Reconsidering Thomas Williams John McIntyre Book Lovers

book Reconsidering Thomas Williams

reviewed by John McIntyre

Published in Issue No. 155 ~ April, 2010

Thomas Williams was an American writer, a figure of some regard during the 1970s and ‘80s.  He received the National Book Award in 1975 for his novel, The Hair of Harold Roux. His final novel, The Moon Pinnace, was a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award in Fiction in 1986. Of course such awards are no promise of longevity, a place among the greats.  Many a lackluster book has at least been nominated for these prizes, prestigious though they are. Some have even taken top honors, though to name them here would be in poor taste. Occasionally, though, sandwiched among the forgotten titles is a book deserving of further consideration. The Hair of Harold Roux is such a book.

Williams’ standing is diminished now, fairly or not. He has not enjoyed a revival of interest, in the manner of John Cheever. His biography does not contain the stuff of scandal, though the best of his books deserve to be counted among the true works of literature from the period. He taught writing for many years at the University of New Hampshire. Among his pupils were John Irving and Alice McDermott, and it is Irving who supplies a loving Introduction to Leah, New Hampshire, Williams’ collected short fiction and the final volume of his career. The greater part of his fiction takes place in Leah, a town Williams conceived of and peopled, both in his short fiction and his novels. Its residents are practical and largely unassuming. They suffer the same passions and plights as anyone else.

Irving writes that what he admires most about his mentor is “how much he knows about human nature, and how much he fathomed psychologically about people.” Williams was indeed an acute observer of both action and motivation, a faculty he applied unsparingly but with no particular agenda, apart from humanizing the characters which people his fiction.

In The Hair of Harold Roux, Williams turns this facility to the life and work of a writer, Aaron Benham. It is tempting to align Williams with Aaron Benham, particularly as Benham happens to be telling the story of a “rather thinly disguised protagonist…one Allard Benson,” a man who happens to be a native of Leah. Add to this the fact that Benham’s novel-in-progress is entitled The Hair of Harold Roux. The title character is a preternaturally sensitive, prematurely bald (and so, bewigged) young man Benson counts as a friend.

This interest in the pitfalls and hardships of the creative process is reminiscent, however slightly, of Howard Nemerov’s Journal of a Fictive Life. Williams takes this a step further, however, and illustrates the specific path events take as they are adapted from life to the page, the scruples an author may well have in cannibalizing his own life and the lives of others in the service of fiction. “Aaron sits at his desk remembering,” he tells us, “changing what he remembers, picking and choosing.” The practice sounds simple enough, until he returns to an old letter from the woman he is using as a model for one of Allard Benson’s loves, Mary. “His act of keeping it all these years is vaguely shameful,” Williams writes, “as though he has kept it as a souvenir, something as untoward as the polished wristbone of a corpse.” Then, having read it again, “Mary, he thinks, but then is startled by the uses he must make of past reality,” that he must be so inconstant to her memory. It is a touching passage, one written with considerable style and an elegiac tone that belies much of what we learn of Benham’s progress from youth to middle age.

The Hair of Harold Roux is a densely layered novel, but despite the metafictional elements in play, Irving’s characterization of Williams as “a wonderfully old-fashioned writer…that dinosaur among contemporary writers of fiction, an actual storyteller,” is sound. These qualities are in fact the foundation of my regard for Thomas Williams. He wrote realist fiction in the purest vein, narratives shot through with the joys and sorrows we all face, arranged in such a way as to lend them added poignancy.

We first encounter Aaron Benham at home, alone. He is attempting to write, but he is burdened with other responsibilities, other ties. His solitude is continually broken by the intrusion of phone calls and subsequent trips on his motorcycle. The catalyst is only the stuff of life, personal and professional entanglements, everything from a missing student to a colleague in danger of losing his position on faculty, to family obligations. This last Benham handles least deftly; he has forgotten to attend the wedding anniversary of his in-laws, and the lapse leaves him at loose ends throughout the book, which unfolds over the span of a couple of days.

Once these particulars are established, Williams shifts from his focus on Aaron Benham’s life to a story of Benham’s. It is a first person narrative in the voice of Allard Benson. Later, there is still another narrative, Benham’s bedtime story to his children, a lengthy, involved tale, one which is given considerable space and attention of its own, and which is eventually resolved near the novel’s end.

It is an ambitious book, a fact for which Williams made no apologies. In his National Book Award acceptance speech, he defended this sort of ambition. “I think you will recognize works that are not minor,” he said. “They may be ragged and imperfect — by their nature perhaps they have to be…They approach the unforgivable, which is to make you feel what you don’t want to feel. And when this happens, they have already changed your life.” Lofty aims, to be sure, but an apt description of Harold Roux. Williams does occasionally overreach, as with Harold’s stance of propriety gone mad, and the overweening cruelty of Boom Maloumian, a character who routinely terrorizes Harold. But at bottom, there is a searching quality to the narrative, both with the figure of a man in middle-age, wondering where he has made a wrong turning, and in the younger men, both Harold and Allard, attempting to fashion themselves into the sort of men they admire. Williams offers uncertainty, triumph, and disappointment, and all in a way which is continually surprising, continually gratifying.

Among the book’s loveliest passages is an account of Allard Benson’s trip to buy tires for his motorcycle, an ancient model which is difficult to fit. He reaches his destination around dark, and opts to drive on to his parents’ home in Leah, some hundred miles away. The incident happened “one warm spring night, when this love [of motorcycles] ran true, a night of no particular significance except that I have never forgotten it.” He catalogues the towns he passes through and reports that at one point,
“Between South Danbury and Danbury a car followed me for several miles, and with this audience I was more conscious of my graceful lean into curves, what a daring figure I must seem as I pierced the darkness. At that age, everything is referential; all lights are eyes. Perhaps a lovely girl drove that car, and measured the breadth of my shoulders. But at Danbury the car turned off…and I was alone again, at speed.”

Only he isn’t alone in the retelling. At the passage’s end, the reader can only be grateful for the chance to accompany him (whether he is Williams, Benham, or Benson), and can only second his lament, “If all the going of one’s life could reverberate like that down through the years,” both toward the story just told and one’s own life, as well.
It is a memory with an unexpected tang, an unremarkable night which, viewed in hindsight, was more meaningful than one realized at the time. The same could be said of Williams’ fiction – a long look back might well reveal something of uncommon value.

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John McIntyre's work has appeared in The American Scholar. He is the editor of Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps, forthcoming from Counterpoint Press. At present, he is the Truman Capote Fellow at Rutgers University.