Book Reviews: Eustace Chisholm and the Works & A Domestic Animal

James Purdy

These novels are both published by Gay Men’s Press in its Gay Modern Classics series.  Both are by novelists of considerable repute not known as essentially gay novelists.  They are novels which, while having gay themes – indeed revolving around different experiences of being gay, illumine the human condition in a more general way.

Purdy is American while KIng is English: and their novels both conform to well-established traditions within their respective national literatures.  Thus, ‘A Domestic Animal’ is the type of English novel which involves the detailed and sensitive exploration of personal relationships, which Eustace Chisholm concentrates more on the general socio-economics context – The Depression years – in which the narrative is set.  Both novels accordingly display the strengths and weaknesses of the traditions within which they were written.  IN King’s work, the socio-psychological forces which shaped the characters’ lives in a certain way have little significance: the motivations and emotions of the characters are, however, thoroughly and convincingly depicted.  Purdy’s characters, on the other hand, remain perhaps rather two-dimensional – like puppets whose strings move in accordance with the social forces determining American life at a given instant: his strength lies in the description of the reality the characters inhabit and how it affects their actions.

Eustace Chisholm is set in Chicago of the Depression.  the eponym of the title lives in a decayed apartment writing on old newsprint a long poem about the early greatness of America.  Chisholm is the focal point of the novel: all the other characters tend to have met one another in his apartment, to visit, or to write to him – they even communicate their love for one another through Chisholm, and their deaths are reported to and through him.  Amos Ratcliffe is young and beautiful.  He teaches Chisholm ‘Ancient Greek’.  He loves, and is loved by, Daniel Haws (though the latter refuses to admit his love to Amos).  Amos is taken up by Reuben Masterson, a rich, middle-aged drunk, while Haws joins the army to suffer under a sadistic captain.  The novel is full of violence and horror (one of the characters, Maureen O’Dell, has an illegal abortion).  At the end, the Depression years have been destroyed by the contradictions of their lives, while Chisholm, suffering from syphilis, survives in his apartment with his wife, his poem accidentally burned, bar from some news pages reporting the marriage of Masterson to O’Dell.  Though love is destroyed and cynicism flourishes in the ruins of a warring world, there is a hint of the possibility of a future, if limited, for the homosexual Chisholm and his wife.

A Domestic Animal is the story of an unrequited and hopeless passion.  It is delicately told in the first person by Dick Thompson, a confessedly ‘closeted’ novelist, who falls in love with his Italian lodger – Antonio, a philosopher on a visiting fellowship in an English university.  Antonio is an undomesticated animal who causes havoc and devastation in both Dick’s emotions and rather precious Regency house.  Antonio chidishly craves affection and admiration which Dick duly gives him.  Antonio is, of course, heterosexual; but Dick searches every statement , every action of Antonio for signs of reciprocation of his passion.  For Antonio’s sake, he behaves badly and dishonourably towards others and neglects other, potentially more profitable, relationships.  This is a novel written with an intense and painful emotional honesty.  KIng plumbs emotional depths which Purdy, with his more ambitious scope, fails to reach.  The reader is profoundly moved.

The category of ‘gay fiction’ is in many ways a difficult one to accept.  Surely the only worthwhile way to classify novels is into the good and the bad on artistic criteria (though such criteria may encompass social considerations)?  Novels with gay themes, however, are bound to interest gay readers as reflecting, informing and expressing their experiences of life.  And in this, Gay Men’s Press, as a specialist publisher, provides an excellent, worthy service; and is particularly to be congratulated for republishing these two novels, both very good in their own different ways.  It is not enough, however, for a novel to be written for a specifically gay audience by a writer who is gay for it to deserve aclaim (consider, for instance, the pious inanities of the fiction of David Rees): what is wanted are not ‘gay novels’ as such, but good novels about and involving gay people.  Eustace Chisholm and the Works and A Domestic Animal are such novels.

 

Reviewer: John W Cairns – First published in Gay Star Issue No 15 Spring 1985

 

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