False Match, by Henry Bean (Poseidon, 288 pages, $13.95)
In this first novel—a terrific novel, the best fiction I’ve read in 1982—one Harold Raab, 26, living in Berkeley in 1970, decides to become obsessed with a woman he has never met, whom he knows of only because he has overheard one of his roommates refer to her during a telephone conversation. “Well, she’s mad about him, isn’t she? At least in the physical sense…” Raab, from his journal, which he is trying to turn into “writing,” and which makes up the form of False Match:
Now written out here these words look quite ordinary, yet when Jimmy said them they gave me a peculiar shudder. The very flesh of the word “physical” (the rough texture of the opening consonants sliding through the narrow vowel to the fricative surface of the s, and from them through the second vowel, narrower still, until the whole word bursts in the calm pool of the final syllable) seemed for a moment the purest expression I had ever heard of a love that was indistinguishable from sexual desire.
Quite obviously, Harold Raab already thinks of himself as a writer—all that phonetic Freudianism—but in fact he is a writer, a real one. All that phonetic Freudianism quickly gives way to what he wants to say: every bit of erotic energy in his being has inexplicably organized itself around a word. The way the paragraph finally explains itself is the first indication that Raab will prove incapable of lying on the page, incapable of disloyalty to the power of words. But this also means that he will try to live his life as if it were a novel, as if words had full power over life. What he will write in his journal will affect, consciously, what he will do in the situations his journal constructs, at least until life produces situations words cannot in any manner control.
False Match has its flaws—Charlotte Cobin, the once-removed, overheard love object, a married woman Raab soon meets and with whom he begins a powerful affair, remains throughout too wispy and undefined, and this is less a matter of life/art confusion than of Henry Bean’s trouble with her—but the book never betrays its moments, and moments are its essence. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a novel that so consistently got things right: often, things you never thought mattered, never thought of at all, things that matter only because Henry Bean has singled them out and made lives turn around them. Some come from left field, as when Raab stumbles into a bathroom at a party and suddenly finds himself beginning to come alive: “I thought, Christ, did I love drinking and pissing and pissing drunk, it was the closest I ever came to prayer. Saturated, all ‘sensation balanced, the body reached a nil point, and then there was just thought swaying above a drunken piss like a man on a pole.” Some come in the mail: “A letter from my father today… a newspaper clipping about two semifamous former Weathermen who’ve ‘dropped back in’ and are opening a chain of cafeteria-style French restaurants in the Washington, D.C., area. Get the picture? Yes, we see… I decided not to take this as an insult or provocation. Instead I wrote back a nice, chatty letter in which I pretended that these assholes with their restaurants didn’t make me want to weep blood.” Some come from the depths: “I did not want to be loved for what was universal in me, but what was particular, not for what was lovable, but what was loathsome.”
That a person would be willing to recognize and pursue an obsession based on an overheard phone call would, in a Manhattan novel, be a measure of the character’s romanticism—if not an entree into a cheesy S&M thriller. In False Match, which is a Berkeley novel, it is a measure of loneliness. Harold Raab lives with three other people on the south side of the city, just off Telegraph Avenue near the Park & Shop supermarket. His roommates are Shaw, a former activist with an unfinished Ph.D. thesis in the closet; Jimmy, a would-be scriptwriter; and Donna, younger than the men, who works at a nightclub. They are friends—both more and less than friends, because they live in Berkeley after the fact, after the time in which history was made in the town, when the people who lived there felt they were part of something larger than themselves.
The friendships between Raab and his roommates are not that old, but the premises on which they are based are. The history that was made in the town—as one version of American life emerged to confront and contest another—produced the assumption of certain shared values: less the specifics of politics than the assumption that people have politics, are conscious of themselves, are conscious of their place and time, are conscious of a society that is understood not as a natural order but as a hegemony. When history ceased to be made in Berkeley, those values, though still shared, became something less than values, because values are also motives. They became more like concrete, endlessly confirmed doubts. Reference to them—meeting an old acquaintance in line at the bank; passing a building where, once, one took a risk; recognizing the embourgeoisement of the comfort of habit—leaves behind embarrassment and fear, and most of all loneliness. “This another porno thing?” Raab asks an old friend who now makes movies. “In a way,” he answers, “but it’s political, too. There’s a whole economic analysis. The logo’s going to be, Tits and Class. What do you think?” To the man who is speaking, this is not a joke.
All of us can agree, the town seemed to say in 1970, but none of us can live out the premises of our agreement. False Match is about love, sex, and tragedy, and so its title is right; this is not at all merely a Berkeley novel. But as a Berkeley novel, which it partly is—which it is, I think, in its soul—it could have been called Stranded. Raab on himself and his roommates:
We adjourned to the living room and watched television, or, rather, watched and commented… We liked talking this way, at and about something external, the TV screen. When we spoke directly to each other, the immediacy inhibited us, we became clumsy, self-conscious, and eventually fell silent…
At the end of the night there was a film we had watched often, and I began to think (as we responded again to those moments we liked best) that what we share after all these years are the movies we have seen together and that we have agreed to love them instead of each other. Which is to say that I cannot love Jimmy or Shaw, nor can they love me, but that we may all feel for certain films of Don Siegel [this one is The Killers] an affection far in excess of what they deserve. They have become like a trust into which our mutual love is invested and from which a small income is occasionally paid.
Fifteen years ago, my friends and I used to speculate about the great Berkeley novel—which, we were all sure, would be the saga of a radical: conspiracy, violence, dope, martyrdom, triumph, élan above all. We didn’t mention sex, let alone love. The hero, need it be said, was male—never mind the women who, at least at the beginning of 1960s Berkeley politics, were so central—and he would be a hero. I don’t recall how the story ended, probably not that far from the ending of John Wayne’s Back to Bataan. For good reason, no such novel has ever been written. The closest anyone came was with a now forgotten commercial film called The Activist, in which two authentic Berkeley radicals, the hero and heroine of the movie, finally gave in and screwed for the cameras.
Like Tom Farber’s short stories in Who Wrote the Book of Love?, Henry Bean’s False Match proves that the great—or anyway the real—Berkeley novel is about the collapse, not the apotheosis, of collective adventure, about people thrown back on themselves. In 1968, living in Berkeley, married and with good friends, I began to think about complete isolation, about living in a bare room, dying, and not being discovered until the smell led my unknown neighbors to call the cops. Henry Bean makes it clear that this was a social, not a personal, disease.
In 1970, Harold Raab raises a pair of binoculars and focuses on Telegraph Avenue. He spies “a man about 45 in a faded black suit, white socks, and lank hair” emerging from Park & Shop, where he had bought dinner for one—lunch meat, soda, Oreos, which he eats while walking down the avenue. Summoning up the familiar people he might see if his binoculars reached all the way down Telegraph, Raab continues:
The woman who accosts people waiting in lines and screams at them the injustices she has suffered: her husband stole the kids, the state withholds her payments, she used to be beautiful. Now her face is like the torn edge of a soup can… Or a man I met one icy night on Shattuck Avenue, naked except for a wool coat with no buttons. Or the man without a face. Or the walking ear. And especially the subtler versions, the nervous eyes, the hideous clothing, the tiny vanities of dress and grooming that are agonies of failure.
These people are “real” (the man without a face is a chemist who had an experiment blow up on him), but as one encounters them on ordinary days they are also unreal—which is to say that they have never been more real than they are in Henry Bean’s book. It may not matter that some are crazy and some are not; to Harold Raab, peering through his binoculars, they present images of lost control, of isolation doubled, tripled back on itself. They make more than personal sense of Raab’s worst, most recurrent fantasy:
These people stagger along the border of alcoholism and insanity and by dint of concentration hold a life together for ten or twenty years; then they slip quietly into disrepair. Do I know them as the caterpillar knows the butterfly? Does it show in my face already? It is not completely impossible for an intelligent young man to end up 40 years old and living in a rented room, making instant coffee with a heating coil.
This, then, is the burden Harold Raab brings to his affair with Charlotte Cobin; it is all this that “a love… indistinguishable from sexual desire” will have to negate. And so False Match is about sex and its insufficiency to negate—to make life of its own. It’s not trivial that when Harold Raab and Charlotte Cobin begin their affair he shies away from her attempts at oral sex; he wants it “the normal way.” “You mean,” says Charlotte—rather amazed, since she barely knows this man—“that we should be having children?” “Yeah, maybe,” Raab says, meaning nothing of the sort. “I guess I’m something of a prig, aren’t I?”
He’s not a prig, and oral sex drives some of Bean’s strongest passages, but Raab is on to something: a recognition that the overheard epiphany that has brought him to this bed, this woman, cannot begin to sum up all that he wants, or all that this woman, whoever she is, will want. The novel takes off from there—sometimes it seems to be riding a storm. When the affair ends, Raab begins to live out his fantasy of the rented room, and then, in a form the words of his journal could never have anticipated or enclosed, he is drawn back into the affair. And that I will leave to the reader.
“All my friends are moving from the flatlands up to the hills, and eventually they topple over the ridge into Los Angeles or New York,” Harold Raab says at one point—as perfect and as chilling a line about Berkeley as I ever want to read. Henry Bean followed his words: born in 1945 in Philadelphia, he now writes screenplays and lives in Venice. I hope he has more novels in him; if he does, he will become one of the crucial writers of his generation.
→ The New Class War: Reagan’s Attack on the Welfare State and Its Consequences, by Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward (Pantheon, 163 pages, $4.95 paper). Out of a pile of quickies on the subject, a superb left analysis of the deepest motives and goals of the men who currently rule the country: an analysis of their desire to make the country into one great company town. Each of the myths that sustains this rule—from welfare malingering to the inevitability of the free market—is coolly presented as a historical phenomenon, a construct, or a lie; every argument is rooted in history. The book is sophisticated, complex, and yet every page is clear. Even those whose eyes glaze over at the very mention of economics will read it straight through.
→ The Human Evolution Coloring Book, by Adrienne L. Zihlman (Barnes & Noble, $8.95 paper). A big, thick volume that can serve as a primer on evolution per se, with monkeys, apes, and humans as test cases. With illustrations by Carla Simmons, Wynn Kapit, Fran Miller, and Cyndie Clark-Huegel, Zihlman has not only brought together more fossils than can be found in almost any other book on the subject, but she has produced one of the first nonsexist treatments of the emergence of Homo habilis, Homo erectus, and Homo sapiens; the female fossil remains that in other studies are always called “men” and reconstructed as males are here presented as women, and for anyone familiar with the literature it’s a shock. No good for crayons, though; the artwork is all detail. A boon for the colored pencil industry, then, and fun for the whole family.
→ Avant-Garde Photography in Germany, 1919-1939, by Van Deren Coke (Pantheon, $15.95 paper). A gorgeous republication of material that appeared in the catalog of the exhibit held at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art last year. Coke’s introductory essay is quite dull, but the biographical information on each of more than 50 photographers—almost half of them, startlingly, still living, and a few of them still working—is excellent, and at any rate the photos, almost all presented on a full page, are the guts of the book. Oddly, for an art movement that meant to draw on the energies and implicit philosophies of a new age of technology, the most powerful pictures are of faces.
→ Poets in Their Youth: A Memoir, by Eileen Simpson (Random House, 272 pages, illustrated, $15.50). A convincing if unintentional argument by John Berryman’s first wife that Berryman, Robert Lowell, Delmore Schwartz, and Randall Jarrell weren’t half as interesting as they’re supposed to be.
→ Mabel: Hollywood’s First I-Don’t-Care Girl (Ticknor & Fields, 239 pages, illustrated, $15.95). As in Mabel Normand, glamour girl of the ‘teens, who has now been brought back from her early death to scuttle through this haplessly chatty attempt at social history, which such able people as John Lahr and Joyce Carol Oates inexplicably want you to take seriously. Read the gossip in Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon instead.
California, August 1982