A great Hollywood novelist, nearly lost and rediscovered
Over the decades, many young writers arrived in Hollywood with a good novel or two under their belt and never wrote another successful one, losing themselves in lucrative studio contracts and uncredited script rewrites. The talented Alfred Hayes came very close to becoming one of those writers. In fact, the unrealities of movie-land became a major subject of his fiction.
After a brief early success in 1946 with his first novel, “All Thy Conquests,” based on his military experiences in Italy during World War II, Hayes wrote on some of the most successful Italian neorealist films of the postwar period, such as Vittorio De Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief” (1948) and Roberto Rossellini’s “Paisan” (1946), for which he received an Oscar nomination. His subsequent move from New York to California was both financially lucrative and artistically unrewarding. While he continued fitfully producing the occasional novel and collection of verse (his best known poem, “Joe Hill,” became a protest song for Pete Seeger and Joan Baez), his film work was either uncredited (Nicholas Ray’s “The Lusty Men”) or uninteresting (“A Hatful of Rain,” a Fred Zinnemann “message” film about drug addiction). Even his biggest project, Fritz Lang’s moodily intense “Clash by Night” (which in 1952 featured Marilyn Monroe in one of her first major roles), was little more than a competent alteration to a Clifford Odets play.
Over the last 15 years, however, Hayes the novelist has been rescued from anonymity by the canny revivalists at New York Review Books. Over the last few years, they have reissued a loosely defined “trilogy” of Hayes’ short, powerful, first-person novels about a young writer (like Hayes) who moves to Hollywood (like Hayes) and lives to tell about it (like Hayes).
The last of these, “The End of Me,” out in June, is a fitting closer, the most evolved and personal of the set, an impressionistic reflection on what it’s like to go looking for who you were in the places where you used to live. It’s everything a screenplay can’t be: the stream-of-consciousness monologue (more Dos Passos than Joyce) of an individual wrestling with his own ordinary failures, especially when it comes to the things he loves most, women and writing.
The first of the New York Review Books reissues, “In Love” (1953), is a deep-first-person, naturalistic narrative set in New York concerning a young writer’s obsession with a woman who spurns him. The next, “My Face for the World to See” (1958), follows another introspective writer to Hollywood, where he becomes involved with a failing young actress he saves from a suicide attempt in Malibu. “The End of Me” takes us back East, and asks what must be the perennial question of most writers who “go West”: Is there life after Hollywood? Hayes’ answer seems to be: “Yes, definitely.” But it won’t be easy.
Unlike in the previous two novels, this protagonist has a name, Asher. It’s Hebrew for “happy,” and it may not be entirely ironic. At the age of 51, Asher has come to feel like the oldest man in Hollywood; at a low point in life, he ducks out on his second marriage. As the novel opens, he has already returned to the streets of New York where he grew up. In order to re-acquaint himself with old buildings and what’s left of his family, he hires his young nephew, a cynical and bitter poet, to accompany him on daily explorations of “the places I had been young in.” After too many years in California amid the fanciful adornments of movie romance, he’s losing grasp of the world’s hard, comforting realities. He hopes the streets that raised him will prove restorative.
Ross Thomas delivered 25 novels populated by colorful, chameleonic characters. Among them: “Briarpatch,” now a USA Network series.
Most of all, Asher’s afraid of losing “the ability to get work.” (Being without work seems to be the worst thing that can happen to one of Hayes’ characters.) As Asher writes in one of the book’s many combative interior monologues:
“One got old. Or simply older. The jobs got fewer. The jobs got less than fewer. There were, abruptly, no jobs. You didn’t know why, certainly it was not because you had less of what you had had when you got the jobs, you were sure of that, were you sure of that, yes, you said, you were sure of that, there was no impairment, wasn’t there an impairment, then you were defending yourself, then you were furious because you had to defend yourself, then you were whining, a little, a little more, then you were desperate, a little, a little more, then the pieces started to come apart, you tried to hold yourself together, you tried to prevent the pieces from coming apart, but they came apart, a little piece, a larger piece, you couldn’t cope, you couldn’t cope any more, the work went, the house went, the life went...”
The use of second person in many of these monologues dramatizes the sense of distance between the man and who he sees himself to be — an effect familiar to readers of Jay McInerney’s “Bright Lights, Big City” several decades later.
Asher is drowning in his sense of failure. Giving yourself over to each brief, tortured and often beautifully written paragraph feels like watching someone wrestle with the unfortunate reality of himself. The only way out of that drowning self, Asher feels, is to grab hold of someone else — in this case, a much younger woman with enough future left in her for them both. You’re not supposed to let a drowning man grab you, and indeed, in the previous novels, Hayes’ protagonists never seem to achieve anything more than a co-dependency that can’t last. But by the end of this novel, Asher may have achieved something that will last a lot longer for both of them.
Hayes has been unfairly forgotten for many reasons; the biggest one was probably that he wasn’t writing the types of books that were being praised in the postwar era — the ones written by the likes of Mailer, Barth, Bellow and Roth. Those writers aspired to produce big books with big themes, big books about a big country. But like John Fante, another Hollywood-based novelist who suffered a similar eclipse of reputation, Hayes didn’t write those kinds of books. Rather, his novels explored the ways in which small souls sought to cut their own safe path across the world’s unforgiving bigness.
He was never, however, a “confessional” novelist like Kerouac, unwilling to range beyond his own immediate experience. He establishes a fictional sense of distance between himself and his characters — and by doing so, allows them to make their own fictional decisions. They are books filled with human possibility.
Our times have grown almost exhaustingly big and eventful lately; not coincidentally, much of our fiction has either submerged itself in matters of our individual times and places (Rachel Cusk or Knausgaard) or fled from it into world-building fantasy adventures. Hayes, however, provides a welcome alternative — small, reflective novels about the struggles of not entirely fictional human beings. And at a time when our private lives seem to be growing smaller in the face of titanic historical forces, it is probably a good time to be remembering Alfred Hayes.
Bradfield is the author of “The History of Luminous Motion” and “Dazzle Resplendent: Adventures of a Misanthropic Dog.”
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