Buddy Borsalino has a touching and pointless love which leads him into a touching and pointless wedding and marriage. The stories are connected because almost all the gang appear in almost all the stories, but the device works well in doing its essential job of making the gang not a unit but a group of kids.
Violence is here, frighteningly so, but Price makes sure that except for Joey’s being the target of his father’s meanness it is a fact of life but not of daily life. The two murders in the book are, first, the spiteful obliteration of a dim-witted friend by the younger brother of one of the Wanderers’ girls:
“I wish I was a marine so I could torture Nazis…do you like torture?” Dougie asked.
“I dunno, what is it?”
“C’mere, I’ll show you.” He took Scottie into the hallway of a building. “O.K. I’ll be the marine and you be the Nazi.” He faced Scottie. “Where are your tanks?” he barked. Scottie looked confused and shrugged. “You lie!” Dougie slapped Scottie hard across the face.
When Scottie, not knowing the rules of torture, strikes back, Dougie devises a game whereby Scottie will close his eyes and jump from the roof of a seven-story apartment. The second murder involves a Fordham Baldie lost in Irish Ducky Boy country on Webster Avenue. The victim is a poor sucker whose life is nothing at all: “Hang on Sloopy had a mouth that looked like it was put in his face with a can opener. A small, bloodless, lipless hole with multicolored teeth going in four directions…. He had no nose save for two flaring holes and his ears were the size of quarters.” He gets drunk one night, kisses another guy’s girl at a dance, but it isn’t for that he’s killed. He just wanders off where he shouldn’t, and the Ducky Boys cut him up.
But if these are spiteful and gratuitous, the rape at the end has a brilliant twist. Eugene finally learns to screw, and he even meets a girl he can tell his story to. She gets up one night, goes to the candy store to buy cigarettes, and doesn’t come back. Eugene gets up and after a while “He found a narrow alcove with mailboxes and a big black guy with dungaree shorts down to his knees on top of a white woman. All Eugene could see of her was her spread legs.” He freezes, then panics, then runs, to call the cops. By the time he comes back the girl is alone, naked, terrorized:
“H-he h-had a razor!” She dropped her head on his arm then pulled up straight. “He said he w-woulda k-killed muh-me, h-he h-had a r-razor!”
” ‘s’O.K., ‘s’O.K.” Eugene saw the red lines running along the left side of Nina’s throat.
‘S-suh-suh-suh-somebody came. Su-somebody came, an’, an’ then th-they left! Th-they d-didn’t s-say n-nothin’.”
Eugene clenched his teeth and trembled. Coward, faggot, coward, pussy, cunt, coward, coward, coward.
And when he tells his mother what happened, she enforces the judgment against him:
“Eugene…what did you do!” She clenched her teeth. The neck veins stood out like roots along her throat.
“I called the cops.”
“I called the cops.”
“You ran,” she pronounced sentence. “A nigger…was raping your girl friend and you ran!”
But the girl herself has another, the last, word, for this is not just like other books:
“I’m a fuckin’ coward, and I ran.” Nina touched his hand. “I was standin’ there just lookin’, Nina…an’ I tore ass outta there like a fuckin’ coward.”
“Babe.” She tried to stare into his eyes, but he wouldn’t look up. “If you jumped him like you think you should’ve, I wouldn’t be here right now. I would’ve been dead in two seconds, and maybe you too…. Eugene, when he saw you he got scared. If you hung around he would’ve had to hurt somebody. Maybe me. Maybe you. Maybe both of us. When you split that gave him his out…. Just look at this. Just look.”
Eugene glanced at her neck, winced, and looked away. “You don’t understand,” he repeated.
“The hell I don’t! You don’t care about me! All you care about is your goddamn pride. You wouldna cared if he sliced my head off.”
The last word is not “the point,” of course, because there is no point; Nina shouts, Eugene leaves, and joins the marines, “a decision he was sure Nina would never understand,” and which he never gives her a chance to do.
Price knows that each voice, each person, counts, and he knows how to make each count. Since loneliness and brutality and bigotry and squalor are facts of all the lives, no one, no matter how brutal or squalid, is excluded from Price’s gaze or care. His ear, in the technical sense, is fine, but the emotional range of what it hears is very narrow indeed. Price does not freeze his characters like David Madden, but lets them be everything, so what they feel and know are the limits of his world. He will occasionally allow himself a sentence of stylish writing—“As for Frank, he was friendless although he had many enemies”—but by and large what the language of his people says is all that is known of them.
Because we are dealing with vignettes and stories, the limitation is rarely felt, page by page, since Price tells the tales well and his respect for his characters dignifies everything. But because the characters, of necessity, are pretty dumb people, his insistence that they be everything tends to idealize them in a way not unlike the way Madden’s nostalgia idealizes Lucius Hutchfield—not by making them ideal, but by making them beyond reproach, in a way beyond the need to be understood. Hannah Green is quoted on the dust jacket as saying the Wanderers “themselves have a heroic quality. Something chivalric—like the Knights of the Round Table.” I think she’s right, though her language is needlessly extravagant. But what I take to be praise from her is what I see as Price’s limiting defect.
Still, The Wanderers is a good novel. Life is lived in it.
June 27, 1974