Tag Archives: academic novels

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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Interlude 3: The academic novel.

9 May

(And the crime novel. And my life in academia. In 55 lovely points.)

  1. The academic novel is one of the great, under-appreciated subgenres in American literature.
  2. Academic novels tend to feel insulated from the real world. And yet besieged by heightened real-world problems. Of identity, sexuality. Of how to live a good life without harming others. Plus the white-knuckle terror of ideas.
  3. Bernard Malamud’s The Good Life, John Williams’s Stoner, and Saul Bellow’s Herzog form a sort of trilogy on the subject. White Noise is the epilogue.
  4. Jonathan Lethem’s As She Climbed Across the Table should be added to this list. A post-script, maybe.
  5. John Williams gets my vote for the most under-appreciated great writer. He only wrote four novels, and three of them are pure dynamite.
  6. Edward Anderson, of Thieves Like Us, is gets my second vote.
  7. Thieves Like Us is one of the great crime-caper novels, with two very good film versions. (Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night and Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us.)
  8. Academic novels often use the atmosphere of noir. There’s something about universities and tenure and the classroom that lends itself to the mood of crime fiction.
  9. Existentialism?
  10. Noir fiction is not detective fiction. The difference is in the details.
  11. Noir is French existentialism plus American gangsters plus sex.
  12. Detective fiction is crime plus honor plus lawlessness plus fearlessness plus heroism. And usually sex.
  13. Noir is death, dread, damaging sex. The hero rarely makes it out alive.
  14. Detective fiction is hard talk and individual genius. The hero rarely dies.
  15. I like both.
  16. Crime fiction has so many good writers that it’s difficult for new writers to make it their own; they risk parody or imitation. There’s little left. The Long Goodbye and The Maltese Falcon have not been improved on.
  17. Having said that, No Country for Old Men is a fabulous crime novel.
  18. The Last Good Kiss is, too. James Crumley. He rules.
  19. It must be said: Ross McDonald is underrated. Not sure why he seems to be receding, while Hammett and Chandler are secure.
  20. But I have a hard time reading new hard-boiled fiction.
  21. The hardboiled school of writing is often more sentimental, more romantic, more false than just about any other type of writing. The detectives are often creaky old men drinking their way through clues.
  22. “Creaky old men drinking their way through clues.” This could be an analysis of much of detective fiction of the 20th century.
  23. Case in point—my favorite line in Dashiel Hammett’s Red Harvest: “At forty I could get along on gin as a substitute for sleep, but not comfortably.”
  24. I recently finished Nic Pizzolato’s (writer and producer of True Detective) Galveston. It won awards. It sold boatloads. It’s good but not great. See point 21 above.
  25. Southern noir is the weirdest of subgenres. The kudzu, the heat, the spread out towns and cities, the drinking, the scars of slavery—it somehow works. Few shadows. Small towns. Oodles of violence.
  26. I’m struggling with the final touch-up of my latest novella. I can’t quite ratchet things into place. Everything feels right—the characters and the mood and the sentences—but something feels off. Absent. Missing. Letting my subconscious mull.
  27. Ennui: writing a random blog post while thinking about deficiencies in your own work. By the by, here’s the first sentence: “It’s almost midnight and I’m just inside my apartment with enough juice in my veins to power a steam ship across the Atlantic.”
  28. Bruce Duffy’s The World As I Found It is an academic novel.
  29. So is J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.
  30. Umberto Eco’s Foucoult’s Pendulum is an academic novel, too. Sort of.
  31. If I could go back in time, I would try to attend the best university in the world. Or study semiotics with David Foster Wallace.
  32. Lucian Carr and William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg began as academics. They were drawn to transgression, drugs, petty crime, seduced in some sense by Herbert Huncke. Carr eventually murdered David Krammerer. Knifed him and dumped the body into the Hudson.
  33. Keroauc drank himself to death. Sounds like a character out of any number of crime novels.
  34. (I knew another grad student who focused on Keroauc. Only, he didn’t like Keroauc at all. Not at all.)
  35. William Burroughs shot his wife in the head.
  36. De Tocqueville said, almost two hundred years ago, that unlike Europe, America has few suicides but tons of murders.
  37. What is it, in our cultural DNA that loves murder so much?
  38. It’s a reoccurring theme: art equals intelligence plus disgust plus hard work plus crime. And usually sex.
  39. A good description of Roberto Bolano’s work.
  40. I’m getting off point here. Or maybe I’m not. 2666 is both an academic novel and a crime novel.
  41. There’s something quixotic about the life of the scholar. Something brave and wonderful and near-useless.
  42. I once met a ph.d. student focusing on English ballads of the 16th century. This was the entirety of his work. I asked him if he just loved English ballads. “Not really,” he said.
  43. I asked another grad student what her dissertation was about. “Comic book zines,” she said. What about them? I asked. “You know,” she said, “jargon jargon jargon.”
  44. John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy is an academic novel. (And a key meta-fictional text.)
  45. I wanted to go to graduate school for ancient history. But you have to be able to read German and French and Latin. I didn’t even apply.
  46. Like every other writer, I tried to get a spot in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. I spent a month reworking three short stories, which I had already worked on for months. At the last minute, I switched one of these with a new story, which was hardly a first draft. I don’t know why I did this; some impulse to self-sabotage. This was years ago.
  47. I didn’t get in.
  48. I applied to my wife’s program, American Studies. I wanted to study gangsters, true crime, film noir and 1930s crime fiction. I titled my application essay, “The killers are us.” I thought I was a shoo-in.
  49. I didn’t get into this, either. (And thank my lucky stars for that.)
  50. Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys is an academic novel. The movie is fantastic.
  51. I think the magic of the academic novel is the collision of high-minded ideals with randy youth.
  52. There’s something smug about graduate students. Only tempered with a streak of self-pity, and an undercurrent of self-disgust.
  53. A.S. Byatt’s Possession is an academic novel. The movie is . . . not fantastic.
  54. For librarians, it’s the air of perpetual moral high ground. We stand for diversity, democracy, pluralism. We stand against censorship, small-mindedness.
  55. Unless we work for a law firm. Or a corporation.
  56. I eventually earned a Masters in library science, (barely) circumventing many of the tribulations facing humanities grad students.
  57. I’m a library scientist. I can’t think of any good academic novels about that.