Tuesday, January 16th, 2018

Joseph Hansen’s 1940s Nathan Reed novels

The last book I read in 2017, Joseph Hansen’s Jack of Hearts, the 1995 prequel to Living Upstairs (1993), set two years earlier (in 1941), was disappointing. Living Upstairs was overstuffed with characters and episodes, Jack of Hearts even more so. The protagonist is ultra-handsome Nathan Reed at 17. Over the course of the book that includes mutual masturbation with a waitress, Nathan accepts that he is excited only by other males (including a former partner in mutual masturbation, Gene Woodhead, who has returned from military school randy as ever), but not ready to participate in man-boy orgies at the mansion of Desmond Foley (who has the job at playing the organ at funerals that might otherwise go to Nathan’s slacker father, Frank.

Nathan is very fond of Frank, mostly irritated at his mother Alma who is in charge of the household finance and neglects to pay bills just as she neglects her son, preoccupied with fortune-telling. There is a band of older youths who write for the paper of a school that includes high school and two years of college, some of whom form a theatrical troupe. Nathan is writing a play about his family that some want to mount, though Nathan’s rejection of advances from the group’s producer, Travers.

The most tragic character is a German refugee instructor, Kenneth Stone, whom mamy mistake as being a Nazi spy. He lost his wife and daughter and friends to the Gestapo and is plotting revenge, not cooperation. Another night-walker, he befriends Nathan. Nathan cannot save anyone from disasters, least of all himself. He is beaten up for another misunderstanding. By the end, he doubts having a vocation to write, but is not willing to leave California and return to Minneapolis after the family house is seized for Alma’s failure to pay the property tax (and failure to be prodded by warning notices).

The book is composed of a jumble of cut-off scenes with numerous little-developed characters (Alma and Desmond being particularly caricaturish) and too many romantic and (micro-political) plots. Would than Hansen had lavished as much attention to the characters as he did to specifying the year and make of (1930s) cars! The awkwardness makes me guess that this autobiographical novel was mostly written decades earlier, languished in a drawer, and was dusted off and perhaps lightly revised by the by-then well-known septuagenarian writer (who was born in Abderdeen, South Dakota in 1923, , moved from Minneapolis to southern California in 1936 and attended Pasadena City College).

I was not as disappointed by Living Upstairs, which has a a murder and a proferred solution to the whodunit question, though I’m not convinced by it. It also has way too many characters, without much characterization. That is, there are types in 1943 Hollywood.

Like Nathan Reed, Hansen grew up in the Upper Midewest, was 20 in 1943, and had difficulties getting published (until the first Dave Brandstetter novel, Fadeout, in 1970). Hansen felt he was insufficiently appreciated as a novelist (rather than as a mystery writer), though I appreciated the character of Brandstetter and didn’t much like the bleak non-detective story novels A Smile In His Lifetime (1981) and Job’s Year (1983)*. Without anything graphic, 20-year-old Nathan and his painter lover, Hoyt Stubblefield, have a lot of joyful sex and less internalized homophobia than in other Hansen non-Brandstetter novels. (which did more to show questioning readers the possibility of gay life without self-hatred than did the work of New York Violet Quill writers).

* In 2013, I wrote of it: “Oliver Jewett, the actor who wants to be a baker, in Joseph Hansen’s 1983 novel Job’s Year seems a lot like Dave Brandstetter, keeping his integrity among sleazy opportunists. He also has young boys (a variant on the noir femme fatale) throwing themselves at him. Although self-glorifying, the narrator does not seem to me narcissistic enough to be an actor (even one who wants to bail out), and is too unconcerned about money to ever have been a destitute young actor. Bill seems to Oliver to be in love with celebrity (even minor celebrity) rather than Oliver. His younger (16-year-old) brother Larry seems to me to be in love with higher culture and getting out of his family (rather than with Oliver as a particular person). Bill’s and Larry’s father, Dolan, seems too crafty to be believable. I can believe that so many bad things can happen in a year, even to one whose desires are stigmatized, though the dating (monthing actually) seems quite arbitrary. Except for Oliver the characters (recalled or in the present) are types rather than individuals. And loss upon loss (of family, of relationships, of employment, and of self) is piled on, justified I guess by likening Oliver to the Biblical Job, a good man tormented by a malevolent God.”

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.

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