NBAW, part 38: 1975’s The Hair of Harold Roux.

29 Jul

(Have been writing like a banshee, but have neglected the blog a bit. More to come over the next week and a half, some movie reviews, a True Detective season 2 rant, and other miscellany.)

1.

In 1975, Thomas Williams won the National Book Award for his fabulous academic novel of the 1960s, The Hair of Harold Roux. Williams split the award with Robert Stone’s The Dog Soldiers.

Roux begins with an English professor, nearing middle age and with children of his own, suffering from writer’s block, self-doubt, and existential unease. His name is Aaron Benham. He’s facing a long weekend alone, as he’s mistakenly forgotten a family trip and his wife has left him behind. His star pupil, named George, is nearing the deadline for his dissertation, and George cannot seem to gather the strength to finish it. Another former student, named Mark, has gone missing, and Mark’s mother has asked Benham for help.

So Benham attempts to help George and save Mark, at the expense of taking care of his own family. Here’s an early interaction between George and Benham, on why George won’t finish his dissertation:

“. . . I think I may be going off my nut, and I don’t like it, Aaron.” His eyes are still unfocused. “I mean I can’t shake it. It’s like my head’s in a vice and all the assholes of the world are turning the goddamn handle. We haven’t learned lesson number one. Maybe we don’t even know what it is. But we’re killing the world, Aaron. . . . That’s psychotic, man, and I think I’ve caught it and what’s the use? How can you not think about something, Charles? Nerve gas, radioactive wastes that have to be kept refrigerated for eight generations or else, not to mention being located in earthquake zones. Television fucking outright lies, brain rot, money worship, rivers in hell that catch fire. . . . And the whole stinking race is born of rape. . .”

“So why bother finishing your dissertation?”

“Oh, that. I don’t mean that. I don’t know, maybe so. But everything is dying, so what does anything matter? . . . . We’re deliberately killing ourselves!”

“I am the asphalt; let me work.”

“Yeah.”

“Get your dissertation done and then worry about all that.”

 

And if all of this sounds like the stuff of a good novel, there’s more, for the bulk of the story follows a novel inside this one, Benham’s manuscript titled, of course, The Hair of Harold Roux.

It’s a clever, perhaps too clever, way of dealing with the knotty challenges of writing compelling stories about real people; you occlude through the distance of fiction. Benham’s manuscript details an incident from his college years—his fiction is almost entirely autobiographical—where his alter-ego, Allard Benson, seduces a Catholic school girl named Mary. Benson leads Mary to believe he’ll marry her if she sleeps with him.

This interior story is rich and complex and lovingly detailed, with a dozen or so other students moving around the edges of the plot. One of Benson’s friends is a young man named Harold Roux, a comedic, pathetic, prematurely aged student who wears a ridiculous hair piece and refuses to acknowledge he’s balding. He’s so sensitive that he even walks funny so that a strong wind won’t knock it off. Harold loves Mary, while Allard is screwing Mary’s roommate, and Allard juggles the feelings of the other characters against his own desires with astonishing self-rationalization. The saga plays out against the burgeoning student radical movements of the 1960s.

The manuscript story grows so compelling, that when the novel switches back to Benham the writer, it’s a bit boring. It’s clear, as the novel progresses, that Benham is using the novel to work out past transgressions. But his current predicament—being alone in the house with his memories and too much drink—is so much less compelling than the flashbacks.

The novel grows in power as you read it, becomes more intriguing, more arresting as the pages pass. I was elated to find, near the end, that Williams was a novelist of the first order. And here I had almost given up around page 30.

2.

Williams was a major rising talent in the 1960s, and is now largely forgotten. He is similar to Wright Morris, a feted author and winner of numerous recognitions, short stories in The New Yorker, reviews on the front page of major publications, blurbs from top authors and on firm critical footing who has, somehow, slipped into the dustbin.

Which is a shame, for on the basis of Roux[1], Williams is a major talent. He’s funny, almost unruly in his savagery, sexy, raunchy, clever, thrilling and fun to read. Here he is, describing Benham trying to make a little extra money working on a boat chartered by rednecks:

“The boat moved gently beneath them, and the smell of the cove was powerful: that salty compound of life and rot, chemical, natural, speaking of the dense life of the sea. Through the clamshells on the mud bottom, and crabs moving sideways over white strings of fish parts someone had thrown out.

“. . . When the bus finally came, it was three-quarters of an hour late, having had a flat tire, and the troops had obviously been at the booze. They filed slowly out the front door, a little too careful on the steps. Some carried spinning rods and tackle, but most carried, with many grunts and deep breaths, cases of beer, plastic coolers, and cardboard boxes of food. The logistics of the operation were complicated.

“. . . They were men from their late twenties to early fifties, but all their aces, beneath their story hats or long-bulled caps, were equally blasted, the younger haunted by the finalities of the older. Except for the starved, thin bodies of the burnt-out, gut-troubled types, most were soft-bellied. Though thin elsewhere, they carried a feminine roll over the hips, and navels or pale hairy mounds of flesh were visible between T-shirts and low-slung belts, or between the gaps of printed sport shirts. . . . Flesh colors were tones of gray; they must have all worked indoors, and in their evenings . . . the television set above the bar must have chrome-tanned them into its own metallic tones. They were shades of green, or bruised blue—all on the side of the spectrum away from blood and life, toward the dank, the enclosed.”

You can read that final descriptive paragraph half a dozen times and marvel at the economy, the concision, the humor, the dread, the worry, the anger and the skill. Marvelous stuff.

A very fine, sexy and funny novel. Just with a bad title.

A very fine, sexy and funny novel. Just with a bad title.

So he writes well. There are some clunkers here and there, flush up against the brilliant writing, but he has plenty of talent.

There are reasons why Williams slid out of view, although they all rest on a number of conjecturing suppositions. But here goes.

He has no one big book. I said this before, but a magnum opus goes a long way to securing an author future readers. (Think Moby Dick or Catch-22.) It provides an entry-point for fans and ballast for college literature courses. He didn’t write any autobiographical coming of age novels, either (To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, Black Swan Green), which, when written well, gives a writer a chance at a coveted spot on high school required reading lists.

He’s similar to other writers. In this case, with the academic setting, he’s writing in a very specific genre, crowded with masterpieces. Herzog is an academic novel, of sorts, as are John Williams’s Stoner and Bernard Malamud’s The Good Life—three of the great novels of the twentieth century. Roux fits with this company, with more than a little of Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom added to the mix. Only Williams, as good as he is, and he is a very fine writer, isn’t quite up to the level of these other novelists.

There isn’t a riveting story about Thomas Williams the man. (Cheever was a bisexual drunk; Norman Mailer an ass-worshiping wife-beater; Flannery O’Connor was a death-obsessed cripple who probably never went on a real date; James Ellroy was a homeless drug addict; Katherine Anne Porter was blinded in one eye by an abusive husband; and so on.)

Williams also comes out of the college writing programs/workshop tradition. This doesn’t endear him to future readers. There’s something overly worked out in his prose.

And, I don’t know, the title? It’s a bad title. All of his titles seem forgettable—A High New House, Town Burning, The Followed Man—or just badly weird: Whipple’s Castle, Tsuga’s Children. Ugh and double ugh.

Perhaps its random fate. Faulkner was almost forgotten. Don Carpenter was forgotten. Some make it, some don’t. Not very cheery, but perhaps that’s all there is.

 

3.

The Hair of Harold Roux revolves around Benham’s moral ineptitude, and the casual treachery of his fictional alter-ego. Aaron Benham is complicit, self-loathing, lazy, cheating, rationalizing creature, a lumbering armchair philosopher who ignores his wife and forgets family gatherings. His fictional creation, Allard, is somehow worse, nearly inhuman in his callousness, devoid of even a modicum of empathy, conniving and mean-spirited. If Roux has any major flaws, it’s in the nasty disregard both of the main characters have for other people.

And, well, we’ve seen this type of character before, the womanizing intellectual. In fact, despite capturing the campus life of the sixties rather well, Williams fills the pages with themes so common in American literature they’ve become tropes: Philandering intellectuals, constantly rationalizing their choices; an undercurrent of biology to the proceedings, men aren’t meant to be monogamous, etcetera; and writing fiction as the hardest job there is[2].

Williams—and Robert Stone—beat out a number of fine novelists for the top award, including Donald Barthelme, Gail Godwin, Joseph Heller, Toni Morrsion, Vladimir Nabakov, Grace Paley, Philip Roth and Mark Smith, who was nominated for his underground Death of the Detective.

[1] The novel was re-issued in 2011, and there seems to be some renewed interest in Williams’s other novels.

[2] Which is patently absurd.

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