Category Archives: Hayes Alfred

My Face For the World to See by Alfred Hayes

For its bleakness and its Hollywood setting, I loved My Face For the World To See (1958)–a dark tale of a tangled relationship between a married screenwriter and a very damaged would-be actress. At 131 pages, this New York Review Books release doesn’t waste words, and there’s the sense that this tale has been pared down to perfection. The story flings us right into the drama with an opening set at a beach house party with various Hollywood people in attendance. The screenwriter, who remains nameless throughout the story is bored and feeling alienated when he goes outside and spots a woman stepping into the ocean. He thinks he’s seen the girl before, but then again perhaps not. She looks, after all, like so many other pretty, leggy desperate young women who drift to Hollywood. He realizes that she is trying to commit suicide, so he pulls her out of the ocean, and the drama begins.

My face for the world to seeThe screenwriter, who’s in his late thirties, is well paid but not particularly happy. His wife of fifteen years, a woman he’s no longer attracted to, lives in New York with their child. He rents an apartment that’s a “little too bridal,” and has the occasional affair. He’s not a wolf by any means or a predator, but he’s used to being alone with his cynicism:

I thought of my wife. She was at a distance. The distance was in itself beneficial. I supposed I was being again uncharitable. She was what she was: I was what I was. That, when you came down to it, was the most intolerable thing of all. If only she weren’t, now and then what she was, always. If she’d let up a little or knock it off a little or hang it out for a good airing once in a little while.  God, marriage. No: it wasn’t marriage. There wasn’t, even on close examination, any other available institution, any other available institution you could substitute. There seemed to be nothing but marriage, when you thought of it, and when you thought of it, my god, was that all there was? That, and raising a family. That, and earning a living. That, and calling the undertaker.

This bleakly abbreviated view of the meaningless of life says a great deal about our narrator. He finds his tired marriage, strained by “something that resembled a truce,” suffocating; perhaps he married too young, and he has yet to find anything to substitute for any sort of meaning to his existence. Yet his attitude towards life extends beyond his marriage, and he hates New York, “that immense slum.” Hollywood isn’t much better as far as the screenwriter is concerned. He dislikes Hollywood and the money it generates. To him the town is “rotten” and its immense wealth has a “phantasmal quality.” In a town driven by money, power, and fame, all three leave him cold.

At this very moment, the town was full of people lying in bed thinking with an intense, an inexhaustible, an almost raging passion of becoming famous, and even more famous if they were; or of becoming wealthy if they weren’t already wealthy , or wealthier if they were; or powerful if they weren’t powerful now, and more powerful if they already were. There were times when the intensity with which they wanted these things impressed me. There was even, at times, a certain legitimacy to their desires. But it seemed to me, or at least it had seemed to me in the few years I had been coming and going from this town, there was something finally ludicrous, finally unimpressive about even the people who had all the things so coveted by all the people who did not have them. It was difficult to say why. It might have been only a private blindness, a private indifference which prevented me from seeing how gratifying the possession of power or the possession of fame could be. 

The meeting between the screenwriter and the young woman grows into a relationship. The woman lives in spartan circumstances, but she’s proud of what she’s accomplished while the screenwriter finds that he’s “wandered into a ‘unsuccessful’ life again.”  He senses that “something quite heavy, quite immovable, weighed her down.” When questioned, he’s frank about his marital status, and an affair begins–with the young woman accepting that what they have is a dead-end with no future. Not a great deal happens during the course of the affair–a few dinners, a disastrous trip to Mexico, and, of course, confidences, which include the woman’s troubled past, are exchanged.

Author Alfred Hayes chose to keep his two characters nameless–although there’s one point in which the woman refers to herself as Miss V. It’s much more difficult to write about a book in which the main characters are nameless, but what’s interesting here is that the lack of names adds to the general feeling of anonymity. These people live in Hollywood–a town, “true to its rhinestone self,” in which names are of paramount importance. The last thing anyone connected to the movie biz seeks is anonymity, but that’s exactly what these two characters have. The woman, of course, seeks fame–she wants to hit the Big Time with “my face for the world to see,” whereas the man doesn’t care for any of the usual gilt covered carrots that drive ambition in Hollywood. Then there’s the issue of the affair….  Why, oh why, would anyone be insane enough to get mixed up with this emotionally damaged woman? Yes, she’s attractive and available, but as the narrator points out, the town in swamped with beautiful, attractive women eager to make connections and more than happy to attend Hollywood parties. The screenwriter’s introduction to the young woman, her suicide attempt, should tell him all he needs to know. This is not a stable young woman, and an affair can only end in disaster for both of them. Why then, given the benefit of all the warning signals, does he take the green light and begin an affair? Vulnerability can be a weapon, and it can also be a magnet.

In Love is the story of two people in a relationship that sours even as it goes nowhere. My Face For the World To See, the finer book of the two, is the story of a relationship that goes to hell. Alfred Hayes has a self-interruptive style which is only occasionally apparent in My Face For the World to See whereas this style is pervasive in its repetitive uncertainty in In Love. This is a sparsely, beautifully written tale of damaged souls, with sentences that lap over our senses and recede slowly, leaving behind an emotional stain:

There was a noisy rush of water from the bathroom, and she appeared, ready for the evening, a smile she had chosen, I thought, from a small collection of smiles she kept for occasions like this, fixed upon her face.

Praise goes once more to New York Review Books for resurrecting a lost gem. How do they find their titles?

review copy

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In Love by Alfred Hayes

After finishing Electrico W, I turned to In Love by Alfred Hayes–another book which coincidentally examines the subject of love. While Electrico W looks at various ways we love people, In Love is the story of a man who can’t understand where his relationship with a woman went wrong. This explains why he finds himself sitting on a bar stool telling his sob story to the first girl who’ll listen to him.

In LoveAlfred Hayes, born in Britain in 1911, moved with his family to America when he was 3. He was a reporter, a screenwriter, and a novelist before his death in 1985. The New York Review Books edition of In Love includes an overview, by Frederic Raphael, of the writer’s career. There are some peculiarities about the career of Alfred Hayes–one time he received credit as “Albert Hayes,” for example, and ultimately it seems as though Hayes just missed an “A-list career.” The intro brings up the fact that Hayes wrote a poem “I Dreamed I saw Joe Hill Last Night,” and I can’t help but wonder if, given the anti-red tendencies of Hollywood thanks to J. Edgar Hoover and McCarthyism, there was payback for that poem–a poem which surely couldn’t have missed the beady eyes of Hollywood commie hunters. But back to the book which begins with this opening sentence:

Here I am, the man in the hotel bar said to the pretty girl, almost forty, with a small reputation, some money in the bank, a convenient address, a telephone number easily available, this look on my face you think peculiar to me, my hand here on this table real enough if one doesn’t look too closely.

Drinking dacquiris in a hotel bar as “the afternoon dies,” the man tells his story of how he was once in a relationship with a nameless young woman who lived alone in a tiny apartment in New York. She’s divorced and has a small child named Barbara who lives with the woman’s recently remarried mother. The story-teller maps out his relationship with the woman, and it’s as though he imagined that this would stretch on endlessly into the future:

I realize now that I had accustomed myself, without admitting it, to thinking of her as being always in this place, in these surroundings, that to me the studio couch and the drapes drawn to protect her from the imaginary peeping toms, and even from the disorder of her medicine cabinet, were permanent. She would exist among these love letters and these portraits for as long as I loved her. I did not, of course, think of myself as loving her forever, but neither did I think of the time when I would stop loving her. No, what I thought, I suppose, really was that this scene would remain forever unchanged: downstairs, in the vestibule, I would ring her bell, the buzzer would answer and release the door, I would climb the familiar stairs, noting the same odor in the hallway, hearing in winter the same concealed hiss of steam, and she would always be there, available, pretty, young, seated with her legs tucked under her on the studio couch among the colored pillows, the radio or the Victrola playing; and we would, in those fixed ceremonials, go out to some restaurant, choose a place where we could dance, because she liked to dance, or bored, choose from the always diminishing number of movies we had not seen one that still remained to be seen, taxiing homeward later, and eventually, evening after evening, in the darkness, with the drapes drawn and the lights extinguished, on the studio couch, uncovered now and the pillows scatter on the floor, make love. It was a very convenient and fixed and unvarying idyll I had in mind, a simple sequence of pleasures that would not seriously change my life or interfere with my work, that would fill the emptiness of my long evenings and ease the pressures of my loneliness, and give me what I suppose I really thought of as the nicest amusement in all the amusement park: the pleasure of love.

That very long quote gives a sense of this author’s self-interruptive style but also grants a deep insight into the storyteller’s mind. He’s gone back over the memories of this broken love affair repeatedly, adding details until he has successfully recreated and reconstructed this past, now-vanished life. It’s in this quote that we see the narrator’s painful, and occasionally raw acknowledgement  of his actions, and this is important, because at other times in this novel, it would seem that he’s incredibly selfish and basically clueless about just where he went wrong. We find out that while the narrator is very happy with the situation, the woman has some rankling discontent. This is, after all, post WWII America, and the woman carries not only the social stigma of a divorce, but also the additional sense of failure as a mother who can’t even raise her own child. She considers herself “mixed up,” but she also wants to remarry, have another child, and have a home. It doesn’t seem too much to ask for, but in spite of this modest ambition, she finds it “hard to gouge out of the reluctant mountain her own small private ingot of happiness. “Apart from this insidious sense of failure, she’s also frightened of living alone and keeps  a tear gas gun “recommended to her by a doctor” on the coffee table. The ever present fear of a male intruder has caused her to generate an elaborate escape plan along with a “military strategy.”

but it seems to me now that all this disorder, so much in evidence, and so little cared about, came from the fact that she considered the life that she was leading then as only temporary. This house, the way she lived, was only a hasty arrangement, thrown together to cover a time in her life which she did not consider too important, and in which she did not feel any necessity for putting things into any sort of final order. The final order had not yet arrived; she was waiting for it to arrive.

Of course, things cannot remain the same forever, and one night, the woman goes out with some friends and is propositioned by a very wealthy, “rather heavy solid” man named Howard who offers her one thousand dollars to spend the night with him. If that rings a bell, then you are right, and the intro mentions the fact that this is the same occurrence that stirs the action in the film Indecent Proposal.

The offer made by Howard eats away at the girl. Should she or shouldn’t she? She tells the narrator–after all, he “insisted that she had the perfect right” to see other men as they have a commitmentless relationship. She debates her choices and the theoretical consequences while repeatedly weighing the narrator’s range of responses. The doors to the relationship are open. She wears no hardware, so a peculiar situation evolves–an elaborate tango of possession between the three characters……

While the novel would seem to offer a narrator who doesn’t have a clue about what went wrong, scrapping the surface, we see a man who’s deeply puzzled by his actions, or inactions, more than anything else, and this is why he’s still scratching away at the relationship some time later through a story told to a total stranger at a bar. The novel asks what it means to be “in love,”–is commitment or exclusivity part of the equation? And are there are game rules here which bar manipulation?

It took me some time to get beyond the author’s style and the opaque narrator’s seemingly unpleasant selfishness and endless self-focus. Ultimately, the narrator’s self-focus is not egomania, but a hopeless attempt to understand his “paralysis,” and the actions that finally broke his inaction. I suspect that readers will have a range of reactions to the story as this is the sort of novel that we inevitably smear with our own experiences. Some may be repelled by the narrator, and part of this character seems to want us to despise him–as he despises himself even as he appears to endlessly relive a situation in which he cannot reconcile his actions to his desire.

Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Hayes Alfred