The Financial Times is easier to find in Miami than in my small town in Connecticut. I am - almost - enjoying reading again its Life and Arts section every Saturday since arriving here. Several weeks ago Alan Hollinghurst made it to the page 3 interview . Emily Stokes had lunch with the British author in a London vegetarian restaurant, but the conversation was boring and did not really make you want to read his last novel, The Stranger’s Child, recently published in the UK (we will get it in the US in the fall). Which, thankfully, was not the case with Jason Cowley’s review a few pages below: ‘A literary myth is unraveled in Alan Hollinghurst’s most ambitious novel.’
Ian Thomson’s incipit in his review of John Ashbery’s superb translation of Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud:
Arthur Rimbaud, the 19th-century French poet, was a ferocious malcontent, who free-wheeled towards self-destruction with the help of hashish and quantities of alcohol, then renounced literature altogether for a life of vagabondage (sic) in Africa. In 1891, after (sic) a botched amputation for gangrene (sic), he came home to die in a hospital in Marseilles, aged 37.
is not a good start.
Richard Stevenson’s Death Trick, in addition to providing a good mystery, introduces us, step by step, to Donald Strachey. We are in Albany, NY, in 1979, backrooms are finding their way to the capital of the state, disco is king, coach is called tourist class and Donald is promiscuous... At 40, he lives in a rental on Morton and drives a Rabbit. We learn that he has a mustache and humor: ‘I went into the bathroom, showered, and shaved. I spotted a single white hair in my mustache, probe around and got a grip on it, and yanked it out. I checked my armpits, chest , and groin. No change below the neck yet. That was when you'd know it was for real.’
And also that he has been an ‘investigator for nearly fifteen years - army intelligence; the Robert Morgart Agency: four years on [his] own,’ but ‘was still learning.’ He was married for 7 years before divorcing 3 years earlier. Brigit, his ex-wife, is getting married again and her new husband is moving in with her. She needs the room where Stratchey has been keeping his books in their old house in Latham.
Timmy, with whom Donald spends the first evening in the novel asking questions in Albany's gay bars (and dancing), is his lover, but ‘we don't live together.’ They spend the first night of the novel in Timmy's apartment. We will learn later his full name, Timothy Callahan, and that he is three years younger than Strachey. They have known each other for two and a half years. Timmy is of Irish catholic ascent, 'pretty consistently repelled by the darker side of gay life. He wears Brooks Brothers suits to work for the state senate minority leader's office.’
The night before moving the books from Brigit's house Timmy and Strachey make love 'with a furious intensity that was reminiscent of the night [they] first met.' Next day Timmy helps Strachey move his books. Hugh Bigelow, Brigit's new husband, gives them a hand to load the U-Haul truck. When it is almost done Brigit and Strachey find themselves alone in the kitchen. Their way to really part:
She had not liked being a victim of my self-deception, and during the last years of our marriage, the malicious humor that was part of what has drawn us together in the first place had hardened into cruelty on both our parts. I hadn't liked being a victim of my self-deception either, and I often took it out on Brigit, who dished it right back. And now here we were, in character to the awful end.
I sipped my coffee and said, "There is an equality, a symmetry about Timmy's and my sexual relationship. It has balance. In seven years you never fucked me once."
She tightened like a fist. "Yes. And you must have fucked me twelve or fifteen times." She smiled, tight-lipped, the flesh around her lower jaw quivering.
Sex. It isn't everything in a relationship. But it's plenty.
Strachey quit smoking after meeting Timmy: ‘It had suddenly occurred to me that I want to live for a long, long time.’ If they don't live together, they share the keys to their homes. Strachey takes care of his body: in addition to removing white hairs in his mustache he exercises... When they stay home they play Scrabble... And they are still pretty much in love:
I’d always loved the sight of Timmy’s milk-white skin under the bluish glow of the streetlight outside my front window, and I was sitting there running my fingers over all the different parts of him.
Regarding his tastes, he says: 'I'd always found effeminate men unappealing, but once when I'd made a crack to Brigit about "that faggy guy over there," she'd replied, "Faggy is as faggy does." Which missed the point by a mile but still left an impression on me. I tried to become more tolerant.'
At the end of the novel, when the mystery is solved, you suddenly realize that you know very little of Strachey’s physical appearance? Unless I missed something, besides his mustache, not much is provided... He is likened to Robert Mitchum and Sean Connery by Harold Snyder, the transvestite with whom he has a wild encounter in chap 14... He/She might not be objective, though.
By then Strachey moves in with Timmy, and they plan a vacation in Key West. The second volume in the series is On the Other Hand, Death. It was published in 1984.