Monday, December 06, 2004

Pocket Full of Posies

The Lies of Handsome Men, by Rob Nixon, appears in the current issue of Blithe House Quarterly. The story is moody, atmospheric and sulphurous as a torch song. Here's a breathless passage that sweeps the reader along with it:

And this boy wants to know where you've been and what you've been doing. He believes you have something to teach him and he wants to know how it feels in your world, so he listens to words you've said a million times and stories that should have grown stale in the telling but it's as if you've never spoken them before, as if you truly had something to pass on. He takes you in with his eyes and his fingers and lets you wrap yourself around him breathing in the unfamiliar scent of his soft skin. There's passion again and you feel what keeps you alive, and this boy, this darling boy who wants so much, he walks beside you out into the streets with endless possibility and you realize what you came here for is still calling to you. It charges you, it puts a dance in your step, it clears the fog from your senses and plugs you in to a glowing, blaring night that can be yours again. And together you're in Boys Town, an endless city of tenement youths and nightclub dancers and sailors and immigrants newly arrived on shore.

Set in New York in 1939-1942, it's the story of a young man, Kenny Donahue, who comes to the big city with big-city dreams, just a kid who hustles his beauty to older men for a chance at glamor, at his dreams -- dreams that turn sour and end in violence. (Sorry - Nixon's tone has infected mine.) Non-linear, the story is told in sections, each one headed by lyrics from music of the period (or, anyhow, music that would sound like it was of the period, presumably slow, big-band numbers about lost love and broken dreams). It's fun sorting out the narrator of each passage, and anticipating Kenny's untimely death, which is foreshadowed early on, but Nixon counts too much on atmosphere and misses a chance at evoking true feeling.

To begin with, let me tell you what's wrong with quoting lyrics in fiction: they don't work. They're a cheap way to achieve a mood, but songs are personal -- even if your readers are familiar with a given song, there's no guarantee it has the same associations for them. I always cringe when I read essays about the 1960s, written by former flower children who were there; they always always always want to quote from the Rolling Stones, or Dylan, or the Doors, and even though I know the music, the lyrics just lie there on the page, pale with consumption, not nearly strong enough to do the work the author is asking of them. If you want a mood, an atmosphere, you need to create it with specific detail, sharp dialogue, and excellent scene-setting. Tone's the clincher, and so powerful a tool that it can carry the show on its own, just so long as you don't rely on it for too long. Nixon tries to make it do the work of the rest-- and he nearly succeeds.

But he flubs it in the first paragraph, just as he's delivering his first serve, his foot over the white line at the edge of the tennis court:

He was looking to get work at the World's Fair, but that's just temporary, he thought, that wasn't what he came for.
That hurts, coming as it does from a playwright. Nixon's syntax leads the reader to expect the phrase, "it wasn't what he came for," to be part of the sentence that forms Kenny's thought. Put into standard prose, it would read, "'But that's just temporary,' he thought. 'That's not what I came for.'" A cleaner way to solve this problem -- and one truer to the voice -- would be to eliminate the quotation from Kenny's thoughts, like so: "He was looking to get work at the World's Fair, but that was just temporary, it wasn't what he'd come for."

But never mind this cavil. Nixon really gets rolling in his second paragraph -- it's so strong it should have been his lead-in.

He came to town thinking he'd be Kenneth, or just Ken, but it never stuck. Kenny, they called him, always Kenny, that's how he was known. Kenny Donahue came to town fresh, the kind of kid you see from a speeding car, passing him almost unnoticed in the middle of a farmer's field, staring off. Kenny Donahue standing in a field, aching, pants on fire, hearing music in the air, and he got on a bus and came to town. He came to town on a bus and three years later left in an unmarked box that nobody would ever guess held someone who'd been in limousines and private party boats and opening-night taxis.

That's a tone with a heckuva sheen on it, so slick you want to keep reading forever. Still, tone isn't enough to sustain the piece. At the end of the story, the narrator relates a scene from a movie, and then realizes that he's in exactly the same situation as the actress he remembers. It's a good moment, but the movie isn't named, and for a reason: its specifics are so generic, so stereotypical, that you recognize the plot instantly -- and you know Nixon is counting on this, that he's smart enough to know that his own story is at best nostalgic and at worst unoriginal, relying as it does on its readers' familiarity with a certain style of story, noirish and seamy, its characters flatly accomplishing only the expected.

In the end, "The Lies of Handsome Men" puts me in mind of nothing so much as Broadway is My Beat, a radio show I first learned about a few years ago, which first aired in the 1940 and 50s. Broadway is straighter than "Lies," of course -- the lives of gay men would never be directly acknowledged in shows of its kind, though the stereotypes are present in the lisping voices of walk-ons -- but the deceptive glitter of New York City and its tawdry underside, recapitulated in "Lies," is a constant theme. Broadway's writers knew the theme was old, even then, and indulged in parody at least twice every show, when the main character, Detective Danny Clover, would wax purple about life on Broadway. One of my favorite examples:

The long winter is dead on Broadway, and the street mourns its dying without a tear. What's to weep, kid? The dawn banging on the radiators, tearing sleep into pieces on a cold morning? The standing on a street corner in the night wind trying to read the racing form with 100% wool mittens? And the girls so bundled up you can only see their faces -- that's to weep? Give me the springtime, kid. In the springtime, things bud and blossom. The girls, the neon flowers, the field of golden daisies on the Trans-Lux. Look at it now, kid:

Police Sift Murder Clues, Searching Link with Death of Philip Hunt, Millionaire
Ever smell posies like that, kid? Spring's come to Broadway ... give up to it!

Try this, from Nixon's story, in comparison. The prosody isn't the same, but the lurid details are:

The clothes you're wearing are the clothes you wore, the smile you are smiling you were smiling then, but who knows? Who remembers? Who saw anything? Everyone suspected Berkeley or Morgan. But they never proved it. They didn't have to. The papers had a field day with the dirt they dug up. "Millionaires and rent boy in sick triangle. Cafè society's dirty secrets. Lush life ends in tragedy." It had all the elements of a juicy murder story. Young. Rich. Nude. Twisted. They said Kenny was blackmailing one or the other, maybe both. They never proved it. Speculation in the air - maybe they hired some down-and-outer to do the deed and make it look like a random robbery. But they never found him. They never tried. The police were satisfied to chalk it up to another pervert dead at the hands of a hustler. Love for sale, appetizing young love for sale. Who knew if it was true? Who cares? There's no one to tell, nothing left to do with the truth about what was done, no one wants to hear it now. Certainly not from someone walking this world like a ghost, haunting this dive, dead to hope and longing, a name connected to nothing, an image that doesn't linger, glimpsed at the end of a long corridor, the far corner of a city block, peripheral, noiseless, if glimpsed at all. A guy afraid to be what he couldn't shake, never got what he came for. A guy who never was, who looked to the papers and magazines, to the Georges, the Waynes he saw there, the men who could make it happen, someone to watch over me. A guy who gazed from afar at the Kennys of this city, the golden boys, the boy on the shiny chrome stool, the face in the misty light, the breathless touch of springtime, such a hungry yearning burning inside of me - in the roaring traffic boom, in the silence of his lonely room, no no - not for me. A lucky star's above, but not for me. The way you changed my life, the way you haunt my dreams, the way I held the knife, no no no no, they can't take that away from me.

It's nice enough work, Mr. Nixon, but the trouble is, I have smelled posies like that before.

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