Thursday, September 17, 2015
re-righting the story
by Douglas Messerli
Harper Lee Go Set a Watchman (New York: HarperCollins, 2015)
Upon the death of play- and screen-writer Horton Foote in 2009, I revisited three films for which he had written the screenplays, the first of which was the noted film, based on Harper Lee’s famed novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. While admitting that I enjoyed the fiction when I first read it as a 16-year-old in Norway and that the movie is one I have seen, with joy, numerous times, seeing that film again and rereading Lee’s novel, I had a negative response this time round, particularly given the fact that, despite all the good intentions of the obviously high-minded and well-meaning Atticus Finch, nothing in the world of Scout and Jem really changes. As I wrote in 2009:
Given the events of both film and novel…despite any moral
lessons and perceptions gleaned by the Finch children and the
audiences of the movie and book, the world to which Jem
will awaken in the morning (the familiar last lines of both
being the adult Scout’s words about her father: “He turned
out the light and went into Jem’s room. He would be there all
night, and we would be there when Jem waked up in the
morning.”) is no better than the one in which he was nearly
killed that night. Atticus Finch may represent a hero, but his
actions in such an isolate world in which the Finch’s exist, have
little effect. And in that respect the work embraces the status
quo, and the moral indignation of the readers of Lee’s classic
and the viewers of the Mulligan/Foote adaptation can only
represent a kind of righteous pat on the liberal back.
As I noted a bit earlier in my essay, concerning the sheriff’s argument that they should keep secret Boo Radley’s involvement in the murder of the evil Bob Ewell:
Frankly, given the outcome of Tom Robinson’s trial, we may
find it hard to imagine that the “good” ladies of Maycomb
would award the murderer of Bob Ewell, who has convinced
their kind that his daughter has been raped by a black man.
Is it any wonder then that Tom Robinson, despite Atticus’ advice
to “not lose faith,” runs “like a rabbit” to escape the police.
The fact that he is shot and killed, despite the deputy’s
proclamation that he meant just to wound him, is, perhaps,
given the racists attitudes of the community, inevitable.
In short, this time reading through the book and reviewing the film, I discerned that despite Gregory Peck’s impeccable acting skills, and the lovely nostalgia and romanticized literary writing of Lee, there was something empty about the book, as if, for all its good intentions, we were being asked to sentimentally align ourselves with this obviously beloved but also somewhat sanctimonious small-town Alabama lawyer. Although I didn’t directly speak it, I truly felt that the book almost all high school children throughout the country were required to read, was somehow, if not an not an outright lie, at least a kind of fantasy that embraced the Southern values of the racial status quo.
I recognized that my new perspective was clearly controversial, and many of my friends, including my spouse Howard, snorted at my stubborn insistence that the nobility of Atticus Finch didn’t ring true.
Having just now finished Lee’s fiction Go Set a Watchman, the work she originally wrote before being encouraged by her then-editor Tay Hohoff to recast it as the very different To Kill a Mockingbird, that I was absolutely right! Hohoff may have been an excellent editor, and surely she knew how to turn a difficult and more complex work into a more populist and appealing bestseller, but I would have, as an editor who has worked with hundreds of brilliant writers, politely asked Miss Lee to change her title and promptly published her book just as she had written it—with maybe just a minor tweaking of the debate between Jean Louse (the adult Scott) and her father near the end of this “new” work. Thus, we might have lost the beloved classic, but certainly had a more honest piece of writing about race, sex, and familial relations than the creaky theatrics of Mockingbird.
Lee sends up the various local lady groups in a wonderful satire of their various accents and viewpoints, while the still tom-boy adult Jean Louise moves back and forth between their conversational modes serving coffee and sandwiches in a kind of down-South version of something Wyndham Lewis might have written satirizing the British establishment.
In an honest depiction of childhood sexual realities, at times writing almost at a level of other adventurous writers of the 1950s such as J. D. Salinger, Vladimir Nabokov, and James Purdy, Lee recounts the painful experiences of young Scout’s first menstruation and her very touching and frightening presumption that she is pregnant because a young boy has stuck in tongue into her mouth to demonstrate his gratitude for her scholarly help. That series of events almost leads to Scout’s suicide as she ponders leaping from a nearby tower, from which, fortunately, she is plucked before the ever-wise black servant Calpurnia finally explains all things sexual to the motherless child. This long passage alone is worth the price of the book.
And then there’s the wonderful intellectual ramblings of her uncle Jack that take Jean Louise’s frantic anger into completely illogical linguistic territory, as if she had suddenly come up against the a combination of the Wizard of Oz and Lewis Carroll’s Madhatter. Along with her aunt Alexandra’s endless pronouncements (a character also in the original book, but stricken from the movie) representing nearly all the old-fashioned values of the South, these passages help us to recognize Lee as a wry humorist.
In this work, moreover, the adult Jean Louise has a boyfriend, Henry, whom, despite her long residence in New York City, she is expected by everyone in town to marry, and might have married, if only…. Well that’s where this fiction gets even more interesting. Henry, an obviously caring and loving being, the protégé of Atticus, is destined to go far in the Maycomb county political system, and clearly is determined to bring to the community what Atticus attempted to do in his younger days. But as we learn by fiction’s end, Henry has a deeper psychological problem in evaluating himself within the narrow limits of Maycomb’s calcified social distinctions.
The trouble is, as the heroine of Go Set a Watchman quickly discovers, Atticus Finch was not truly the man she imagined him to be in To Kill a Mockingbird. Threatened by the Supreme Court decision of 1954 (Brown v. Board of Education) and the increasing N.A.A.C.P “intrusions” into their isolated life, Atticus, like so many in the South, is a determined libertarian, willing to fight against the governmental decisions that, remind us today, of the reactions of many Southerners to the Supreme Court Decisions about gay marriage. In the very same courthouse where the young Scout and Jem proudly embedded themselves in the all-black gallery to witness her father’s impassioned defense of a black man, his daughter now watches her father and Henry plotting with the worst of the segregationists to speak out against black equality.
Although today it is somewhat uncomfortable when the 26 year-old character Jean Louise describes herself as being “color blind”—how can one be blind to the color of someone’s skin, as if he might have not really seen the other? You can embrace one’s equality and humanity, but you cannot, I would argue, any more than you can ignore one’s sex, pretend that people don’t have different complexions and tonalities—she obviously cannot bear the reality of what she perceives as her father’s radical shift to ultra-conservative values. Certainly, she can longer pretend that she might be able to return to Maycomb (and one wonders, accordingly, how Harper Lee felt when she actually did return to her hometown).
In a final long debate with her father, still a skilled lawyer bent on convincing her of her illogical thinking, Atticus Finch, despite his commanding view of history, sounds very much like a paternalistic white autocrat, arguing that the blacks of his community are not ready for equality, not ready to attend white schools, not capable of leading their communities, are ignorant of all the fine things his white society has denied them.
Jean Louise’s own views hardly might be described as enlightened; she admits to having been furious with the Supreme Court decision. But unlike her father, she recognizes that it is a time for change, and that she can longer embrace her father’s, Henry’s, or anyone else’s values in Maycomb, suggesting, without quite saying it, that the community which has betrayed the blacks among them by refusing to allow them a good education, financial opportunities, and simple friendship and camaraderie, now condemns them for not having any of these.
As an editor, I might have argued for Harper Lee to rethink some of the elements of her substantial political discourse, but I certainly would have insisted that she retain the often intelligent debate—so advanced from most of the empty racial discussions of today—with her father, Henry, uncle, and aunt. For hers is the voice of a young, pre-feminist woman who has learned her lessons perhaps all too well to be able to accept the hypocrisy of the white spokesmen of the 1950s South. If the novel ends in another kind of stasis, Jean Louise, is now in control, comfortably placed behind the steering wheel, driving her old father back home.
In many ways, this is a brave work, far braver that the novel her editor demanded she create in its stead. The only braver act would been to have cast herself, as many perceived her to be—I have no knowledge of Lee’s actual sexual inclinations, and I truly don’t care—as a lesbian.
Go Set a Watchman is not a great fiction any more than To Kill a Mockingbird was. Lee is no Faulkner, no Flannery O’Connor or Eudora Welty, or even a Carson McCullers or Truman Capote. But, in this book at least, she was brilliantly honest, witty, and committed. Perhaps if we read both of her works, the powerful earlier assessment and the feel good fantasy, one by one, we can comprehend the dreams and the failures of all lives, black and white, in so many small American towns.
Los Angeles, August 17, 2015
Saturday, September 5, 2015
even the heart rebels
by Douglas Messerli
John Rechy City of Night (New York: Grove Press, 1963)
Somewhat inexplicably, after finishing my essay above on The Hustler by John Henry Mackay, I was immediately reminded of a book I had never before read, John Rechy’s City of Night. As I mention in my brief afterword to this, I had several reasons perhaps for never reading the 1963 fiction until now. And it was clear that 2015 was an appropriate year in which to finally attend to that work, given my connecting topic and the concerns with life in Southern California, issues to which this work, I presumed, might attend.
Indeed, City of Night is very much about identities separate from those of the majority of society, and it does reveal a world that, until its publication, was basically unknown to everyday readers. What I was not prepared for, however, is just how remarkably written this book is and, although it certainly presents events of the underbelly of ordinary sexual behavior, that it is not really at all a book about sex. While the “hero” dives in and out of beds and other sexual locations with the regularity of an overweight adolescent munching on a bag potato chips, Rechy’s work, nonetheless, only rarely portrays the actual sexual act, and when it does so, it is with such a polite abstraction that would probably not even bring a blush to the cheek of a maiden librarian. Here’s a scene from our unnamed hustler’s sexual encounter with an endlessly speaking “professor,” who obviously ends his verbal encounters with an oral encounter of another kind:
He snuffed out the cigarette he had been smoking, looked
through the box by the bed, found the lavender one. Held it
up toward me. “Now comes the time for the lavender,” he said.
He lit it, inhaled it deeply, this time, placed it on the ashtray;
said: “Now, Angel, come here, stand near me—but first,
lower the bed for Tante Goulu please.
Thats it. Now come closer, you see I have great difficulty moving.
There, thats nice, thats fine—stand a little this way—that's--
Youre a good boy, an angel….”
When he had finished, he leaned back on the bed.
In numerous other situations, such as his encounters with “Mister King,” who wants only to be seen with the hustler, who he dresses up in leather, no sex is even involved. And in the hustlers’ attempts to pretend that their gay sexuality is simply a way of making a living and not the sexual reality of their own lives, sex between one another is generally forbidden, as the central figure purposefully ignores the touch of the hustler Pete who is determined to stay, one night, in the hero’s flat:
The lights are out now. The darkness seems very real,
like a third person waiting. I lay on the very edge of the
one side of the bed, and he lay on the very edge of the
others. A long time passed. Hours.
“Are you asleep” he asked me.
“No—I can’t sleep.”
“Me neither,” he says. “Maybe I should go.” But he
And then I felt his hand, lightly, on mine.
Neither of us moved. Moments passed like that.
And now his hand closes over mine, tightly.
And that was all that happened.
In short, the well-read and quite intelligent figure who tells the tales of City of Night is not as interested in the actual sexual activities in which he is almost endlessly engaged as he is in searching for the reasons for why he is so driven to seek out those brief and almost meaningless interchanges
Indeed the real “focus” of this hero’s travels from New York to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to San Francisco and back, from San Francisco again to Chicago and New Orleans, is not is not upon flesh or even the often disinhibited bodies of those he meets, but is their words and actions in the bars, plazas, and streets outside of the shabby rooms where they have sex and sleep. Rechy’s hero in portrayed as a rather laconic being, instead of playing the loquacious confabulator of someone like Djuna Barnes’ Dr. O’Connor in her gay underworld fiction Nightwood (he purposely plays dumb, learning early on that his clients don’t want to bed somewhat who has read books and might know more than they do), letting his own characters speak exuberantly for themselves, City of Night, like Nightwood, nonetheless, is a Menippean satire or anatomy like Petronius’ Satyricon, which usually features a pedant.
Like the other works of that genre, Rechy’s fiction takes us from party to party with a large range of sexual types who represent various social classes of American society. Rechy’s book is structures around these speaking figures (very much like Barnes’ living statues), each of their sections named after the figures, alternating with briefer sections titled “City of Night,” which sets the next location and place of action through which the nameless hero meanders in time and space.
The figures of City of Night—the already mentioned seasoned New York “youngman” (Rechy’s word for hustler) Peter; the absurdly overweight, bed-bound pedant “The Professor”; the determined-to-marry drag queen, Miss Destiny; the now devastated, formerly “beautiful” hustler, Skipper, who carries his youthful photographs with him wherever he goes; the still-larger-than-life, handsomely-chiseled would-be movie-star Lance O’Hara and the elderly gay Esmeralda Drake III from whom O’Hara swindles a grand Hollywood house; the crew-cut-topped, good looking married man attracted to the hero but unable to abide the “fairies”; the S&M, Nazi-supporting, leather-dressed Neil, with a closet of costumes through which he hopes to help his devotees discover their true violent selves; the tough gay bar owner, Sylvia, who lovingly protects her clientele out of guilt for how she has treated her son upon his revelation of his gay sexuality; the tall, heavily muscled drag queen Chi-Chi posed against the wall in order to call out to all the New Orleans Mardi Gras celebrants; the dying transgender beauty, Kathy; and, finally, our hero-hustler’s would-be savior, Jeremy, of the white sheets, who begs the narrator to stay just a little longer while he skillfully enters a dialogue that might just awaken the narrator to his self-destructive addiction to loveless love—each speaks his piece, behaving as bizarrely as do all human beings on the prowl for love, self-respect, and meaning in their lives.
And yes, we do laugh at the outsider outrageousness of Rechy’s types—at the very same moment that we, through Rechy’s non-judgmental and fair-minded depiction of them, come to admire and feel for them as individuals. Who might have imagined that a fiction about the illicit gay underworld—and, it is important remember, that during the time of this work, all the actions of the characters are not only against the law but often resulted in their arrestment—might bring the reader, at least this reader, to tears over and over again.
Finally, one wonders why this considerably intelligent work, although quite popular in its time, was never completely respected by Rechy’s readers or fellow writers, or why, perhaps, the author himself was not more lionized. This work is most certainly way ahead of its time with regard to its liberated and liberating attitudes toward the gay, lesbian, and even transgender communities. And Rechy’s detailed portraits of gay environs such as Times Square in New York, the New Orleans French Quarter, and Los Angeles’ Pershing Square and its bars, along with the streets of Hollywood Boulevard depict a series of lost worlds being destroyed at the very moment in which Rechy was recording them.
David Hockney, Building, Pershing Square, Los Angeles
(inspired by Rechy’s fiction)
One might theorize that some of the distance that both the gay and literary communities have kept from this near masterpiece has to do with the author himself, who like his narrator, was so addicted to his lifestyle that even after becoming a university teacher of writing still moon-lighted as a hustler, his students sometimes discovering him near local cruising areas shirtless in dungarees. Rechy himself, although for years now in a long-term gay relationship, admits to hustling even into his 70s.
One of the most repeated of motifs is how the hustlers perceive their own desirability, the fact that they are paid to have sex, as representative of their beauty and youth, in opposition to the reality of death. This book makes it clear that the author, although so wise in his perceptions of that world, could never himself quite escape that need to be wanted for his youthful looks. Obviously—and it does in fact became more and more obvious as the story continues—both the author’s and his hero’s addictions have more to do with deeply ingrained psychological issues than with authorial logic. Even after a long dialogic encounter with the man who wishes to save him, ending in the stranger’s insightful statements--
There isnt any difference, really, between the hunter and
the hunted. The hunted makes himself available—usually
passively, but available nonetheless. Thats his way of
hunting…. I’m sorry,” he said, relenting, “I just wanted
to see you defend the very innocence youve probably set
out to violate…You see,” he said, again smiling so that I
cant tell how serious he is,” “even the heart rebels—finally
against its own anarchy. And that’s the most powerful
even then the hero returns to the fray, joining the Mardi Gras celebrations, drinking, doping, sucking, and fucking until he and those around him collapse, becoming the ghosts of which they are in terror. If the fiction seems to end with the possibility of a transformation, as the hero returns, if only briefly, to his native El Paso, the life of the author went on as if nothing in this profound work had truly meant anything, the reality suggesting that nothing had truly changed from what the narrator says in the first paragraph of City of Night:
Later I would think of America as one vast City of Night
stretching greedily from Times Square to Hollywood Boulevard—
jukebox-winking, rock-n-roll-moaning: America at night
fusing its darkcities into the unmistakable shape of loneliness.
—Los Angeles, September 5, 2015