Do You Believe in Cheater Love?

The Arrangement

By Sarah Dunn

Hand it to Sarah Dunn. She knows how to grab your attention and hold it, whether you are on a beach or flying to one. The Arrangement deals in fantasy, the fantasy some couples may have after five, ten years of marriage, and kids, and responsibilities. What would it be like to shuck all that, to feel like a newly minted twenty-something, to be truly and passionately (as in sexually passionate) in love? Here’s one version, courtesy of Dunn, albeit laced with a strong cautionary. People, it seems, have other emotions in addition to love and these can be ugly and rear their heads to make the whole affair rather unpleasant.

Owen and Lucy have been married a while. They have traded their life in Brooklyn for the bucolic, and more affordable, life in Beekman, NY (ah, yes, know it well; went to Sylvan Lake, next door to Beekman, to swim as a youth). They try hard to have a child, eventually go the IVF route. Wyatt, their son, appears to be autistic and quite a handful. You can appreciate how the couple might like to have a break from the daily, trying routine. At a patio dinner with friends from the city, they learn about a married couple, gay men with children, who are experimenting with a six-month arrangement, complete with rules, allowing each to seek sex elsewhere.

It isn’t long before Owen and Lucy decide to give it a try. Owen hooks up first and quickly with Izzy, who turns possessive and hounding. Lucy’s friend Sally Bang, the only really interesting name in the book, puts Lucy in touch with a divorced acquaintance, Ben. He turns out to be something of an emotional dream. Owen is harassed; Lucy is in love. (Male readers may ask why Owen gets the nut and Lucy the bliss? Duh, how dense you are, sir.) You’ll never guess? You guessed, the landing is hard for both and their marriage.

Dunn tosses in a couple of other stories that only tangentially link to the main plot. There’s the kindergarten teacher, Mr. Lowell, who decides to transform into Mrs. Lowell. Consequences follow, but many readers will wonder where the heck do you even find a male kindergarten teacher? The other concerns billionaire Gordon Allen and his wife, his fourth, a former cocktail waitress, whom he married spontaneously, so quick that he plumb forgot to have her sign a prenup. Talk about fantasy! Perhaps there are lessons in these tangents? The Lowell’s marriage appears to not just survive the change but flourish, whereas Gordon’s does what you’d expect, except for something of a novel reason.

Not to be too hard on the novel, because Dunn never intended it to be deathless prose, it’s perfect for the summer. It moves as quick as a summer thunderstorm. It often is hilarious, at least in the first half. And for those with thoughts of straying, of testing if the grass is indeed greener on the other side, of harboring any ideas of a similar arrangement, it is a kernel of reality. w/c

Love a Good Literary Conspiracy?

The Night Ocean

By Paul La Farge

Paul La Farge conjures up a myth regarding the sexual life of weird science writer H. P. Lovecraft.  In best metafiction style, he makes it feel so real that you find yourself wondering and then searching for a copy of the supposed “Erotonomicon,” purported to be Lovecraft’s own account of his love life, particularly his relationship with Robert Barlow, author and anthropologist, when Barlow was a thirteen-year-old boy.

To further the ruse, La Farge has even created a webpage for the reissuing of the volume by fictitious Black Hour Books. Further, he festooned the book with dozens of real science fiction and fantasy writers, most still well known within the genre, and footnotes, all of which lends further veracity to the tale. It’s all quite masterfully done, and educational to boot.

He then couches all this in a mystery concerning a freelance writer, Charlie Willett, who writes a book claiming that Barlow did not commit suicide in 1951 (which he did, of course; La Farge even includes a copy of his death certificate in the novel text, but who wants to believe truth when fantasy is so much more appealing?). In Charlie’s telling, Barlow authored the “Erotonomicon,” which he explains in his book titled “The Book of the Law of Love.” When, after enjoying considerable notoriety, Charlie’s book is exposed as completely wrong. In despair, he kills himself. It’s left to his wife Marina Willett, a psychiatrist, to discover who wrote the “Erotonomicon” and for what purpose.

Here’s where the whole affair gets even more delicious. Enter L. C. Spinks, whom Marina hunts down in Parry Sound, Ontario (yes, a real town). Is the “Erotonomicon” real and witten by Barlow? L. C. Spinks tell his story, the real origin of the “Erotonomicon.” Wait, though, is it real? Is Spinks who he professes to be? Time for yet another unraveling of fact and fiction.

Here’s the thing about The Night Ocean: the fiction about Lovecraft, about the “Erotonomicon,” even about L. C. Spink’s version of how it “truly” came about, all of it proves much more satisfying than the reality revealed at the end. And what are you, the reader, left with at the end? Well, engaged as you become in myth and make-believe, in the concoction of fibs and big lies, you begin to understand the attraction that conspiracies hold for even the most rational among us.  For don’t we all just hate loose ends and voids, not to mention uncomfortable and unsatisfying reality? The experience of The Night Ocean (incidentally, the title of a story filled with a subtext of sexual longing written by Lovecraft and Barlow in the time they shared), in addition to being quite a story, helps us understand the attraction.

(Please note that La Farge’s little subterfuge with Black Hour Books can be maddening. If you are curious, click on Black Hour Books.) w/c

Flipped (Raw)

Flipped (Raw)

Chapter 4: NEW YORK, NEW YORK (Part 5 and 6)

5

It was the night he shocked me with Angie’s marriage to Bobby; that Bobby was a doctor, in residency; that they lived in New York City and he had seen them many times. No, seen them isn’t right: He called them; visited them; ate dinner with them at their place; he’d been social with them without ever uttering a word. Worse, he claimed he’d been secretive at Angie’s urging.

I was distraught, when I said, “I suppose they have a family, too.”

Richard can be maddeningly indifferent, painfully cruel, brutally insulated from feelings, mine specifically. He said, “You suppose c-o-r-r-e-c-t-l-y.”  A slap would have stung less than his snide exaggeration.

I collapsed on the floor in our bedroom. I think that is a real recollection, me prostrate on the floor, he perching on the edge of the bed, observing me, cocking his head, inspecting me as if I were a curiosity, a zoo specimen that should have no feelings but, oddly, against all zoological laws, seemed to possess them; hurry up with the dissection kit, Charlie, here’s the missing link.

“It’s not exactly a family, yet,” he said.

I choked on a dry sob, as if he had suctioned everything from me, even my tears.

“She’s pregnant. Not too far along, about three months. Now,” he said, rising, “if you’ll excuse me, I have to get into the bathroom.” 

Pain pierced me, inflicted agony in every part of me, my head, my eyes, my chest, but most viciously, my heart. It was like everybody I knew, I loved, I believed loved me, had surrounded me and were jabbing me with daggers: Richard poking with a degree of malice too great even for him; Rosemary, the nun, the celibate, stabbing, as if to enforce Paul’s Corinthian admonishment, reminding me that I was a fool for putting my life in the hands of any man, especially Richard’s; and Angie, the Brutus, running me through with a sharpened, greasy screwdriver forged in the union with Bobby, the devil, one of the few people who I could unequivocally declare I despised, twisting the fouled steel on the fulcrum of her pregnancy. I wanted to scream and beat the floor with clenched fists; but I couldn’t. Samantha and Emily would have heard and wakened; and fabricating an excuse, containing my anguish, carrying on normally, would have intensified the torture immeasurably.

When Richard emerged from the bathroom, I was still on the floor, in a fetal curl, whimpering and jerking spasmodically. He glanced down at the wreck that was me. He shook his head in mock pity.”Got to go,” he said.

6

Richard is a list maker, an annotator, and a note taker. He’s fully electronic, but he also resorts to pen and paper. His pen of choice is a Mont Blanc, a bulky black tube large enough to be a weapon. It’s self-aggrandizing, his personal award for a promotion, or maybe it was for driving his office to achieve a nearly impossible goal; Richard calls these Olympian efforts “stretching” and he delights in devising “reach” goals, more of his deceptively benign nomenclature. He lugs the pen in the inside pocket of his suit jacket, along with his small leather notepad. His notes are mostly reminders to himself. He files them in his pants pockets, but often, more often than not, forgets them the second he yanks them from his pad. I asked him about his habit early on, why he bothered when he immediately forgot about the notes, and I was left to snatch them from his pockets before the dry cleaner bonded them where he’d filed them. The notes themselves weren’t important, he’d informed me; it was the act of writing that seared the messages to be remembered permanently in his mind. Inadvertently, while caring for him and his clothing, I found the address of Bobby and Angie McFarlane.

Emily skips into the kitchen.

“Finished already,” I say, not a question, but a skeptical declaration.

She nods vigorously and requests a glass of milk. After she drinks it, fast, gulping loudly, as if she’s munched a desiccant packet, which once she did as a toddler, she asks if she can go next door. I call across the way, clear an afternoon of play at Carol’s, and send her out the backdoor. I watch as she runs through our yard into Carol’s and disappears into the house. Carol pops her head out and signals Emily’s safe arrival.

I decide to check Emily’s work, always a good idea with her. I find she has removed every object from Richard’s desk. They are in the box. But she has clumped everything together in a single piece of clean newsprint, sort of like dead soldiers in a mass grave. I sit on the floor and settle into the task of doing the job right.

I’ve properly wrapped half the items in Emily’s clump, when I stop. What the hell am I doing? Taking special care of Richard’s ridiculous testaments to his ego. Serves him right if the things show up in San Diego as broken meaningless garbage for dragging us away from Cranbury, for lying, for cheating, for taking me hostage and locking me in a velvet prison. And me, what’s to be said of me, who abets him?

I promptly unwrap the items I’d meticulously wrapped. I bunch them in Emily’s fashion and drop them in the box. My daughter was right.

My small act of vengeance improves my disposition and I go down to the kitchen to pack things that hold meaning for me.

I’ve put most of the dishes and silverware in boxes. I’ve held back four of everything we use daily. Miscellaneous platters and bowls and the like remain and I set to work on them. I remove them from the cabinets and stack them on the table in the breakfast area. I sit, begin, and stare into the backyard.

A Book Much Mentioned, Little Read Now

Looking Backward (1888)

By Edward Bellamy

You don’t have to wonder what the author would make of the year 2000 he had so much hope for. While the technological whiz-bang, cleaner environment (by comparison), plentiful food (for many more but not all), and public education (though of varying and spotty quality) would have been familiar, by a degree, to what he’d foreseen, those advancements of most importance to him would certainly rank as major disappointments. Efficient business operations and capital deployment, concentration of wealth, judicious and fair governance, full employment, equitable pay, an intelligent and very polite populace, absence of crime, plenty of leisure time, and sundry other items, while better than in the latter 19th century, remain wanting. But, then, Bellamy imagined a utopia, an alliance of men and women, that by the very nature of humans seems nearly (as hope always exists) impossible. Or, as the editor of the Boston Transcript of his day opined might occur 75 centuries from his time. Which, you would suppose, is to say, “Never.”

If you’ve never read Looking Backward, you’ll want to for a couple of reasons. It has proven to be an influential book, practically spawning an entire publishing industry of both satire and serious commentary and fiction. Politically, it also exerted influence, with readers forming Nationalist Clubs and adding foundation to the People’s Party, better known as the Populist Party. And it must touch some part of our national soul for it has never been out of print, managing to find new readers in successive generations of thinkers, or perhaps dreamers.

But be forewarned before picking up a copy. Bellamy wrote Looking Backward as a fantasy novel. However, reading tastes of the 19th and 21st centuries are vastly different. By today’s standards, the writing strikes one as cumbersome, dense, and turgid. The plot, if you can call it that, is paper thin, and the suspenseful element is so obvious a YA reader would groan. So, none of this is why you would read the book. You read it for the political and economic philosophy laid out systematically by the author. As you read, questions arise and you raise objections, and as if Bellamy were beside you, lo and behold he answers them. In his rendering, Bellamy makes the 19th century system, which is still pretty much what we have today, seem quite awful, and the solution, a highly organized socialistic state, admittedly just a notch or two away from a fascist regime, appealing in a bland sort of way.

In short, guaranteed to water the eyes of the already doe-eyed as it inflames the ire of Ayn Rand warriors. Perhaps this is why it remains in print: it moves people. So, give it a look and you can say you’ve read, if it ever comes up in conversation. w/c

The Price of Waking a Sleeping Dog

Down There (aka Shoot the Piano Player) 1956

By David Goodis

File this classic noir tale, made all the more famous by François Truffaut’s retitled 1960 film adaptation Shoot the Piano Player, under “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie.” As Goodis’ very dark novel illustrates, they might yawn and lick you, or, more likely in noir land, they might be wounded by the past and explode to engulf you in violence that tears your world apart.

Eddie Lynn earns his meager keep by scratching out tunes on a beat up upright in Harriet’s Hut, a dive bar in the seedy part of Philadelphia. He a quiet man in worn clothes who comes across as milquetoast. He’s tightly scribed his existence in a  tiny circle of playing, lying in his room, and occasionally paying Clarice for a bit of sex. So divorced from the world is he, he’s not aware that a young, attractive waitress, Lena, has her eye on his.

Then Turley shows up battered and a little disoriented and urges Eddie to help him. Eddie hasn’t laid eyes on Turley, or his other older brother Clifton, nor his parents, or their modest homestead in the dark woods of south Jersey in nearly a decade. Turley and Clifton have been involved in a caper that has gone seriously wrong. Two gunsels, described as real professionals, are after him and he needs to get away fast. Eddie doesn’t want any part of the action but fate dictates otherwise. The pros turn up at the bar and in the first of many violent outbursts in the book, Eddie enables Turley’s escape. Now, however, Eddie is a marked man who himself must avoid and eventually flee the gunmen.

Unfortunately for Eddie, the affair awakens his senses, especially to Lena, who helps him, and to whom he begins to become attached. He sufferers internal conflict, in fact the core of the book is about his constant internal struggle to not love again, to hide his true identity, to keep clear of his notorious brothers, all of which bubble to the surface and help readers understand the real Eddie.

Debate himself as much as he will, he can’t suppress his growing feelings for Lena, and can’t keep his previous life, love, and agony over causing his young wife’s death bottled up. It sort of replays itself when the bouncer, who is also Harriet’s husband and an ex-wrestler known as the Harleyville Hugger (specialty: bear hugging an opponent into submission) tries to take liberties with Lena. A brutal and exhausting fight ensues between him and Eddie, when Eddie defends her. It results in the stabbing death of Hugger.

Now Eddie with the aid of Lena, for whom he finally concedes his growing affection, has to lam out of Philly to the one place he’s certain nobody will find him, the family house in Jersey. Naturally, this being noir and ultimately nihilistic at heart, complete disaster engulfs every character in the novel, until Eddie reins in his emotional monster, and the novel ends on these notes: “He opened his eyes. He saw his fingers caressing the keyboard.”

Modern readers will probably find the dialogue somewhat stilted and anachronistic and Eddie’s motivations a bit overwrought, but Goodis more than makes up for these with his word pictures of a dark, brutal world, and the idea of a guy who just wants to be left alone to stew in his misfortune and, most important, not to care and love again to only enviably hurt the one loved and himself again.

As mentioned, François Truffaut brought this novel to the screen in his French classic Shoot the Piano Player. Here’s the trailer for those interested. w/c  

Flipped (Raw)

Flipped (Raw)

Chapter 4: NEW YORK, NEW YORK (Part 3 and 4)

Angie’s young. I’m seeing her as she was in high school. Her hair is black and curly, relaxed ringlets that someone not knowing her might think were permed. Her face is round. She’s Italian, but her face has strong oriental qualities: faintly epicanthic eyes, bud lips that when she paints them bright red resemble a Geisha’s mouth. She’s my height, but not nearly as slim as I am, more zaftig—busty and hippy. Back then my mother was after me about being skinny. Now she’s after me to lose a few pounds, drop the baby fat because the babies are here, been here for a long time now.

It’s the winter Richard and I started dating. Angie and I are walking along Main Street shopping, dashing in and out of stores as much to warm up as to eye, caress, but rarely buy, the merchandise. Creek Falls is a cold and snowy patch of earth, just on the north side of a weather line that separates it from downstate’s slightly milder winters. It’s a damp freeze, too, the penetrating kind that seeps into my bones until it requires an entire night by the radiator to restore me.

The day I’m remembering was fierce and I know I was trembling visibly. As we strolled on Main, Bobby McFarlane pulled up beside us and paced us in his Belair. Richard rode with him often, but not that day. Bobby lunged across the front seat and cranked down the passenger window.

“Get in,” he yelled, as if being Richard’s girlfriend bestowed upon him power to command me.

Angie, who already had hold of my arm, tightened her grip. She raised her free hand and wagged her gloved middle finger at Bobby. He reciprocated and roared off, not bothering to close the window.

“I hope he freezes his ass off,” she said.

“A possibility,” I told her.” Richard says the heater’s busted.”

“Serves him right.”

She was shivering and her eyes were tearing.

“Let’s get a tea,” I said.

The coffee shop was a short order joint, rich with the scent of burgers and french fries and coffee, alive with the soft chatter of locals perched on stools at the counter. It was comfortable, and comforting. We hadn’t said anything to each other since entering and seating ourselves in the back booth. We were too busy warming up, relishing the heat, and squirming out of our coats when we were, finally, too hot.

“This is good,” I said, sipping my tea, holding the cup under my face to savor the steamy fragrance.

“What’s with Richard?”

It was an abrupt question.”What do you mean?”

“Richard seems like a nice guy. I mean, he’s got to be a nice guy. You like him. But this thing with Bobby?”

I shrugged.”Richard says it’s because Bobby has a car.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No, Richard says it’s just easier to get around with a car. He can’t afford his own. Bobby’s got one. Or something like one.”

“He hangs around with a guy just because he has a car, to hitch an easy ride? Doesn’t that sound, I don’t know, kind of shallow to you?”

“I suppose. But we’re not married. I can’t demand Richard not see Bobby.”

She smiled.”Not yet you’re not.”

I didn’t want to talk about Bobby and Richard or Richard and me.”What kind of guy are you hoping to marry?” I asked.

“Certainly nobody from Creek Falls,” she said.” You can bank on that.”

4

If Richard or the girls were around now, they’d want to know why I’m weepy. Irony is the reason, but the girls are too young to comprehend and Richard is emotionally dense.

My tea has cooled, but I don’t mind. It’s time to retrieve Emily, then make her lunch, and find a way to entertain her, because I can’t impose upon Carol everyday. Then it’s resume packing.

I dump the tea dregs in the kitchen sink. It is an odd sink for a kitchen. It’s not the shape. It is a double and large and perfectly fine. It’s the color. It is blue, a particularly bright shade, close to sky, celestial, that shade. It matches the kitchen.

I wash and dry the Limoges set, handling it with the care it deserves, pausing to admire it and trace my finger along the rim of the saucer, quivering with sensual pleasure. Placing it in the rack to dry, the realization strikes me that I’ve caressed the cup and saucer more, been more intimate with them, than I have with Richard in the past month, maybe longer.

We’ve had our bad patches previously, several of them, most when I succumbed to my suspicions about his faithlessness. The incident with Angie, however, was different, much more affecting. Another woman’s not involved, unless I count Angie. It was a betrayal I couldn’t fully forgive. I’ve tamped down my feelings to gray ash from the inferno they were when he revealed the marriage of Angie and Bobby, and his secret visits with them.

I put the Limoges on the rack to drain safely.

But the sink, I am mulling over the blue sink, the matching blue kitchen. It’s a mystery, really. I don’t recall how the sink or the kitchen got blue. I don’t remember them as blue when we bought the house. I can’t recollect redecorating and selecting blue. Of course I redid the house, loaded it with expensive things, some treasures I loved, but most just things bought in reprisal for Richard uprooting and dropping me in the middle of an alien world—his realm of work, travel, and deceit. But the kitchen, if I did redecorate it, I’m sure I would have done it in white, a polar tone to keep it bright and efficient, or a traditional yellow, maybe a rich ocher. Blue, though?

However, I have no time to waste on what I did or didn’t do. The clock, a circle ringed in celestial blue—how extraordinary, too, that the kitchen is blue and yet monochromatic at the same time—tells me I am cutting it close. Emily hates when she is the last child picked up and extracts a price with recalcitrance that either I have to deal with or, too often, assuage with a treat.

Traffic is light and I arrive ahead of release time. I park behind a few early birds, mothers occupied with phone calls. I wait and a line builds behind me. I’m amazed at how much time I spend, toss away is more like it, waiting on Samantha and Emily. Once I moaned about it to Richard.

He said, “I don’t understand you, Babe?”

“You don’t understand what, Richard? That I find it mind-numbing to sit in a car half the day waiting for the girls?”

“I doubt you spend anything near half a day,” he rebuked.”The point is, it’s your job. It’s in the job description of ‘mother.’  That’s why you’re home. I know women who would trade places with you in a second.”

We were in bed early. Richard had expectations for the night. But his demeaning remarks enraged me and I bolted into the bathroom, sat on the toilet, and vented my anger in tears. Ten minutes passed and I returned to bed. Richard was sleeping. I slipped in quietly and positioned myself toward the edge, eliminating any possibility of touching him. In a dumb way knowing his desires were left unfulfilled satisfied me. It wasn’t much, possibly nothing. However, Richard was a man who usually got what he wanted on the job and at home and not much was a triumph of sorts.

Emily trots from the building, smiling, delighted to be one of the happy crowd whose mother loves her enough to fetch punctually. I climb out and greet her with a huge hug, hoisting her skyward and thrilling her with a swing from side to side.

In the car, she chatters endlessly about her day, her friends, rivals, her activities, and her achievements, stellar among them a magnificent drawing of a cow. She holds it up to me, demanding I study it, as if it is a Matisse, not an authentic Matisse, not a woman or a still life, yet fanciful, a commentary on canvas, or in Emily’s case, construction paper. I divide my gaze, switching cautiously between drawing and road.

“Sweetheart, but why’s the cow red?” It certainly is fauvist, at least in color, and in that the cow, bloated like a balloon, floats above a bright blue landscape.

“She’s a mad cow.”

A distempered female, so what else is new?

“Why’s she mad?”

“She’s fighting with the daddy cow.”

I’m surprised and stricken with guilt. It’s impossible not to fight with Richard sometimes, but some arguing is naturally built into marriage. I am amazed that Richard and I argue infrequently. I’m mad at him plenty, usually with cause. However, I respect my daughters. I love them. I want them to feel that love and the security of a calm and ordered home. Nothing would undermine this more than incessant battle royales with their father. Obviously, though, scrupulous as I am, as pained as I may find myself caging the vituperation engendered by some careless, thoughtless, or premeditated transgression of Richard’s, Emily has seen enough, and it’s made an impression.

“What’s the fight about?” I ask her.

“Oh,” she says, delineating the cow with a long, slim finger, “the daddy cow says she has to move to a new place.”

Well, I wouldn’t say the mommy cow is mad about moving from her comfortable home in Cranbury, green, lush, seasonal Cranbury, to a place that is brown, dusty, and monotonous; leaving a clutch of acquaintances requiring years to establish; forfeiting schools, doctors, contractors, and shops she’s come to like and rely on; but she’s certainly not thrilled. And she has told the daddy cow as much. Maybe I’ve expressed my unhappiness a little too often for the good of the girls. I strived for circumspection, discussing my concerns with Richard in the privacy of our bedroom, in brief conversations, because lately I’ve been able to garner only snippets of Richard’s time and attention. Yes, the move represents a wonderful opportunity; it means great things for Richard; and it will reward our family with . . . well, with more stuff, which is important to him, perhaps to the girls too, but less so to me. I’ve conceded all this to him. But Samantha and Emily are people, I’ve said. They have friends and things they like about Cranbury. Besides, Cranbury is their entire world; it is everything they have known since they were born. These pleadings did not impress Richard, who is of the opinion children adapt, and ours aren’t the first children who’ve ever moved. They’ll survive. True, I yielded, but not without anguish.

“Well, I don’t know about the mommy cow’s new place, but ours is going to be wonderful,” I say.”It’ll be sunny and warm all year. You can play outside every day, if you like.”  This is my big gun. Emily loves the outdoors; loves running; loves anything physical.

“I know,” she drones.

“I bet you’ll meet someone as nice and fun as Seth almost the minute the moving men put your things in your room. Maybe even sooner.” Well, perhaps not someone exactly like Seth, but close enough. I chose the area and the house because I saw lots of children, big and small, and as close as next door.

“You say.”

“I know.”

She grunts.”The mommy cow’s still mad.”

We drive the rest of the way, which isn’t very far, in silence, with Emily resting her head on the door window and staring out. At home, we eat. After, I deposit her in Richard’s home office that he hardly uses as he is seldom home. Regardless, he’s managed to accumulate an assortment of business bric-a-brac—awards, photos, paperweights, a desk set, pens promoting the company’s various drugs, and lots more. I let Emily help by giving her a box, clean newsprint, and instructions to clear and pack Richard’s desk.

I return to the kitchen and resume packing. It isn’t long before I’m wondering about Angie’s baby, asking myself if Richard hadn’t lied about it.

Excursion into 1950s’ Nihilism

Pick-Up (1955)

By Charles Willeford

Nihilism threads through most noir novels. It’s not often, though, when it dominates the plot and characters completely, as it does in Charles Willeford’s terrifically pulpy, frequently salacious, and thoroughly (in a good way) depressing tale of a death wish thwarted.

It’s San Francisco in the mid-Fifties, but this is the Frisco where the sun rarely shines and fog hangs thick and wet over cold streets. Harry Jordan trained as a fine arts painter. He was good at it. But soon enough, he judged himself not quite good enough for the art big time, and this was after he abandoned his wife and baby son to paint. He odd jobs in San Francisco as a fry cook. One night, in walks a dame like none he’s ever laid eyes on, Helen Meredith. Remember the year when you read Willeford’s description, because she sounds like a cross between a Goth and a punker. They immediately fall together as they share a powerful bond: they are admittedly and happily alcoholics.

The two become a pair and live in Harry’s rented room. They drink constantly, literally into oblivion. Harry can’t hold a job and cater to Helen’s neediness, possessiveness, and overwhelming addiction that supersedes his own. Life no longer matters to each. They decide to commit suicide together. They make the attempt and they fail. They check themselves into a psychiatric hospital, but they are out in a blink, no better off. Now they are dirt broke. Helen begins going out on her own to pick up men for a drink. Meanwhile, she gets sicker and sicker; he gets more depressed. Suicide seems the sensible solution once again. It partially succeeds.

And it devastates Harry, who really, truly loves Helen. He ends up in jail, where he pleads guilty to murder and urges the police and prosecutor to speed things along so he can get into the gas chamber. But, you know, when life hasn’t gone your way ever, why expect it to drift in your favor now? Harry lands back in the hospital consumed by fear that they will find him insane, when he declares himself perfectly normal, and deprive him of what he desires, death. Then events occur that startle Harry and jolt us readers, and the book ends on a totally unexpected reveal—which means you should avoid at all costs jumping ahead.

How to make sense of all this? you might wonder. Well, remember the era, the Fifties. We usually picture these as halcyon days of rising prosperity, growing suburban life, idyllic families, bright colors; in short, happy days. We typically don’t think about marginalized people, about the isolation of suburban life, of cities slowly abandoned, of crime, and problems with substance abuse as ways to cope with the big issue of the day: strictly enforced conformity. If a phrase can characterize an era, the Age of Conformity seems to best capture the spirit, or rather dispirit of the Fifties. In short, perfect soil for the blooming of existential and atheistic nihilism seeded in preceding decades. And there you have Harry Jordan. w/c