Anne Bernays, The Man on the Third Floor (Sag Harbor, N.Y.: Permanent Press, 2012). 184 pages.
Anne Bernays cannot decide whether her tenth novel is a comedy of manners or a roman à thèse on behalf of gay marriage. The internal evidence is on both sides of the question, and so is Bernays’s literary reputation. Her best-known book, Professor Romeo (1989), was the first American novel on the subject of campus sexual harassment. It merchandises the thesis that, no matter how unpleasant the faculty lecher—and Bernays’s is very unpleasant—he is still the plaything of changing moral fashions and campus hysteria, a theme Francine Prose developed with greater success in Blue Angel. Bernays’s most interesting and accomplished novel is Growing Up Rich (1975), the tale of a half-Jewish girl who is orphaned at fourteen when her wealthy parents die in a plane crash and must then adapt to the financially straitened circumstances of the loud and messy middle-class Jewish family that takes her in. Bernays was able to flaunt her mastery of detail, her eye for subtle and revealing social convention, in two different milieux.
The Man on the Third Floor threads back and forth between both strains in Bernays’s writing. Set during the ’fifties (with Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee prowling menacingly in the background), the novel is careful to define the homosexual condition in a hostile era:
Walter has his first homosexual experience at summer camp when he is fourteen. Confined to his tent by a sprained ankle, he is visited by a counselor with a “frankly Aryan glow” and “bulging muscles.” “I’ve brought some Vaseline,” the counselor says, telling Walter to take off his shorts and turn over:
One day at work he is interrupted by a carpet layer who needs to measure his office. Walter is struck by the young man’s “beauty like that of an Italian noble in a Renaissance portrait.” He is uncomfortably aware of “looking at this man as if he were a woman.” He is reminded of the Aryan-looking counselor and what they had done at summer camp. A “dangerous warmth” floods his body. A thought occurs to him: “somewhere deep there lurked a Walter Samson who might want to be loved by a man more than by a woman.” On an impulse, he asks his Figaro (real name: Barry Rogers) for a drink after work.
Within a few weeks he has persuaded his wife to hire Barry as a driver and install him in a small room on the third floor. For the next decade, as he rises to become editor-in-chief of a major New York publishing house, Walter leads a double life—or, rather, a doubled life, as he prefers to think of it. He considers himself a heterosexual. He remains attracted to his wife, “not so much to her sexual promise as to her spirit,” but what he feels for Barry is different—“a love so ferocious, so mindless, it’s hard to breathe.” He continues to have sex with his wife, but she is not who he thinks about. “Let’s say the difference between applesauce and raspberry mousse,” he ventures.
The ménage cannot last, and of course it does not. While it lasts, though, Walter is not “torn,” he says, but “compacted.” He is fully cognizant of the dangers: “The punishment for engaging in man to man sex was worse in this country than in the Soviet Union.” He realizes that most people would view his living arrangement as “sick,” but he is energized by the sexual variety available to him. The “domestic situation,” he reflects, “gave me everything I needed—or thought I needed.”
The inevitable exposure comes as relief. His wife leaves him, his daughter refuses to speak to him, the Tribune writes up a story on the “cozy Grecian trio.” The public reaction is ill-informed, but predictable:
It would be even nicer if people like them had as much personality as their social circumstances, but Bernays’s characters are accumulations of traits and experiences instead of real people. For such a short book, The Man on the Third Floor also contains an excessive amount of padding. It’s not hard to see why. The moral dilemma at the heart of the novel—the moral dilemma of homosexuality—is no real dilemma at all, because the moral shame of homosexuality has disappeared. Anne Bernays is unable to summon it back again, and what she is left with is a man who is not “torn,” but merely biding his time until he can live openly with the love of his life.