Five years after publishing In Love (my review here), Alfred Hayes delved into another doomed relationship in My Face for the World to See (1958). Both short novels by this screenwriter from a classic/cynical Hollywood, are now available from NYRB Classics, each with lovely covers featuring photographs by Saul Leiter.
In My Face for the World to See, Hayes moves us to Hollywood, a town where, according to our narrator, people “weren’t particularly evasive, nor did they make any particular effort to seclude themselves: there was just something invisible, I found, about everybody who lived in the town.”
This unnamed narrator is a successful screenwriter, like Hayes. He’s not famous, but he’s finally someone he can consider wealthy. He and his wife live in New York, but for a few months each year he comes to Los Angeles, alone, for work.
When the novel begins, he’s at a party at a beach house in Los Angeles. It’s that awkward time of evening: “It seemed silly to stay, tired as I was and the party dying; it seemed silly to go, with nothing home but an empty house.” He steps outside to watch the ocean. A young woman has also left the party to walk on the beach, and he thinks she’s silly as she walks out into the water. Suddenly he realizes she’s going too far and is getting pulled under, drowning. He yells and rushes to pull her out. He saves her, but throughout he is annoyed at the people, that he’s kneeling in sand in nice trousers, and that she’s vomited:
It all came up, the salt water and the gin and the food she’d had, a mess. She wasn’t pretty at all. It was a nuisance, and ugly. Of course, the dogs had to come over and smell it.
This is no hero. Before too long we’ll also see that the unnamed girl is not a fallen angel.
The man wants nothing to do with her, at first, but he decides he should call to see how she’s doing, in the process recognizing that rescuing her was an intimate act that gave him a proprietary feel. He has no intention of calling her again, but he fesses up: he’s so lonely.
I’ll skip to the chase: despite a large age difference (he married fifteen years ago, when she was only eleven), they sidle into an affair.
Throughout, the dialogue is witty. You can easily tell that Hayes was writing for Hollywood in the 1950s and you can almost see someone like Cary Grant speaking:
“You’re married, aren’t you?” she said at the table. The floor show had ended and the dancing had begun again.
“A little. Why?”
“Nothing. Doesn’t your wife mind you going out like this?”
“She’s in New York.”
“You’re not falling in love?”
“You say it so grimly.”
“It’s a grim subject.”
It’s an interesting, witty, bitter love affair centered around the fallen dreams of two lonely people who have never found what they’re looking for. Yes, this is an examination of the fact that money and success are not only elusive (she’s in Hollywood in order to become an actress) but are not the answer, and it’s interesting on this line.
However, for me the more interesting aspect, the one that felt the most tragic, was that these two unlovable characters and their embarrassing, short relationship was put on display for me, the reader. Here, the face they — particularly she — put on for others is stripped clean and we see them at their most unattractive and vulnerable. It’s almost cruel, reminding me of the part in Revolutionary Road when April is running away from Frank and Yates remarks on her backside.
Of course, it’s hard to turn away, as in some way this seems to get at the heart of the matter.
I’m afraid I found a late scene of a breakdown a little bit, well, perhaps a bit Hollywood, but, despite that moment of showy surface-bound material, there is a lot going on underneath it all. Each of these characters are sinking quickly, and it’s fascinating to stand on the side and watch.