I discovered the world of Alfred Hayes a couple of years ago when I read My Face For the World to See (reviewed here).
That novella explored the doomed relationship between a nameless married narrator who rescues a younger woman from drowning at the beach in LA. The writing was so beautiful, so intense, so brutal; I loved it and resolved to read more by Hayes, which I have now done. My Face published in 1958, is the middle one of three novellas Hayes wrote, all about doomed relationships, preceded by In Love (1953) and followed by The End of Me (1968). Although not a formal trilogy, you can’t help but link the three together. I completed my reading of the three as NYRB have just published a new edition of The End of Me, which I’ll write more about for Shiny New Books soon.
A lost man props up a New York bar one afternoon, striking up a conversation with the young woman next to him. He tells her a story, of his relationship with another young woman and how it was poisoned by an ‘indecent proposal’ – a rich businessman offers her $1000 to spend the night with him. Lest you think the 1993 film with Robert Redford and Demi Moore was based on this novella, it wasn’t – being adapted from a 1968 novel of that title by Jack Englehard – but I can’t help thinking that maybe Englehard got his basic idea from Hayes…
Hayes, as in My Face, names neither narrator not his lover. He does however give the woman’s young daughter a name; Barbara, who is present only by her absence. We get few clues as to why she resides with her grandmother. The young divorcee lives in a small studio apartment in New York, and wears an old shedding fur coat. The narrator tells us:
She always insisted that she could remember every detail of the very first evening we were together […], how she felt, excited […], but sad too, sad inside, the way you feel when you like a man, and when you know that with him it will happen, and you’ve made up your mind even before it happens so that he doesn’t really have to ask you,
The narrator muses often as to whether what he feels for the young woman is ‘love’. He tells us he is often bored, she depressed when together. He says ‘sometimes, not entirely joking, I would advise her to leave me,’ she misunderstanding his barb. He doesn’t think it is love, but it probably is, in a way. Then, on an evening out with friends without the narrator, she meets Howard, the businessman, who makes his proposition and gives her his card. She tells him all about it:
You’re not intending, I said, to use the card?
Idiot, she said. Of course not. How could I? I was just so overwhelmed by the idea of all that money.
But the rot sets in from that point, and love, if that’s what it was, turns into jealousy and resentment. They’ll ultimately break up, they’ll both be unhappy. One night, the narrator turns up at her apartment, and she cautiously lets him in, although afraid he’s going to hurt her:
But she was in no danger. She would have been struck by nothing heavier than a laborious adjective.
As break-up novels go, this is so finely-wrought. Hayes himself called his writing ‘writhing’! In love certainly is 120 pages of exquisite writhing, and I highly recommend it. (10/10) (See also what Jacqui thinks here).
The End of Me
The End of Me takes a different tack to the previous two novellas which both chart a relationship from start to end. As in the previous two novellas, the protagonist is a writer – for the first time given a name, Asher – but this time he’s older, and as the novel begins he is about to flee from LA to NYC to escape being cuckolded by his second wife. He is middle-aged, and his career as a Hollywood scriptwriter has dried up, so he holes up in a hotel in an increasingly wintery New York to consider what to do next. Through his aged aunt, he meets Michael, a young cousin who fancies himself as a poet, and he engages him to be his companion as he explores the New York he grew up in, although little remains. Walking by himself one afternoon he sees pretty girls all around – he muses, ‘There must be a rock, I thought, somewhere, on which they sit and sing.‘ When Michael introduces Asher to his girlfriend, Aurora, he finds her intriguing – and seemingly that feeling is returned. Asher finds himself moving in different circles.
So I had crossed over into the country of the young. I was, of course, there only on a temporary visa. But I flattered myself that I had managed to penetrate the frontier at all. I even supposed the population was friendly.
But things go sour with Michael, when Asher offers a critique of his poems only to discover that they are awful and overly sexualised. ‘Interesting’ was his polite, but wrong, answer! But Aurora stays loyal to Asher, she wheedles the story of his second wife out of him (his first gets scant mention by comparison) and Asher finds himself questioning her motives. Why is she with him and not Michael – or is she with both? Is he being played? They begin this spiral of dancing around each other – more painful ‘writhing’ but I can’t share how it ends, you may well guess!
This third novel at 178 pages is substantially longer than the previous two, although still just about comes in at novella length. With the older main character, and named characters, it has rather a different feel, although Asher does narrate the story in the first person as before, and it is no less bleak than the others too. Although all three narrators are different men of different ages when the main story occurs, they are alike in outlook, bored, fatalistic even. I liked the circularity of the books, going from New York to LA back to New York, but I found the psychological games that the characters play in The End of Me less satisfactory than the narrator’s purer internalisation of the first two. This new NYRB reprint, published next week, Jun 9th, has a new introduction by Paul Bailey. (8.5/10)
There is, however, no denying that Alfred Hayes was a writer of exceptional fiction, using his skills as a poet and scriptwriter to craft these superb short novels. He only wrote seven books, of which there is one more currently in print, his 1949 story set in wartime Rome, The Girl on the Via Flaminia. I *have* to read it!