Friday, March 4, 2011

The Stories of Harold

The entry for George Selden Thompson in the multi-volume Dictionary of Literary Biography runs 12 pages long, detailing Thompson’s contributions to literature in the form of 17 novels for children, a couple of books on archeology and the classical world, and some credits for theatrical and film scripts. Thompson’s best-known work, states the Dictionary, written under the truncated name George Selden, is the award-winning, perennially popular children’s classic, A Cricket in Times Square - a story I loved as a child.

But the Dictionary makes no mention of what is arguably Thompson’s most singular contribution to literature, a now out-of-print 1974 novel entitled The Story of Harold, written under the pseudonym Terry Andrews. I knew nothing of the Thompson/Selden/Andrews connection when I picked up The Story of Harold last year after reading an article in the Guardian UK in which Edmund White recommended it as “one of the strangest” books he’d ever read. But some 30 or so pages into my reading of the book, captivated by its novelty, I sought to know more about the author.

I don’t know that I’ve ever had quite this experience: discovering, as an adult, an adult novel (and it is an adult novel) that engaged and impressed me to the equal degree that a children’s book, written by that same author, had when I was a child. I found The Story of Harold exceptional, absorbing, and unexpected, among the most tender, brave and deeply honest of post-war American novels.

Told in diary form, Terry Andrews’ The Story of Harold concerns a children’s book author, also named Terry Andrews, who has written an immensely popular children’s book, also entitled The Story of Harold - a contemporary fairy tale featuring a small person who wakes each morning with a sense that “Something is wrong!” and goes off to remedy the problem by supplementing his own efforts with a limited bit of magic at his disposal. Within these concatenated stories and shifting boundaries between truth and fiction are more stories within stories. And Terry Andrews - writer of popular children’s tales - is also a polymorphously polyamorous bi-sexual adventurer who lives for “the bliss that derives from oblivion” he finds in orgies, with pick-ups from bars and street corners, with swinging couples, in sado-masochistic homosexual encounters and in more anodyne, cerebral sex with a woman friend – a panorama of consensual sexual behavior ranging from the extreme to the transcendently subtle (he sternly warns his readers that “those of you who don’t recognize [sex] when it happens outside the flesh can leave the room right now”).

If this sounds like a novel written for shock value, eager to push buttons, one can rest assured that it is anything but. The cultured, inquisitive Terry - lover of opera, art and all things New York - is simply not the kind of author, narrator and protagonist to indulge in anything quite so puerile. In addition, despite its careful deployment of the tools of fiction, The Story of Harold conveys a palpable impression of searingly honest autobiography (alas, the Dictionary of Literary Biography is of no help in throwing light on this conviction). The seriousness underlying Terry’s story is underscored by this honesty as well as by a question at the book’s core: is life worth living?

For The Story of Harold is also a novel about suicide. From the first line, in which Terry states “Again last night, for a little while, I was able not to be alive,” readers are invited into a lengthy suicide note. Despite Terry’s wild sex life, he finds himself coming up repeatedly against relationships that fail to supply what he needs to feel happy or even alive; the frustrations of love offered to those who either can’t reciprocate or whom he fears won’t be able to embrace his complexity; an inadequacy in human contact (he even seeks warmth in subway seats just vacated by others). Fulfillment takes on the appearance of “the Impossible.” His frustration has reached a turning point just prior to the diary’s first entry, when a self-loathing and masochistic partner, Dan Reilly (“the brute with the damaged child inside”) manages to secure Terry’s promise to help Reilly fulfill a S & M fantasy of being burned alive, presenting Terry ample excuse for his own eventual suicide. He makes his purpose explicit to readers: an invitation to serve as witnesses to the case he makes for his suicide and as judges of its legitimacy.  By all rights, The Story of Harold could join what’s almost become an industry of confessional American narratives of dysfunction and be a depressing, sordid slog towards its narrator’s self-extinction. But far from dragging his readers into unrelenting misery, Terry promises, in his invitation to the voyage, to make the journey entertaining: “Come with me…We will have a lot of sex. You are going to laugh a great deal – people have no idea how blithe a suicide can be!”

The ensuing pages deliver on that promise, taking the reader through an often sharply funny and humane cavalcade of sexual and emotional feats of daring, a high-wire walk involving “the vertigo of those beyond repair” (this phrase Jean-Paul Sartre used in reference to Jean Genet came to mind repeatedly as I read the book), propelled along by Terry’s surpassing wit, acute intelligence, and gentle charm. Another buoyant force is the sheer exuberance of his writing, which at times bubbles beyond the confines of prose into song and poetry – mostly humorous little couplets, but occasionally intimate odes to those he loves, as gracious and moving as any communication any of us might ever hope to receive from a loved one. Equally piquant are Terry’s myriad delightful and piercing observations, as when he spies Jacqueline Onassis one night at the opera and describes her as, “A deity of sweet sadness – blithe, smiling, blinding mere mortals with legends of pain – still gowned in the aura of gorgeous disaster: an effigy of lovely grief…" - then adds, in typical Terry fashion, "Well, I hope I never meet her. She too must be a human being. And as in the case of all swans, beneath that graceful gliding there must be a pair of madly paddling flat feet.” Similarly lancing observations capture certain New York experiences, making The Story of Harold a memorable New York novel as well. Terry’s voyage towards his terminal goal makes frequent stops along the way to opine on New York’s landmarks (I’ll never be able to look at Lincoln Center the same way again) as well as its more pedestrian glories.

But some unanticipated complications occur along that voyage: a growing, unreciprocated love for a favorite S & M partner, Jim Whittaker, a handsome, happily married doctor with six children – one of them blind, all of whom are wild about Terry’s books; an on-going sexual relationship with Terry’s closest female friend, a recently widowed single mother, Anne Black; and, above all, the unwitting intrusion into Terry’s life of a seven year old “lump of a little boy” named Barney Willington. Barney’s well-meaning but obtuse mother, emerging from divorce, enlists Terry’s aid - a demand to which he acquiesces with grudging dread - in trying to help Barney adjust to the divorce and to a new father he’ll have once an impending new marriage is finalized (unsurprisingly, sending the child to a psychiatrist has been of no help). The story follows these compartmentalized, discrete threads of Terry’s life as the tension surrounding his planned suicide is enhanced by his unavoidably deepening relations to the people around him, particularly Barney. Out of Terry’s irrepressible generosity as well as his identification with the child (Terry too being the child of a neglectful parent), he takes on the task of getting through to this “glum little troll,” this “gob of underdone dough.” And Terry’s chief means for accomplishing this is through the telling of stories – more specifically, new, extended elaborations on Barney’s favorite book: The Story of Harold.

As Terry takes Barney out for walks in the park, to museums, and to the gym, these new tales increasingly serve to draw Barney out of his bovine docility; at the same time, they allow Terry a means of articulating his own inner angst by encoding, in the stories he weaves, the events unfolding in his own life. This is done so thinly at times that I immediately rushed to reread The Cricket in Times Square to see if it contained an encrypted adult reading; it does not, at least not obviously (some of you frowning parents may be relieved to hear), other than a blissfully tipsy little animals’ party…

I’m not sure there exists a better or (perhaps paradoxically) more innocent American novel about storytelling. The Story of Harold fundamentally illuminates the urgency of stories, their life-affirming and even life-saving “magic.” It recognizes, spectacularly, their psychological underpinnings, how myths and children’s tales float upon a foundation of psychosocial and psychosexual conflicts, work on resolution of those conflicts, and provide a means for negotiating life (the novel appeared, I might note, a few years before works by figures like Bruno Bettelheim and Jack Zipes on the secret lives and coded psychology of fairy tales, what Bettleheim termed “the uses of enchantment”). One of the key challenges for Terry is maintaining enough storytelling magic to keep Barney engaged and to draw him out into life. His elaborations on the adventures of Harold offer enchantment and structure to help Barney psychologically navigate his own capacity to cope with life. I need hardly add that these improvisations are delightfully entertaining, witty and inventive in themselves, and often cut around psychological wounds with surgical precision; it’s not for nothing that George Selden Thompson is recognized as one of the finest American authors of children’s books.

What’s perhaps most striking about The Story of Harold is its refusal to indulge in simple ironies and expectations. For one thing, it defies American Puritanism not through typical reactionism, but by postulating a world antipathetic to it and disentangling sexuality from the muddled morass of American morality - one of the only examples I can think of in American literature that does this successfully. In place of a reactionary response is an empirical experiment with truth: what if, in lieu of the mask of normalcy worn by American culture as regards sexuality, one simply tells the truth – that behind the façade of placid American sexual conservatism there’s a largely unspoken wide wild world of experience? The Story of Harold pulls off in macro the micro experiment that Terry, invited by Jim to dine with the whole Whittaker family one night, imagines would happen if one “simply stood up and tapped the glass, and spoke…a fact of total truth” to “encounter…the lies we all live.”  By this candid catalysis - “like matter meeting antimatter” - Terry manages to make manifest what is normally latent in American life. I know of no novel that succeeds so well in daring this transgression (though a criticism one might level is that the book’s tangible urgency to express Terry’s truth at times makes its diary aspects strain its novelistic ones). This is a work that could have been written nowhere but in the United States; it brings into the light both our national self-image of innocence and the latent content - not only sexual - that lies beneath it. In so doing, The Story of Harold offers readers the visceral impression that some essential dynamic in American life is being uncovered.  

I also don’t know that I’ve read an American novel of the period that seemed so deeply honest and so decent in a moral sense. Terry’s protectiveness of others, his conscientiousness in putting their care (and their stories) foremost, keep them insulated from his own frequent bouts of inner rage and despair. The most memorable elements in The Story of Harold are not its granular descriptions of sexual behavior or inventive treatment of storytelling, or even the question of whether Terry will carry through on his plan, but its emphasis on the fragility and strength of relationships. The most affecting scenes display an extraordinary respectfulness and tenderness in Terry’s relations with those he loves, his ability to pick up on fleeting nuances of emotion and vulnerability in others, his remarkable ability to make simple human communication meaningful: a literature of aspects of love. A deep appreciation for friendship (noted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography as one of George Selden Thompson’s chief themes in his children’s books) also pervades The Story of Harold, a work in which, to paraphrase a line from Stephen Benatar, friends serve mercifully as God’s recompense for having families.

Edmund White characterized The Story of Harold as a “period piece,” but I think this characterization – though understandable from the point of view of looking back to the period of pre-AIDS sexual exploration in the gay world – misses the mark. Taken as a whole, The Story of Harold seems no more a period piece than does The Portrait of a Lady, and has as much to say about human interactions now as it did then. A few details place the action historically, but the book is surprisingly unfettered by these, notable given that scope of Terry’s diary – October 1, 1968 to March 21, 1969 – falls in the midst of the Vietnam War (“that arbitrary abyss of useless misery”) and includes the election and inauguration of Richard Nixon (“the most unlikely and depressingly inevitable of Presidents”). There’s little overt reference to these events, though there is a telling comment, early in the novel, regarding writers whose works are too fixed in the present, as well as some assurance that Terry is not completely oblivious to what’s unfolding outside his own “interior Vietnam.” Nonetheless, Terry’s aloofness from the movements of his time reveals a surprisingly apolitical, even conservative streak, with an impatient reference to the “Militant Hobbits” of the time, a tone that softens slightly when, in a scene near the novel’s end, he has a tryst with a young soldier facing deployment and expresses astonishment that such young people are actually being shunted off to war.

For all the daring and entertaining terrain The Story of Harold travels, what it may leave to many contemporary readers is a dispiriting sense of the relatively cautious and contracted quality of the times in which we now live. The heady, liberated view of sexuality taken by Terry seems wistfully grand in a world in which categories of sexuality are diced into ever-extended acronyms and those marginalized in this culture by their sexuality seek inclusion (albeit rightfully) in an institution as medieval as marriage. But viewed through this lens of contemporary concerns, The Story of Harold implies as strong an argument as any to underscore that the sexual orientation and private, consensual behavior of adults has nothing to do with their fitness to be responsible caregivers to children, and to put to rest the absurd lie that those whose sexuality doesn’t fit into heteronormative constraints can’t be wonderful guardians and parents.

And this, quite apart from these contemporary issues, is perhaps the central concern of The Story of Harold: the ways in which society treats its children, the importance of the care and feeding of young minds and hearts. It speaks in myriad and mature ways to the manner by which children – those embodiments of possibility - can have the life squeezed out of them by inattentive, unimaginative, even well-intentioned adults (who are today as likely to send them to the pharmacy as to therapy).  It’s a testimonial to how stories can help mitigate this outcome and provide all kinds of people – from misfit children to adults struggling with despair – with tools to navigate a life. And in this, The Story of Harold is a kind of American classic, a startlingly honest, moving, funny, inventive, playful and serious novel of psychological chiaroscuro that deserves a coyly revered spot in post-war American literature.

The Story of Harold was published by Holt Rinehart Winston in 1974. A paperback edition (with cover illustration by Edward Gorey) followed in 1975, and the book was again reissued by Avon in the 1980's. Although not easy to find in good condition, these books do resurface frequently on second-hand book sites – albeit usually at prices few can afford. 


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  2. I thoroughly enjoyed, and agreed with, your very beautiful and lyrical review of Harold. I read it in college, it was assigned by my professor, and so I think I can answer your question, is it at all biographical? My professor clearly assigned it because he was mentioned in it. His name was Edward Czerwinski, and he taught Russian Lit, Slavic lit at SUNY Stony Brook - and in 1980 or 81, Harold was on our syllabus, along with Conrad and Dostoyevsky and Chekov! Of course Teddy is a diminutive for Edward, and he is very tenderly mentioned on pgs 296 and 377 where there is no mistaking his identity. While cruising the waterfront gay bar (no doubt the Ramrod) Andrews mentions meeting a "Polish looking" young man who reminds him of "Teddy", mentions that Teddy speaks Polish (Prof. C was a Polish speaker, from childhood), his crewcut (yes), and on 377 "Teddy" cancels a Russian Lit class to go stereo shopping with Terry. He is barely disguised, no, really not disguised at all. Czerwinski never revealed that Selden was the author and I wondered for years who it could be (Sendak? for his violent stores. Crockett Johnson for his Harold?)
    I hadn't re-read Harold since college, where despite being a pretty hip young NY woman with gay friends,who hung out in the Village, I found it rather shocking. That is not a book for the young, you just don't have life experience of that magnitude at that age and the S&M sex put up a barrier for me. Now that I am much older (and a children's librarian to boot!) the evocative, sexual, world weary, abused and abusive Terry's writing is such a pellucid account of a tortured soul, so willing to share the darkest places, it's a revelation. Just in case you'd like to match the pages to the copy I have, my paperback has the black cover with the burning man, anatomical man, Harold and Anne within a circle on the cover.

  3. Dear Librarians - Your comment posted the same day I left for nine days on the road, so I apologize for just getting around to a response now. Thanks, first, for your very kind words about the review, but also for your invaluable insight into some of the biographical aspects of The Story of Harold. I'm particularly grateful for your having illuminated at last what to me was perhaps the most puzzling element in the novel, the sudden appearance of "Teddy" towards the novel's end, a character only tangentially mentioned earlier and so clearly drawn from Selden's own life as to be an almost entirely gratuitous intrusion into the fictive world of the book. I know the passage on p. 377 well, and had mused over it each of the three or four times I've read The Story of Harold. I'm very happy to now have some explanation. By the way, the page numbers in my original hardcover match up to your Edward Gorey-designed paperback edition.

    I'm wracking my brain trying to remember why the name Edward Czerwinski seems so familiar; I'm certain I ran across it quite recently, but can't recall in what context. In any case, it appears you were fortunate to have had him as a professor. I'm surprised and elated that The Story of Harold actually appeared on a university class syllabus; may it not be the last time.

  4. This is such a passionate, heartfelt review, Scott. It makes me want to read the book, which is always a good thing. I like what you say about the importance of storytelling: the importance of stories, their life-affirming and life-preserving power. That's so true - as adults, it's very easy to forget this.

    Your closing paragraph struck a chord with me too, especially your comments on the importance of protecting and nurturing young hearts and minds. It's a very different novel, but I couldn't help but think of your review of Beautiful Days...

    1. Thanks, Jacqui - I had not thought of a thematic connection with Beautiful Days but I think you're right: similar portraits of vulnerable people who carry a remarkable inner strength, an astute moral indignation and an ability to use their own stories as a means of survival. I know The Story of Harold has something of a cult following, but find it unfortunate that the book is not more widely recognized.

  5. Scott: I first read The Story of Harold in 1974, and found it mesmerizing, moving, and shocking. Now in retirement, I reread the book last week and was again astonished. It's a wonderful book. Whenever I come across a copy (at a reasonable price) I buy it, as I'm not willing to lend my copy to friends.
    Your essay about Harold seemed deeply-felt and accurate.
    I have been impressed with many of the titles that New York Review Books has brought back into print. Today I emailed NYRB and suggested they reprint The Story of Harold. I took the liberty of quoting the third paragraph of your essay, citing both the blog title and your name, and also sent a link to Seraillon.
    I'm very pleased to have come upon your blog this morning, and look forward to reading more of your writing.

    John Barrow

    1. John, for whatever reason, I missed this comment - left over a year ago! Ugh. I am so sorry. I'm really grateful for your kind comment and for the suggestion to NYRB that they try to reprint the book. I think a number of publishers have tried, but there appears to be some hang up.

      Funny - I also buy SOH whenever I run across a copy, knowing that I'm sure to find someone who will appreciate it - and knowing too that there's an ever-decreasing number of available copies out there.


  6. This is a beautiful review, Scott. I'm currently working on an essay about The Story of Harold and what it's meant to me, and I appreciate your insights.

    1. Dear Steven - thanks very much for your comment (my apologizes for this tardy response - I only saw the comment today). How great that you are writing about the book! I would be most grateful if you could share your essay; I'd love to read it.