This novel came out in 1962 and deals with various love….triangles, quadrangles, quintangles…the entire sexual framework of the USA as it deals with bisexuality, homosexuality, heterosexuality, and queerness in general. It also deals with those same issues as they relate to race, black and white identity, Americanness, African-Americanness, and even Frenchness/French Colonialness.
All of this leads to an earnest and devastating novel that bloodied and beautiful mix of pain, sadness, love, sexual energy, and violence. There’s some parallels and similarities to a few other writers here, especially elements of Richard Wright in the way violence plays such a clear role in the sexuality and also Ann Petry.
The novel opens with a night on the town that leads to two people meeting, leaving together, sleeping together (well, definitely fucking), and is narrated through intense violent imagery and hatred, along with desire and other emotions. It’s the kind of opening for a novel that would not be treated particularly well on the internet today, but illustrates the power of fiction to narrate common scenes in our lives without the need or the impulse to categorize everything solely through a false moral lens of “good people” and “bad people”….Rufus is not a good person, but he is an actual person who represents a spectrum of violence, desire, and pain. His struggles in the first part of the novel do not lead every single person around to abandon him and denounce him, but instead bring them closer because they do see the pain he is causing, but also see the pain he is suffering. It’s a complicated look into his psyche, but more importantly, it’s complex look into a complex being. Along for the ride are Richard and Cass, a married couple in their 30s and Rufus’s friend Vivaldo, a red-headed white friend with Rufus has had a not-entirely-verbalized sexual history with. As the section ends, we also meet Rufus’s sister Ida, who plays a larger role in the next section.
In section we get a change of setting and a change of tone, as we find Eric and his French love Yves falling in love, but recognizing the fraught, beautiful temporariness of their affair. Eric is part of the same New York crew as Rufus and Vivaldo, having moved from the South as a Queer white kid who did not belong, but whose family wealth could protect him, to New York, where life was still complicated, but eased a little, and now to France, as a means of escape. As he returns to New York, he reacquaints himself back with Richard and Cass, Vivaldo and Ida (who now form a couple who always seem on the edge of explosion). As various couples split apart and reform in new ways, the fluidity of sexuality and the understanding of race come into question repeatedly. Throughout this section, the rhythmic drumming of Rufus’s life gives over the acting of Eric and the singing of Ida, performative and on display.
Section three is the series of inevitable collapses of choices being made out of desperation, pain, violence, and desire. The irresolution of some threads leads to the resolution of others. A lot comes crashing down.