The End of Me
by Alfred Hayes (1968)
NYRB Classics (2020)
In 2013, NYRB Classics reissued two novels by Alfred Hayes, 1953’s In Love and 1958’s My Face for the World to See. I admire both. I didn’t know that they very loosely form a trilogy with his 1968 novel The End of Me. The books do not contain the same characters, but each has a first-person male narrator, who happens to be a screenwriter (like Hayes himself), struggling in a career and unfulfilling — nay, doomed-and-they-know-it — relationships. Boy, it feels morbid to say it, but I was excited when The End of Me showed up.
The title itself suggests a culmination of In Love and My Face for the World to See, as the narrators in each case
As I began it, I was excited by the palpable existential crisis our narrator, Asher, was going through. Where the prior two books allowed one to lounge in their gloom, there is an urgency, an immediacy to Asher’s crisis. Just look at how it begins. Here is the first paragraph:
I crawled out of the bush away from the window and I began to run. My only safety lay in flight. If I stopped I’d howl. I knew I must not stop. The thing was in my gut. In my parched in my constricted throat. Humped raw cringing wounded to death I’d howl into the night. Affrighting these houses. These well-kept lawns. These softly polished pianos. The dens would shiver. Rugs cringe. If I stopped. If ever I let it out of my. This wounded this stricken animal. And I didn’t. I didn’t howl. I ran. I still wore my tennis shoes. And I didn’t howl.
I don’t recall any of this frenetic writing in In Love or My Face for the World to See, which seemed more closely linked to noir and that curt, pithy cynicism that sometimes blooms into poetry. Here, though, Asher is close to exploding. In stabbing imagery this first chapter lets us know what led Asher to his crisis: his second wife is having an affair, and he has just seen her and her lover through the window.
There’s more to it than that, though. It’s almost as if his marriage provided some illusion of stability, and when it was gone every other failure came crashing in as well. Asher was a Hollywood screenwriter, and mixed in with his feelings upon seeing his wife in the arms of her lover are things like this:
Even if I could not see it clearly and even if I had not believed it I had known it was coming. I was getting old. Was it all simply because I was getting old?One is discarded. The door closes that had always been open. The phone is silent that had always rung. Others are selected where before one had been selected.
Whatever self-identity Asher possessed has disappeared, and he now wants the rest to go with it, so he flees and seeks, as he says, the end of me.
But I did not want to go back to Japan and Paris, where I had lived, too, wasn’t a place to hide. Switzerland was peaceful but it wasn’t a peaceful life I wanted. I did not want to ski or buy watches or take long walks through the country past small vegetable gardens. I wanted to be lost. I wanted to be effaced. I wanted a place that could suck the pain out of me. I was going back to New York.
Surprisingly, though Asher is returning to where he grew up and where he still has some family, in a strange attempt to both get lost and to find himself again at such a late stage in life, things don’t get better in New York. There he meets Michael, the grandson of his aging aunt. Michael is a poet, filled with youth and energy but not necessarily that good. If Asher is looking for himself as he once was, perhaps Michael is that person.
I had wished to create something between us; the something, I admit, involved his slipping into a category of a kind: that is, a son, or protégé, or a pupil, or simply a younger version of myself, or, in a queer way, a younger version that I hoped to become, that is, to go backward to him and therefore to be able to go forward again; even something less than that, a talent I’d nurtured, a lost or a misdirected boy who through myself was less lost and less misdirected: but he resisted all categories.
Things are made more complicated by Michael’s girlfriend, Aurora d’Amore. Asher definitely would like to go back and be Michael in order to be with Aurora.
If I’m being honest, on a visceral level The End of Me is unrelentingly bleak and, to me, spiraled into an abyss that I had a hard time stomaching, physically, particularly when Asher starts to pursue Aurora. Hayes does not use that frantic pace throughout this novel, but it’s there and effectively made me feel like I was on a lurching roller-coaster.
It’s not a comfortable book. But it is impressive. Horrific, sad, but impressive.