A second look at Williams classic
In recent years, I have been surprised to learn that it possible for books to win prestigious awards, honors and endorsements of major literary critics only to abruptly disappear long before they reach the shelves of a bookstore. However, sometimes literary entities like the New York Times objects to this abrupt dismissal of what was judged to be a “significant work.” What happened? Frequently, an author or critic appears and attempts to giving worthy works “a second chance.”
Consequently, an impressive number of “significant works” which had been consigned to oblivion are resurrected and reissued along with some impressive endorsements. Sometimes, it works.
A few years ago such a crusade lead to the resurrection of two novels by John Williams, Butcher’s Crossing and Stoner. Both are now frequently required reading for graduate students in American literature. A noir thriller titled They Don’t Dance Much by North Carolina novelist, James Ross has been resurrected twice: once by noted crime/thriller author, George Higgins and recently by Donald Woodrell the author of Winter’s Bone. Now comes another novel, The Hair of Harold Roux, which, despite critical acclaim has languished in obscurity since the ‘70’s. However, the reason for this neglect is interesting. No one seems to be certain as to how to classify this novel. I recently ran into a reference to it by Stephen King who has a passionate interest in neglected American fiction.
On the surface, The Hair of Harold Roux appears to be an “academic novel” since the narrator (or at least one of them) is a middle-aged English teacher, employed in a small university in Leah New Hampshire, circa 1950s. Aaron Bentham could easily be the author himself since his protagonist, Allard Benson, is working on a novel, The Hair of Harold Roux, which is set in the same town. Allard’s concerns are those of an academic. He is absent-minded, and when the novel begins, his family is disappointed because he forgot a visit to the grandparents; an anxious parent keeps calling regarding the disappearance of a former student; he is also troubled by the fact that one of his fellow teachers, George Buck, is up for tenure and, since he has not completed his work on his dissertation, he will probably be turned down. Allard, who is a motorcycle enthusiast, decides to visit George and talk about his dissertation, so he does that.
Ah, but wait. This is where time begins to slide, and we are never quite sure what year it is. Scenes involving Allard Benson and Aaron Bentham are presented in overlapping scene, plus a long and fascinating “fable” that George Buck tells his children that runs throughout the novel is becomes a “continuing story” as Buck’s children beg for the next episode. Is it possible that the fable is actually a fairytale version of the novel? When the dramatic action moves from one narrator to another, is this meant to suggest “the eternal return” in which all stories are the same “one”? This may be confusing, but the interlocking stories in this novel are beautifully crafted.
At one point, as Aaron Bentham ponders the complexities of life and the doubtful merits of teaching or writing autobiographical novels, he turns to the memory of two former students, Harold Roux and Mary Tolliver. It seems that Allard Benson, the protagonist of Bentham’s novel was a student at the university with Harold and Mary, and he relates a complex story of how he came to be Harold’s friend and Mary’s lover. It is a tale of betrayal and serves as the most prominent (and tragic) episode in this novel.
In telling the story, Williams (or Benson) creates a university populated with familiar campus characters. Among the most memorable are the campus bullies, a collection vulgar and insensitive athletes and former enlisted men (G.I’s) who have become notorious for disruptive and obscene acts and vandalism. The most notable member is a 200-pound rogue named Boom Maloumian and his perverse sidekick, Short Round. In contrast, Allard prides himself of his “civilized behavior” and befriends the frail and timid Harold Roux, an insecure man who wears a toupee ... a fact that Harold refuses to admit: that he is, in fact, bald. Benson adds pathos to Harold’s condition but noting that he has fallen in love with Mary Tolliver, an innocent, young woman (Catholic) who has just arrived on campus. At one point, Howard confides to Allard that he is writing an autobiographical novel that depicts his imagined courtship of Mary.
To his credit, Allard tries to warn Howard that Mary will probably end up married to a wealthy athlete, but at the same time Allard launches a campaign to seduce Mary. He succeeds, of course, even assuming the role of future husband, but having accomplished his goal, he returns to his slightly reprobate life. However, what makes his deceit unforgivable, is his brutal behavior at a campus party. The party at Littleputt Land, a tourist attraction, has a surreal quality which quickly turns into a nightmare. As the college students swim and dance in a bizarre setting complete with miniature houses and trains, Allard proceeds to renew his sexual interests with a former lover. Mary witnesses the two in a “a compromising position” and immediately departs with the bewildered Harold Roux in tow. In the midst of this tragic encounter, Boom Maloumian arrives to bring more havoc. In addition to virtually destroying Littleputt Land, Boom finally rips Harold’s toupee from his head, exposing his naked baldness to everyone.
In this novel’s final episode, all of the disasters are resolved. There are contrite and poignant letters and then, Mary vanishes. So does poor Howard Roux. The readers are left to wonder how people who suffer excess heartbreak and humiliation manage to go on, but they do. When I remember my own days on a college campus, I find that it resembled the events in this novel. We had our version of Mary Tolliver and I believe she joined the Peace Corps. As for Harold Roux, I remember a hopeless, inverted young man who could not communicate with anyone; he vanished after graduation. As for the band of roving jocks who could wrecked pool tables and threw milkshakes at each other in the campus movies, they either died in car wrecks or ended up operating trophy shops in Asheville. Williams seems to say, that life goes on because it must.
George Buck, a gifted teacher, does not get tenure. Allard will spend the rest of his life plotting the seduction of faculty wives. He still loves motorcycles. Others will learn not to trust him. Where is Harold Roux? Does he wear a toupee or did he learn in “life’s hard school” to take if off?
This is a strange novel. Although it is “unconventional” in structure, there are marvelous passages of beautiful writing. George Buck’s “fable” that he tells his children is especially noteworthy.