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[Reviews]

The Art of the Aftermath

On Alfred Hayes

Interior with Two Figures, 1968, a painting by Elmer Bischoff. Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Alice Pratt Brown Museum Fund © The Estate of Elmer Bischoff. Courtesy George Adams Gallery, New York City

[Reviews]

The Art of the Aftermath

On Alfred Hayes
Adjust

Discussed in this essay:

In Love, by Alfred Hayes. New York Review Books Classics. 160 pages. $14.

My Face for the World to See, by Alfred Hayes. New York Review Books Classics. 152 pages. $14.95.

The End of Me, by Alfred Hayes. New York Review Books Classics. 192 pages. $15.95.

Alfred Hayes’s novel In Love opens with a man sitting in a New York hotel bar, talking to a young woman in the middle of the afternoon. “Do I appear to be a man,” he asks, “who doesn’t know what’s wrong with him, or a man who privately thinks his life has come to some sort of an end?” The question both is and is not rhetorical. Though the man is “almost forty, with a small reputation, some money in the bank, a convenient address,” the impression that he is settled, in control of his emotions, is deceptive.

He is recounting a failed relationship with another woman—at the time that they met, recently divorced—and at first suggests that it was merely casual. They had remained willfully, assiduously detached. “I realize now,” he reflects, describing her small apartment,

that I had accustomed myself, without admitting it, to thinking of her as being always in this place, in these surroundings. . . . She would exist among these love letters and these portraits for as long as I loved her. I did not, of course, think of myself as loving her forever, but neither did I think of the time when I would stop.

He relays more and more of their time together, dwelling on a moment when the woman was propositioned by a businessman who offered her $1,000 to sleep with him, and the break that followed. As he continues, the boundary between internal monologue and external conversation blurs, culminating in a description of a night in Atlantic City, an attempt at reconciliation that fails gradually and then all at once. “She did not answer,” he tells us, recalling sitting with her in a hotel room.

She looked still as though she had fallen from a great height; her face remained averted. Was it because of the hotel? Or the bellhop, or registering, or how the curtains looked? Or the ugly chaise longue? I wasn’t responsible for the interior decorating, nor had I designed the hotel, nor had I shrouded those dead chairs in the corridor. She had been cold in the car; asleep, hungry; there was nowhere else to drive this late at night. One ought at least to be discriminating about what one picked to be humiliated by.

The sequence reads as a litany of recriminations. He appears to be thinking rather than speaking—until Hayes reveals the turn. “She said at last: I’m not humiliated,” the protagonist continues. “Then what in Christ’s name was wrong? Nothing. That endless nothing; that persistent nothing; that nothing that always turned out to be the cause of everything.” Her response cracks the interiority of the scene wide open. The result is a glorious vertigo, laying bare how desperate the protagonist is, and the depth of his obsession with his lost love.

The way this unraveling is depicted gives an idea of what makes Hayes’s fiction so remarkable. Though there’s a melodramatic aspect to In Love, which brings to mind, as Frederic Raphael observes in his introduction to the novel, Adrian Lyne’s 1993 film Indecent Proposal, Hayes is less interested in melodrama, or even drama, than in the self-deception he seems to regard as unavoidable in adult life. He is a master of the art of aftermath, his characters constantly retreating—from relationships, from memories, and most essentially from themselves. In a loose sequence of three novels—In Love (1953), My Face for the World to See (1958), and the newly reissued The End of Me (1968)—Hayes follows three writers of a certain age (forties, fifties) at a moment when the lives they have constructed for themselves begin to fall apart.

Though Hayes’s narratives overlap with elements of his life, his novels are more than mere romans à clef. The intensity of the interior voice sets his writing apart. Unlike contemporaries such as Norman Mailer and William Styron, Hayes has no interest in sweeping narratives—in viewing the world through the lens of a social novel. Unlike Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, or other postwar Jewish writers, he is not concerned with assimilation or cultural identity. He is writing about, and from, the psychic terrain F. Scott Fitzgerald once described as the “dark night of the soul,” where “it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.” I don’t mean that Hayes writes like Fitzgerald, who writes as a believer who has lost his faith. Instead, Hayes appears not to have had any particular faith to lose. In that sense, he may be most akin to Richard Yates.

“Nothing we want,” Hayes writes in In Love,

ever turns out quite the way we want it, love or ambition or children, and we go from disappointment to disappointment, from hope to denial, from expectation to surrender, as we grow older, thinking or coming to think that what was wrong was the wanting, so intense it hurt us, and believing or coming to believe that hope was our mistake and expectation our error, and that everything the more we want it the more difficult the having it seems to be.

If that seems a bitter consolation, it’s one that many of us know. Like the characters in Hayes’s books, we are nothing if not self-deceiving, constantly spinning stories to delude ourselves into imagining we are better off than we are. Each of these three novels shows us, without remorse, what happens when we can’t keep it up any longer.

Born in London in 1911, Hayes was, apparently, someone who could do everything well. When he was three, his family, who were Jewish, immigrated to New York; he attended City College and became a reporter, while also publishing poetry in a variety of venues, including this magazine. In 1936, he composed his best-known work, the lyric poem “Joe Hill,” which memorialized the labor activist and Wobbly leader who was executed in Utah in 1915 on a disputed murder charge. “I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,” the first verse begins, “alive as you and me.” Earl Robinson composed a melody for it, and the song was covered by musicians such as Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger, and Joan Baez, who sang it at Woodstock. After spending part of World War II in Italy with an Army special services unit, Hayes chose to stay in Rome, working on neorealist films such as Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan (for which Hayes received an Oscar nomination) and Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. He appears to have learned from this experience the power of the small and nuanced story, in which the most essential drama is what unfolds along the edges of the frame. Hayes’s time in Italy led to a pair of early novels, including The Girl on the Via Flaminia, a minor-key narrative about a love affair between an American soldier and a Roman shop clerk. Hayes adapted the book for Broadway in 1954, although by then he was already in Hollywood, where he earned a second Oscar nomination, for Fred Zinnemann’s Teresa, and wrote scripts for motion pictures and television. If his novels are any indication, this was not a wholly satisfying experience—lucrative, yes, but aesthetically unfulfilling, especially after he found himself consigned to one-off gigs on series such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Like Hayes, the protagonist of My Face for the World to See is a screenwriter. The book’s title comes from a line spoken by an actress he meets at a house party by the beach in southern California, and refers to the hollow glow of fame. They meet when he grudgingly saves her life. “I leaned down, my elbows on the railing of the small porch, enjoying her disaster,” he tells us, watching her walk into the Pacific.

She was pushing out into the water now, and she evidently wasn’t, as I had thought, wading. A big breaker came in and she went under. She really went under. I shouted something and jumped off the porch.

We don’t witness the rescue, don’t see the narrator drag the actress from the surf. Instead, the novel cuts to an image of her sprawled in the sand. “Finally,” he writes, “she vomited. It all came up, the salt water and the gin and the food she’d had, a mess. . . . Of course, the dogs had to come over and smell it.” Even so, when she calls to thank him a few days later, the narrator asks her out. “You’re married, aren’t you?” she says. “A little. Why?” he responds. As he does in In Love, Hayes presents us with a relationship that is impossible from the outset, not least because of the lies the characters tell one another and themselves. “We’ll have to be careful,” the narrator murmurs. “Yes . . . very careful,” the actress assents. We know what they are doing. “I was as moral as the rest of them,” the narrator admits: “policemen and priests and mothers and friends of the family. I wanted the truth nice and my little world clean, with only a few stained adulteries (of the commoner kind).” To maintain the illusion, he humors the actress when she tells him that she is the target of a conspiracy in which everyone (including waitresses and busboys) is watching her and filing reports on her activities—offering in reaction what he describes as “a kind of stopped sympathy.”

By now, it’s clear that their dynamic is unsustainable. It is only when the characters are sleeping that they reveal themselves. Hayes makes this explicit from their first night together—disrupted, the narrator tells us, after he is awakened by the actress in the throes of a nightmare, complete with moaning and grinding of teeth. In the morning, however, we get a different version of the story. “In your sleep,” she insists. “Don’t you know? You screamed out, several times; and cursed; and then, once, you began to cry.” As for the collapse of the relationship, that we can see it coming when the characters cannot is entirely the point. “I’d thought it was not a matter of importance where I was employed or what it was I did to earn what I’d thought of as very good money,” the narrator confesses in the closing pages of the novel, after everything has been blown to bits.

It had ended like this. I had wanted to avoid torment and isolation and self-doubt. I had wanted something that would not involve a sincerity of any kind, but only a show of skill, a pretense of sincerity. It had ended like this. I had wanted a life less difficult than the life I had had, the life I was afraid of, and it had ended like this.

This represents a shift from In Love, in which Hayes’s protagonist, although wounded, emerges relatively intact. Here the novel’s denouement renders the narrator incoherent. The End of Me pushes the disintegration further, until it is all that remains. The novel begins suddenly, in Los Angeles. “I crawled out of the bush away from the window and I began to run.” The narrator is a successful screenwriter named Asher, whose achievements are largely in the past. If at one time he “used to make a hundred and twenty-five grand a year. Before taxes, of course,” now he is “condemned to a fiction of myself.” The phone has stopped ringing, the writing jobs have disappeared. “They do that to you, you know,” Asher confides toward the end of the novel: “they ghostify you.”

Yet ghostifying is part of what Asher is looking for. “I wanted to be lost,” he insists, explaining his retreat from both Hollywood and a marriage on the skids. “I wanted to be effaced. I wanted a place that could suck the pain out of me. I was going back to New York.” New York, though, is just another territory of dissolution, a city in the process of erasing or rewriting its history. The dislocation is embodied in the constant construction, which undermines Asher’s ability to make sense of the specters that haunt his memories. These include his ex-wife—his second ex-wife, as it turns out—who has betrayed him with someone from the tennis club, an incident so run-of-the-mill and tawdry that, for much of the novel, he effectively blocks it out. “New York does not come at you slowly,” he reflects. “It isn’t a landscape. It comes at you simultaneously.”

In the city, Asher pays a visit to his ancient aunt and agrees to meet her grandson, Michael, who aspires to be a writer. Their first encounter goes poorly, and when Asher suggests they try again, Michael brings his girlfriend, Aurora, a law student to whom the older man is drawn. Eventually, Asher hires Michael to accompany him on his walks around the city, to see the “places I had been young in.” It’s an aimless sort of wandering. “Gaps. Non sequiturs,” Asher thinks. “Something that did not follow. An experience of a different order. What? And what was it I expected it to . . . have a connection with? My time. My life. My past.”

As in the other two novels, Hayes is exploring here what Asher calls an “inauthentic authenticity”—the “reality of the fake” relationship they have constructed. This emerges most directly in the story Asher tells himself about Michael: that there is some bond between them, that they are forging a connection rather than merely biding time. “I wanted him to see something,” he reflects, “not a peeling tenement so much as a continuity, a thing that had been there and must, must have left a deposit of some sort.” In reality, though, Asher is playing a part in which his younger counterpart has no interest, leaving him “in danger of not knowing what I meant, what my own experience meant.” The implication is that the past remains, at best, “a ghost’s history,” a series of inventions that no longer add up, if indeed they ever did. It infuses The End of Me with a tragic whisper, especially after Michael and Aurora concoct a plot to embarrass Asher, leaving him with no illusions to hide behind. “I wasn’t any of the things I thought I’d been,” he is forced to recognize. “I was merely money. Well.” The devastation is heightened by the fact that, unlike the protagonists of My Face for the World to See and In Love, Asher is astute enough to know it’s coming. “Well,” he tells himself early in the book (that word again, the echo of its nonchalance and affectation): “apparently, what one ran out of was not mistakes, but the years to make them in.”

Hayes went on to complete one additional novel, The Stockbroker, the Bitter Young Man, and the Beautiful Girl, published in 1973, as well as a collection of poetry called Just Before the Divorce. The titles may as well have been dreamt up by one of his characters. But among all his works, In Love, My Face for the World to See, and The End of Me stand apart, operating as a triptych all their own. They come billed as novels about love, but I don’t think that’s really accurate. Yes, they are romantic—or involve a replica of romance—but only in the narrowest sense. More to the point, they expose, relentlessly, what it is to be held in place by one’s inadequacies. “Your only vice,” the protagonist of In Love says, “is yourself. The worst of all. The really incurable one.” This declaration might be read as an epigraph for all three books. Each of Hayes’s protagonists talks a good game: charming, a little elusive, acknowledging minor lapses to avoid having to examine the larger ones. They pretend to want love but mostly keep their distance; they play at self-knowledge, yet self-deflection is more what they desire. If Hayes’s magnificent cycle of novels has anything to tell us, it’s that the accounting that each protagonist faces eventually arrives for us all.

 is the former book editor and book critic of the Los Angeles Times. He teaches at the University of Southern California.


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December 2020