Alfred Hayes

Josephine Hayes Dean

Alfred Hayes, Italy, circa 1944

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.

—George Herbert

Over a period of some fifty-odd years Alfred Hayes worked as a reporter, a screenwriter, a novelist, and a poet. When he died in 1985 he left behind seven novels, three volumes of poetry, a collection of short stories, and at least a dozen screenplays. During the past decade New York Review Books has republished three of the novels, In Love, My Face for the World to See, and The End of Me. Taken as a whole, these books, written in the 1950s and 1960s, are the jewel in Hayes’s crown: the explanation for why he has recently become something of a passion for those who find in his writing the mastery that makes a work of literature take up a permanent place in a reader’s inner life.

Alfred Hayes was born in London in 1911, grew up in New York City, and died in Los Angeles. His family was Jewish, working-class, and on the left: Hayes took class struggle seriously all his life. He briefly attended the City College of New York, and his father expected him to become something substantial, like an accountant, but the son announced his intention of becoming a poet of the working class. Although none of the poems Hayes wrote in the 1930s are read today, one of them, “Joe Hill,” written to honor a martyred Wobbly activist, was put to music and recorded, first by Paul Robeson, later by Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, and became one of the most famous protest songs in American labor history.

Hayes saw himself, from the first, as a blue-collar intellectual more at home with gamblers and cab drivers—the historian Alan Wald referred to him as “the Byron of the poolhalls”—than he would ever be with other writers. Byron was an inspired comparison; everyone who knew Hayes in his twenties seemed to experience him as a self-dramatizing Marxist, dark, brooding, and intense. This was a posture he apparently maintained for the rest of his life.

Once out of school, Hayes joined the Young Communist League (as so many like him did at that time), found various menial jobs (waiter, delivery boy, bootlegger), and wrote poems, some of them for the left-wing New Masses and Partisan Review, the latter then an organ of the CP. When he landed a job as a crime reporter for one of the New York tabloids, he began to develop the skills he would put to excellent use some fifteen years later as a professional screenwriter.

Drafted into the army in 1943, Hayes spent the last two years of World War II in Italy, and after the war ended he worked with Roberto Rossellini on Paisà (for which he received an Oscar nomination). Shipped home in December 1945, he wrote his first novel, All Thy Conquests (1947). Hayes went on to Hollywood as a mid-level studio writer who contributed to the making of countless movies for which he received a paycheck but seldom a credit. However, Hollywood gave him the education and the metaphor that turned him into a novelist of consequence.

Although Hayes’s lifelong awareness of class struggle never lost its edge, in Hollywood it was transmuted into a deepened sense of human avarice that no political theory could adequately account for. The narrator of his 1958 novel, My Face for the World to See, lets us know that, at first, it seemed to him that “there was something finally ludicrous, finally unimpressive about even the people who had all the things so coveted by all the people who did not have them,” but later he had a feeling “that there was something sinister about the way these people lived.”

It struck Hayes forcibly that the Hollywood obsession with making it was responsible for some of the most soul-destroying behavior humanity was capable of. If you were successful, you could and did inflict horrifying humiliations on those who were not; if you were on the outside wanting in, you were capable of prostituting yourself to an equally degrading extent. The preoccupation in Hollywood with its definition of worldly success never let up. “At this very moment,” Hayes wrote in My Face for the World to See,

the town was full of people lying in bed thinking with an intense, an inexhaustible, an almost raging passion of becoming famous if they weren’t already famous, and even more famous if they were; or of becoming wealthy if they weren’t already wealthy, or wealthier if they were.

For Hayes, Los Angeles had become emblematic of an America where not only did love not thrive, the impulse to trust—oneself as well as others—often seemed to be draining steadily away. He knew that the emotional unreality he now identified with Hollywood had been a prevailing influence on the culture for at least as far back as the Great Depression. In those years, although capitalist greed was the force behind the economic collapse, many Americans, we ourselves—our friends, neighbors, relatives—had had a share in contributing to a brutalized atmosphere that had brought us all low. There had, of course, been camaraderie during the Depression (my mother remembered it as a time when people were kind to one another), but more often there’d been a deadly sense of the aloneness that a culture on the skids greatly magnifies. In his memoir All the Strange Hours (1975), the anthropologist Loren Eiseley recounts an incident of the early 1930s in which a man in a hobo camp hears the twenty-year-old Eiseley tell of how he’d just been beaten by a brakeman trying to throw him off a box car. The man hears the story out and then instructs Eiseley, “Just get this straight…. The capitalists beat men into line. Okay? The communists beat men into line. Right again?… Men beat men, that’s all. That’s all there is. Remember it, kid.”

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For the consumers of the pulp fiction and gangster movies of the time, none of this was news. Writers, working in a vein that grew from American anomie, steadily chronicled the misfortunes of a population of women and men now genuinely adrift. In the middlebrow novels of John Steinbeck it was sharecroppers and itinerants who bore the brunt of a failed and heartless capitalism, but in the pulps it was the urban loner, cold-eyed rather than cowed, who dominated. This figure is America’s answer to European modernism’s deracinated antihero. Alone as alone can be, he (it’s almost always a he) gradually becomes the man who must decide for himself just how far he can go when his back is to the wall. Pretty far, it turned out. As the film critic Robert Sklar put it, this was a genre driven by a plot about “a crime told from the point of view of the criminal.” During the Great Depression, when half the world felt they were being treated like criminals, readers and moviegoers couldn’t get enough of it.

At the end of the 1930s, a new level of American writing emerged—at ease with pulp, even inspired by it, yet in a class all its own. This work made inner isolation visceral, but it went farther and struck deeper by making passion and murder psychologically artful. It also electrified by putting sexual relations rather than social realism at the center of its actual subject: the human capacity for betrayal.

When the hard-boiled novels of writers like James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett were transferred to the screen in the 1940s and 1950s, exhilarating movies such as The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Maltese Falcon, and Murder, My Sweet made audiences shiver over lives dominated by hungers (transgressive and otherwise) destined to lead either to a bullet in the back or the electric chair. These movies—filmed mostly in haunting shadow or on streets made sinister by darkness and rain, and with sex continually smoldering in the background—excited a romantic melancholy in viewers that elevated their status from B to A.

It wasn’t the words put in the mouths of the characters that made these movies thrilling; it was rather a tone that the films achieved, some ineffable sense of things that spoke, guardedly but undeniably, to antisocial desires, unattainable intimacy, psychological drift. Today, much of the dialogue in these movies can sound laughable. Take In a Lonely Place, for instance, in which the protagonist confides, “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.” But watch the movie to the end and, never mind the sex and danger, I guarantee a strong sense of emotional exile will wash over you.

In the late 1940s French film critics began to call this kind of work noir, and in the 1950s and 1960s there were writers everywhere who found in noir metaphors they thought they could make use of. Among these was Alfred Hayes, for whom “Joe Hill” had long been superseded by Double Indemnity, and who now responded to the influence of noir as the New York novelist he had it in him to be rather than the California screenwriter he had become. It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate what a good screen noir could do, especially if it featured love gone rotten in compromising circumstances. It was that he knew it would take an extended fiction to illuminate what for him was noir’s central issue: the inability to feel the reality of your own or anyone else’s life, even if it belonged to someone you were sleeping with. If ever Hayes had been uncertain about how to sink this insight into a story touched by noir, that uncertainty evaporated in 1953 when he published In Love, the novel that became the template for all that was to follow.

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A man of almost forty, a failing screenwriter who shall remain nameless, meets a woman of twenty-two (also nameless), slightly shopworn, at a bar in Manhattan. He, married but separated from his wife, lives alone in a midtown hotel; she, divorced and with a child she has stashed with her parents, in a tiny apartment in a bad neighborhood. Each of them is waiting for someone or something to rescue them from their stalled lives. They fall into bed, then into an erotic connection that resembles love. What follows is a hundred-odd-page account, related in the first person by the man, detailing the unholy course of an affair that comes to seem emblematic of the times, yet psychologically timeless.

From the start, the story is drenched in mutual distrust, a distrust that is fingered thoughtfully by both the narrator and the woman as though it were an infection that might heal rather than flare if properly attended to. But such attention would require the open expression of wholehearted tenderness, the kind that leaves one vulnerable, a condition neither the man nor the woman is up for.

She is fragile, painfully naive:

Life was so unfair! All she’d ever wanted was a reasonable amount of happiness…. Why, being beautiful, and why, being young, and why, being reasonably faithful and reasonably good and reasonably passionate, was it so hard to gouge out of the reluctant mountain her own small private ingot of happiness?… Everyone seemed more fortunate than she.

The narrator, smarter and far more experienced, isn’t much better. When he is being honest with himself he knows that adopting the demeanor of one who, hurt by life, remains wary is for the most part an affectation:

Because I, too, was difficult, easily depressed, changeable, evasive, and perhaps not entirely honest…. The portrait I drew of myself was always unflattering (but was it really unflattering? Wasn’t it, actually, by insisting so on my inaccessibility making myself more attractive?) but always, of course, with just a touch of sadness to everything I said.

Neither of these damaged souls can abandon the guardedness with which they have long lived. From start to finish their situation is precarious; when its stability is only slightly threatened, each begins calculating their odds. It’s on the ground of this loaded combination of pathos and cunning that Hayes’s talent hits pay dirt.

Within a matter of months the woman (always the one more on edge) commits an act of sexual duplicity that takes the narrator by surprise. Her infidelity turns on the proposition of Howard, a besotted businessman who offers her $1,000 to sleep with him for just one night. She is shocked, by both the figure and the temptation, but relates the offer to the narrator as though it’s a big joke. Nonetheless, she muses out loud, she’s certain that if she did do something like that, “you’d take me back, wouldn’t you, darling? You’d forgive me. After all, I’ve been nice, haven’t I, and I haven’t caused you too much trouble, and it’s really such a lot of money.” Then she looks directly into his face: “Silly, she said. Stop looking like that. You know I wouldn’t.”

But of course she does.

If this were a genuine noir, at this point the woman would be seen as the femme fatale doing in the unsuspecting protagonist—and the reader’s spine would tingle with fear and excitement. But as it’s a work of emotional imagination, what’s memorable is the aloneness that these two inflict on each other.

The narrator realizes that the ball had been in his court. “I had simply to say that I did not want her to see him, or to accept his invitations,” he tells us, “and that I loved her, and that I was jealous.” But this he could not do: “I smiled; I pretended to approve, and pretended not to be alarmed…and inside me, a slow petrification spread.” After she leaves him for Howard, who, of course, never wanted just one night, he is surprised to find himself really suffering over his own part in this startling turn of events, concluding (rightly) that it was “my cowardice, my reluctance to declare myself, my habitual irony, myself in short as the years had made me,” that had been responsible for her flight.

One night at three in the morning his phone rings. It’s her. She tells him she’s left Howard because it is only with him that she feels real to herself. She’s lying. She called because Howard has refused to marry her, and she needs to reassure herself that she is, after all, still desirable. The confusion of rage, angst, and hunger with which they fall into bed is stunning. But for these two, stunning goes only so far.

In a final twist she goes back to Howard, and the narrator blackmails her into sleeping with him once more. This time she feels violated, and she lashes out at him:

Nobody was necessary to me, she said. Not really necessary. I was fond enough of people and some I loved but none of them were necessary to me. She had never been necessary to me…. I existed for myself.

With all the shabbiness surrounding her affair with Howard, “he still needed her in a way I never would and what he felt for her was something I would never feel for a woman…. I did not need women for what I really needed.”

And what of her? What does she feel like when she lies down with Howard, and then goes out to buy a dress or a car on his dime? What of the child we are not at all certain she will reclaim? What of the men of the future whom she will certainly be meeting between two and four on rainy afternoons? No matter. We have arrived at the heart of the novel. She doesn’t need men any more than he needs women for what she really needs.

In 1958 Hayes published My Face for the World to See, an even deadlier take on his particular brand of lost souls. This time the opening scene is a beach party in Los Angeles. The narrator—again nameless—is the same fortyish screenwriter still on his uppers, the woman now a twenty-six-year-old who’s been trying unsuccessfully to make it in the movies for the better part of a decade. At the party, she gets drunk and walks into the ocean, apparently to take a swim, but the narrator sees her going under and plunges into the waves, pulling her from the water. He knows he shouldn’t have anything more to do with her, that once again he’d be “wander[ing] into an ‘unsuccessful’ life,” but no sooner does she call than he’s right there: “I stretched myself out beside her, a stranger, a spy, sharing the warmth of the bed. Morning seemed immeasurably far.”

The woman in this book is a far more experienced loser than her predecessor in In Love, and therefore twice as dangerous. She’s been living a half-life for so long she has lost her bearings and often seems on the verge of losing her reason. Her days are spent “waiting at the telephone so long for her agent or a man or just anybody to call saying there was a job or an appointment or even simply a date for dinner.” One day, however, of this she is certain, “a limousine would draw up at the curb of the street where she lived…. The front desk [at the studio] knew she was coming.” “The men in power…smiled at her…. Now at last they were kind.”

The narrator does not realize until too late how strung out the woman is. Within a matter of weeks, however, he knows that she is desperate for him to tell her that he loves her and, once again, this he cannot bring himself to do. Instead, he listens to the woman tell her painful story, thinking, “Why is it that even now I don’t quite believe her, and the sympathy, what there is of it, isn’t quite what sympathy should be?”

They’re driving to a restaurant when he tells her that his wife is arriving from New York in the morning, and the affair is over. She responds to the news with a venom that shocks him. Really, she says, her voice withering, she’s glad to be done with loving, such a bore, so good “to be free.” The food comes. She stubs her cigarette out in the duck. Another martini, please. “Of course, I knew she hated me, didn’t I?” Then she really lets loose:

She’d done so many things. I’d no idea the sort of things she’d done….

Well: she’d tell me something…. It was a sick ugly terrible life, her life, and she knew it, and she didn’t want me…forgiving her for it.

The trouble was, life “never gave you quite what you really needed. Enough guts, for example…. She didn’t have nearly enough.” She gives him a recital of her conquests: grocery boys, truck drivers, and (she claims) an eight-year-old boy:

I looked at her…and I hated her, and all those like her, for she seemed at that moment to contain in herself all that I hated and feared in people, the violent follies, the vicious melodramas, the grotesque self-destructiveness.

That night she cuts her wrists in the narrator’s apartment. He calls his friend Charlie the Fixer. Together, the two men get her half-dead body into a car, drive to her apartment, dump her, call a doctor, and go off to Romanoff’s, where they will be sure to be seen by dozens. The reader sits staring into space.

The End of Me was published in 1968 and reads like a coda to the other two novels. By now our corrupted screenwriter has a name (it’s Asher) and is no longer failing: he has failed. The story opens with Asher fleeing his collapsing life in LA and returning to New York, where he expects to walk the streets of his youth, hoping to stumble on something that will explain him to himself; at the moment he hasn’t a clue. He has discovered that the wife he no longer loves is having an affair and, for reasons that remain obscure to him, he finds this discovery shattering. He is also deeply perplexed as to why he’s no longer getting work:

You didn’t know why, certainly it was not because you had less of what you had had when you got the jobs, you were sure of that, were you sure of that, yes, you said, you were sure of that.

In New York, Asher starts spending time with Michael, a young cousin, and Aurora, his girlfriend, expecting to impress these two with his knowledge of the city. But everything is changed—friends and family gone, shops replaced, streets torn up—and the idea that a savvy New Yorker is hiding somewhere inside Asher’s angry passivity proves an embarrassing folly.

Michael and Aurora pose as his good friends but they are in fact his comeuppance: a pair of amateur con artists who hold him, a Hollywood hack, in contempt. The narrative consists of a series of misadventures that end in Asher’s monumental humiliation at their hands. In the final scene he stands, drained, at the window of his eighth-floor hotel room, looking down onto the unforgiving street below. And now, in all his bitterness and bad faith and moving self-deceptiveness, he becomes the existentially mortified successor to the narrators of In Love and My Face for the World to See, the one who binds the novels together.

In Love is my favorite of the Hayes novels, the one that speaks most directly to me. I have read and reread this small book as though it were a poem rather than a fiction: not a description of experience but the thing itself. Hayes knows what it’s like to not feel, and to want to feel, and to not have the wherewithal to do it. What he knows he puts down on the page not through dialogue or plot turn but through a gripping tone of voice: “Here I am, the man in the hotel bar said to the pretty girl,” Hayes writes at the beginning of In Love,

almost forty, with a small reputation, some money in the bank, a convenient address…this look on my face you think peculiar to me, my hand here on this table real enough, all of me real enough if one doesn’t look too closely.

Wherever this voice is going, the responsive reader thinks, I’m going with it.

The ability to make a tone of voice central to the work at hand is not common, but good writers often display it. In The Rings of Saturn, the solitary wander is W.G. Sebald’s controlling metaphor. Without human connection, the narrator—clearly a stand-in for the author—sees devastation wherever he goes. It would seem we have here a man so morbidly obsessed with the gigantic mess humanity has made of the world, he might even be a nihilist. But no. The tone of his voice—calm, clear, wonderfully curious—tells us he is more interested in than despairing of what lies before him. Life is bleak but the narrator is not. His voice belies the content of his observations, makes the prospect of what might come next exhilarating.

The narrative voice in a Hayes novel is equally necessary to the book’s central concerns. Posing as the history of a failed love affair, the books are actually concentrated on the narrator’s effort to figure himself out. Neither cynical nor vengeful nor emotionally out of control, at every turn he seems to realize that both he and the woman are acting out of what for each is an understandable necessity.

Nevertheless, while he does not demonize the woman—he is often trying to see why she acts as she does—in the final analysis, he always comes out the more injured of the two. He admits to all his emotional insufficiency, but his tone belies accountability. He can’t help it; no matter how he looks at it, he’s the one bleeding in the street! Every now and then he wonders fretfully why, with all his experience, he repeatedly links up with women who are walking disasters. In fact, why does he link up with them at all?

Of course, this narrator is a pawn in Hayes’s game. It’s as though somewhere inside this material a vital piece of understanding is trapped, and as long as it remains beyond the narrator’s reach, Hayes is destined to obsess over what really happened in that affair. One more time, each of his novels seems to entreat, just one more time, and I’ll get it right. But he doesn’t get it right. He can’t get it right. Ultimately, not getting it right is Hayes’s achievement.

The problem is that his people are looking for salvation in the wrong place. The men and women in the Hayes novels hang around each other as long as they do, making each other as miserable as they do, because one and all are persuaded that the next love affair (if not this one) will deliver them from their own unknowing selves, and when it doesn’t they retreat behind those ever-hardening exteriors that noir made such good use of, the ones that were really begging to be cracked open. If anything is essence-of-Hayes, it’s the capacity to make a metaphor out of that retreat and the plea implicit in it.

In one sense, the Hayes novels are time-bound; in another, they live on because they capture brilliantly the insult and injury inherent in looking for salvation in the wrong place.


This article has been updated to correct biographical information about Alfred Hayes.