Reviewed by Annabel
Hayes, who was born in London but emigrated to the US as a child, first came to attention as a poet before WWII. He then served in Italy and stayed on to contribute to scripts for some classic Italian movies such as The Bicycle Thief; he worked in Hollywood as a scriptwriter too. He also produced a handful of novels of which The End of Me is the final part of an informal trilogy of novellas, all featuring doomed relationships, with 15 years between the first and third.
First came In Love, published in 1953. A lost man props up a New York bar one afternoon, striking up a conversation with the young woman next to him. He tells her a story, of his relationship with another young woman and how it was poisoned by an ‘indecent proposal’ – a rich businessman offers her $1000 to spend the night with him (not the book the film was adapted from, but possibly the original idea). The young writer is forced to consider whether they had been in love.
Next was My Face for the World to See, published in 1958. The narrator, a Hollywood scriptwriter, rescues a young woman from drowning, possibly intentionally, at a beach party. With his wife back in New York, he begins a relationship with the wannabe actress, seeking refuge from his loveless marriage, and although he is paid well, his work has become mundane. She has to suffer constant rejection as she repeatedly fails to get her big break in the movies and her mental health is fragile.
In both of these novellas, Hayes doesn’t name his two protagonists. Remaining unnamed, the truth of these doomed romances is laid bare on the page. Both are narrated by the male character, a writer in each case, whose thoughts often come tumbling out – brutally honest, shocking. As break-up novels go, these are indeed finely wrought, with starkly beautiful writing, or ‘writhing’ as David Thomson tells us Hayes called it (in his introduction to the second book).
This brings me, finally, to The End of Me, which was published in 1968. It takes a different tack to the previous two novellas which both chart a relationship from start to end. Again, the protagonist is a writer – for the first time given a name, Asher – but this time he’s older, and as the novel begins, he is about to flee from LA to NYC to escape being cuckolded by his second wife. Asher is middle-aged, and his career as a Hollywood scriptwriter has dried up, so he holes up in a hotel in an increasingly wintery New York to consider what to do next. He walks, enjoying looking at all the pretty girls around, musing to himself,
There must be a rock, I thought, somewhere, on which they sit and sing.
Through his aged aunt, he meets Michael, a young cousin who fancies himself as a poet, and Asher engages him to be his companion as he explores the New York he grew up in. However, little remains of the communities of his youth, the streets having become rougher and tougher than when he left. When Michael introduces Asher to his girlfriend, Aurora, he finds her intriguing – and seemingly that feeling is returned. Asher finds himself moving in different circles.
So I had crossed over into the country of the young. I was, of course, there only on a temporary visa. But I flattered myself that I had managed to penetrate the frontier at all. I even supposed the population was friendly.
However, things go sour with Michael, when Asher offers a critique of his poems only to discover that they are awful and overly sexualised. ‘Interesting’ was his polite, but wrong, answer!
Aurora stays loyal to Asher; she wheedles the story of his second wife out of him (his first gets scant mention by comparison) but Asher finds himself questioning her motives. Why is she with him and not Michael – or is she with both? Is he being played? They begin this spiral of dancing around each other – more painful ‘writhing’ but though I can’t share how it ends, you may well guess!
This third novel at 178 pages is substantially longer than the previous two (120 and 130 pages respectively), although still novella length. With the older protagonist and more named characters, it does have rather a different feel, even though Asher does narrate the story in the first person as before. It is no less bleak than the others, too.
Although all three narrators are of different ages when their story occurs, they are alike in outlook, bored, fatalistic even. I liked the circular journey of the books, going from New York to LA back to New York, but I found the psychological games that the characters play in The End of Me less satisfactory than the narrator’s purer internalisations of the first two. There is, however, no denying that Alfred Hayes was a writer of exceptional fiction, using his skills as a poet and scriptwriter to craft these superb short novels. He only wrote seven books, of which there are these three plus one other currently in print (The Girl on the Via Flaminia, set in wartime Rome).
If you like your fiction to have uplifting endings, these books are not for you, but if you would appreciate reading some exquisite ‘writhing’, Alfred Hayes may be a great discovery.
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Alfred Hayes, The End of Me (NYRB, 2020). 978-1681374338, 178pp., paperback.
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