Tuesday, November 6, 2007

If It's Not One Thing, It's Another!

Another of my GCN book reviews, from 1981 or 1982.

A Smile in His Lifetime

by Joseph Hansen
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, $13.95 hardcover
292 pp.

Last summer Mike Peters of the Dayton News published an editorial cartoon of a woman who, though “underpaid, sexually harassed, passed over for promotion and stuck in a stereotyped role,” opposes the ERA. Why? “She likes being treated special.” Someday I intend to draw a cartoon of one of those neo-butch gay men who haunt the johns, the dirty-book stores, the backroom bars, but won’t have anything to do with the gay movement. Why? Because they believe in being discreet about their gayness.

Joseph Hansen is the author of a series of mystery novels starring a middle-aged gay male insurance investigator named Dave Brandstetter. Brandstetter has his crotchets, but he’s a reasonably likable, competently functioning human being. Like many gay men of our parents’ generation, he has learned not to let hostile Society cramp his style much – a task made easier, no doubt, by the fact that he lives in Southern California. When gay activists do appear in The Man Everybody Was Afraid Of, the most recent book in the series, they are depicted as crazy fairies completely out of touch with reality. This is a bit odd since Mr. Hansen himself, according to the dust jacket of his newest novel, “was a founder in 1965 of the pioneering homosexual journal Tangents.” Surely he knows better.

Now Mr. Hansen has moved into “mainstream” fiction with A Smile in His Lifetime, his first non-mystery novel. Whit Miller, the book’s protagonist, is gay but unlike Dave Brandstetter, he is a psychic basket case. Whit is married to Dell Everett, a straight woman. As the novel begins, Whit and Dell are living in near-poverty in the hills back of Los Angeles. He is a struggling and unsuccessful writer, she is a former teacher turned antiwar activist. She takes care of him, since they both agree he can’t take care of himself. It is the mid-1960s. First Whit, who married Dell in full flight from his adolescent homosexuality (at 19 he had already had at least two intense relationships) tumbles ambivalently into bed with a neighbor boy. Then he reels from lover to lover trying to regain his lost balance. He finally publishes a best-selling novel; Dell leaves him; he becomes famous; falls desperately in love with a beautiful hippie youth named Jaime who moves in with him and goes mad after a bad acid trip; Whit’s house is burglarized by one of his subsequent tricks; his novel is turned into a film; he is nearly killed by a gang of queerbeaters. Throughout, Whit marinates in self-loathing seasoned with contemptuous remarks about “faggots,” and I suppose the reader is supposed to conclude that if you hate yourself, bad things will happen to you. By the end of the book Whit seems to have learned little or nothing from his suffering; presumably the reader, having read the cautionary tale, is expected to.

I keep reminding myself that Whit Miller’s distrust of politics (he can’t get interested in his wife’s antiwar activism either) and Dave Brandstetter’s contempt for radical fairies are probably far more common than my ideological commitment to militant gay pride. And I have to admit that there is a lot in Whit Miller that I can identify with: the rage turned inward against oneself, or outward at lovers, rather than at the real enemy, is something that ideology has only partially alleviated for me; Whit’s alienation and his flights from the intimacy he also craves come uncomfortably close to home for me. Yet there is a difference between us that I think is crucial: for me the rise of a militant gay movement in the late 1960s (part of the period the story includes) was exhilarating and liberating, but Whit is unaware or unconcerned that a new attitude toward being a faggot is being born. This might very well be exactly his problem, but if Mr. Hansen thinks so there is no hint in the texts. Nor is there any other positive alternative, it seems. Whit rejects the offer of at least one man to replace Dell as the nursemaid in his life, and I think he’s right, because Whit needs to learn to take care of himself. But it is clear that he can’t, at the close of the novel he seems to be withdrawing into hopelessness, unless the closing sequence (in which he rescues his cat Polk from his crumbling beach house) is meant to symbolize Whit’s new strength and courage. If so, I don’t believe a word of it, having watched Whit snatching defeat from the jaws of victory time after time for the past 290-odd pages. I’m not sure I’m asking for a happy ending; I’m not sure how I think the novel should end; but I’m pretty sure this ending resolves nothing – and if it wasn’t meant to, why bother to write at all?

Contrast, say, Daniel Curzon’s frankly propagandistic Something You Do in the Dark, first published ten years ago. Cole Ruffner, that book’s hero, never comes into contact with the gay movement either, but he does begin to learn to turn his rage outward, even if he does so too late. Or compare James Purdy’s Eustace Chisholm and the Works, first published in 1967, in which the theme of the consequences of turning away love is carried to more baroque extremes – which is the point: A Smile in His Lifetime say nothing, it seems to me, which Purdy didn’t say fourteen years ago. Or consider Dancer from the Dance, in which Sutherland squelches every “slightest sign of complaint, self-pity or sentimentality” by saying something like, “Perhaps what you need is a good facial.” Perhaps what Whit Miller needs is a Sutherland in his life, instead of solicitous friends eager to shelter his sensitive artist’s soul from the stormy realities of life.

Mr. Hansen writes a spare prose that is sometimes beautiful:

Whit likes driving freeways after midnight. It is one of the times when he lets himself feel a little bit romantic. The long trail of red taillights curving away from him is beautiful and mysterious. He wants to know where everyone is going. It is more than wanting. He sickens with yearning to know where they are going and to go with them. … He knows nothing about their lives, but they are all beautiful and terrible to him, boxed up in those dark, hurtling cars. That he can’t be with them makes him ache. (p. 222)

A Smile in His Lifetime reminds me of Woody Allen’s film Interiors, an equally bleak and hopeless “serious” work. Mr. Hansen can do better, I know. Now that he has shown he can write a real novel, maybe he can go back to writing fiction in which the gay characters aren’t relentlessly punished throughout. There is a tendency nowadays (actually it goes back to the beginnings of the gay movement, and probably beyond as well) to claim that we don’t need gay pride any more, that gay guilt is a thing of the past. I’ll believe it when we start getting some gay male fiction where homosexuality is a given, not a problem. Mr. Hansen has already taken steps in this direction with his mystery novels; I hope he will go further in his future novels, whatever the genre. But A Smile in His Lifetime, as far as I can see, is a step backward.