Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Hair of Harold Roux

When Robert Stone’s bring-the-war-home novel Dog Soldiers was awarded half a National Book Award in 1975, the New York Times reported that “Joseph Heller had been expected to cop the fiction award” for Something Happened, but “there wasn’t much grumbling” when Stone won instead. The surprise was that “he had to split it with The Hair of Harold Roux,” a novel that “nobody had read. Nobody.” (Emphasis in the original.) Three decades later the surprise has not abated. Time lists Stone’s as one of the hundred best novels since 1923. Literary scholars treat Dog Soldiers as a canonical work, while a search of the MLA Bibliography for any mention of The Hair of Harold Roux concludes with an error message: “No results were found.”

Yet Williams’s is not only the better novel in every respect (better prose, better plot, better people). It is also less captive to received ideas, and consequently it creates a dimension of moral independence, a ground for determining the right thing to do, that is missing from Stone’s book. The two novels share a common theme. As Williams phrases it in his opening pages, the “world, with perhaps a temporary remission now and then, is departing upon a long slide away from any sort of rational middle, like a psychotic plunging toward his bleak end.” Or, as Stone says early on, “the world of things transformed itself into a single overwhelming act of murder.”

The two books have little else in common. Dog Soldiers is a genuinely apocalyptic novel. Stone holds out little hope for a world that is “capable of composing itself, at any time and without notice, into a massive instrument of agonizing death.” A chase involving heroin smuggled into the U.S. from Vietnam, the novel ends with its only good man trudging through a salt desert, endlessly following a railroad (“In the end, there was only the tracks”), and the final victory of the corrupt drug agent who is after him. “If you stuck with something, faced down every kind of pressure, refused to fold when the going got tough, outplayed all adversaries, and relied on your own determination and fortitude,” the drug agent reflects when he finds the heroin on the corpse of the man he has been chasing, “then the bag of beans at the end of the rainbow might be yours after all.” Thus Stone’s ironic inversion of the work ethic. There is neither God nor intrinsic value to affirm; only the self and its struggle for triumph over others.

The Hair of Harold Roux, by contrast, suggests that fiction might offer a refuge from the apocalypse. Published the same year as My Life As a Man and five years before The Ghost Writer, Williams’s novel anticipates the Zuckerman books in relying upon a novelist-within-a-novel to provide the still center of a revolving circus. At an apocalyptic moment in history, as R. V. Cassill said in his Washington Post review of Williams’s book, the novelist “becomes the conservator of the self-destructing community in which he finds himself.” The novelist puts the world in order—by arranging it into streets and plots of land and people living on them; “people who are not classified, utilized, disposable counters in a game of allegory, political comments, social criticisms, theology, or existential puzzles,” as Williams said in his speech accepting the National Book Award. When the world transforms itself into a single overwhelming act of murder, women and men are reduced to fear and desperation. The novelist’s job is to reexpand them.

The novel’s novelist is Aaron Benham, a middle-aged journeyman who teaches at a New England university. A “professor of sweet reason,” he is on leave, ostensibly to finish a book, but in reality because he is “sick of reason, sick of convincing. The professor is sick to death of explaining.” His best student has disappeared on a drug bender; his best friend, who has put off his doctoral dissertation while lovingly restoring an eighteenth-century farmhouse to a condition in which it has “become important far beyond material considerations,” is on the verge of dismissal; his family has driven south to Boston for his in-laws’ anniversary, which he stupidly forgot. Stranded, unable to help those around him, Aaron retreats into the autobiographical novel he is writing, entitled The Hair of Harold Roux.

Although he worries that it is “all incestuous and even narcissistic,” for “who wants to write about or read about a professor who is a writer who is writing about writing,” the novel-within-a-novel is not merely a verbal matryoshka doll. It is a profound meditation on the place and value of fiction in human life. On a planet that is “the repository of all the pain it has ever been host to,” the novelist believes that “if he might find his way back even a few years, then the volume is by an infinitesimal fraction smaller, a little more manageable perhaps.” So the novelist “must manipulate against the movement of time”—he “must make and dominate”—but in the end he is powerless to prevent the pain from recurring. To revisit the past is to reawaken the pain. What is worse, Aaron learns that his actual life is unintentionally replicating his autobiographical fiction. That in fact may be his motive for writing: he might make and dominate fiction, but not actuality. “He ha[s] no way to repair anything that had been done,” Williams concludes. Not as long as he acknowledges that fiction is distinct from falsity.

In the novel-within-a-novel, Allard Benson is an undergraduate attending a New England college on the GI Bill. A lapsed Protestant with all the convictions of a believing Protestant (“[y]ou did not mindlessly repeat what had been previously said because that was rote, a kind of cheating, the death of reality which was life”), he is engaged to be married to Mary, a devout Catholic girl from a small nearby town, but he is also bedding down with Naomi, a Jewish radical from New York. Rarely has a menage à trois, or more accurately a young man’s brazen attempt to juggle two different lovers, been described so well. Although he and Naomi have only to look at each other for strange things to happen in their middles, Allard prefers Mary. The reason is simple: “What he really wanted to do was to create in Mary Tolliver the perfect receptor of himself.” His self-importance blinds Allard to the harm he is causing, especially to his classmate Harold Roux, who worships Mary. Harold’s efforts to protect her from Allard bring about the catastrophe, in which Allard accidentally tears off Harold’s toupee—his “false hair,” as Mary calls it—the source of the novel’s title and its central image of falsity. Even though Allard did not intend it, his action destroys Harold, the engagement to Mary, the affair with Naomi, and much else besides. Falsehood, the ability to lie to oneself and one’s friends, turns out to be essential to social life, perhaps even to ordinary human life, and fiction is its sworn enemy.

Except: every world contains worlds, in which ancient hurts may be revisited and reawakened, but also contained. Fiction does not repair any worlds, but provides an emergency exit to other worlds, where the pain at least is not actual. The other fiction-within-a-fiction in The Hair of Harold Roux, then, is the remarkable bedtime story that Aaron tells his two children—so remarkable, in fact, that Williams developed it at ful length in Tsuga’s Children (1977), his next novel. “I want to hear about what happens!” his son protests when Aaron breaks off the story for bed. Fiction relieves the human thirst for truth, even at the cost of additional pain.

The Hair of Harold Roux is available in paperback from the University Press of New England.


Anonymous said...

I go to the University of New Hampshire where Williams taught in the 1970's. Even here, none except those who worked with him have heard of Thomas Williams. He is one of the greatest authors in American History and there needs to be some effort on behalf of the literary world to bring this fact to light. Thanks for publishing this.

Anonymous said...

I had the privilege (as, I discovered, did fellow Maine resident Stephen King) of writing under the tutelage of Tom when an undergraduate at the University of New Hampshire. He was a warm, immensely compassionate, and inspiring mentor. I have come to cherish his tutelage and encouragement when few understood the value of myth and fantasy as vehicles for the "modern" writer to respond and share life's great lessons and mysteries. Thank you for the recollection.

RFinegold (Class of 1980)