Friday, June 17, 2011

The high road.

Is Patricia Highsmith the quintessential American author?

I don't know. I'll leave that question to someone who is better-read than I am, but there is something hard, flat, and unnervingly American, with all its connotations of newness, brutality, and struggle in Highsmith's writing.

Highsmith, like her writing, is a rather bizarre figure. Originally from Fort Worth, Texas (and what could be more American than that?), Highsmith spent her childhood shuttling between New York and Texas, finally decamping for Mexico and then Europe, where she spent much of the rest of her life, dying in Switzerland in her seventies. She's probably best known now for Tom Ripley, the charming murderer from The Talented Mr. Ripley, which Highsmith followed with four more books. Her first short novel, Strangers on a Train, was made into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock, and several movies were made from her Ripley series, including two versions of The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Highsmith was born Patricia Mary Plangman, but her father and mother separated before she was born. Her mother remarried to a man named Stanley Highsmith. Both parents worked as commercial artists, and Highsmith became a comic book scriptwriter in her 20s before her writing career took off with the publication of Strangers on a Train in 1950, which Hitchcock scooped up and turned into a film a year later.

Highsmith proved to be a very prolific writer, churning out short stories and novels, as well as unfailingly keeping journals, a boon to later biographers. Highsmith's writing is rather hard to classify, but it's often shuffled under crime fiction, although much of her writing doesn't really fit with that genre, particularly her second novel, The Price of Salt, published pseudononymously. There is certainly an undercurrent of nastiness, a streak of violence that runs through all of her writing, that most people seize on when they examine Highsmith's work, mentioning over and over her propensity to create characters that are often and callously cruel to one another. This is certainly true, and danger lurks underneath the most mundane details in her writing, but The Price of Salt is a surprisingly tender and hopeful departure from the bulk of her work.

Selected Novels and Short Stories collected her first two novels, Strangers on a Train and The Price of Salt, along with many of her short stories, divided chronologically.

Strangers on a Train follows the chance meeting of two men on a train and the fatal results. Guy Haines, an architect struggling to establish his career, travels from New York to the fictional Metcalf, Texas, to finalize a divorce from his wife Miriam, from whom he's been separated for nearly three years. On the way, he meets Charles Bruno, a spoiled, wealthy young man with some unresolved Oedipal issues and a readily apparent hatred of women. Haines shares the story of his marriage to Miriam, and Bruno decides to settle things in his own way, unleashing a series of events that will thoroughly disrupt Haines' life and new relationship.

The Price of Salt, originally published under the name Claire Morgan, is also about obsession, but a much less threatening type. Therese, a young, aspiring set designer in New York, is working as a shopgirl in a large department store over Christmas when she becomes intrigued by a beautiful, wealthy older woman named Carol. Therese is rather aimless, drifting into a relationship with a nice but uncompelling young man and pursuing a series of rather unlikely jobs in New York's theater scene. It's easy to see how the sleek, self-possessed Carol overwhelms Therese. On impulse, she sends a Christmas card to Carol. The two women begin seeing each other, although their burgeoning relationship resembles a carefully choreographed dance. Carol is older, wiser, and in the throes of a divorce from her wealthy husband - not to mention the question of the gulf between them in terms of age, money, and sophistication. Therese and Carol set off on a trip from New York to the West Coast, but discover along the way that Carol's soon-to-be-ex-husband has begun some nasty machinations against Carol to wrest custody of their young daughter from her.

The Price of Salt has a rather unexpectedly hopeful, light ending. Highsmith doesn't skirt around the issue of her characters' sexuality. Although she doesn't include any sex scenes (not unusual, she avoided that in her other work as well) and never mentions the L word, there's plenty of passion and what might be called the Early American Theory of Gaydar. That Highsmith published pseudononymously isn't surprising given the subject matter, but it's been suggested that the story cut too close to home for Highsmith to publish it under her own name. Certainly, Carol is punished for her attraction to Therese, most obviously by losing contact with her daughter, but unlike most writing at the time, neither character is excoriated or pathologized for their sexuality.

Certainly, much of Highsmith's writing is autobiographical. Highsmith also had relationships with many women (and some men) although none lasted very long, and her famously prickly personality and quick temper alienated many of her acquaintances. She drank too much, and in her later years seemed to become abruptly even more unstable and difficult to get along with, and was private to the point of being nearly reclusive.
Short stories in this collection include "A Mighty Nice Man," "The Still Point of the Turning World," "Where the Door is Always Open and the Welcome Mat is Out," "Quiet Night," "In the Plaza," "The Great Cardhouse," "The Baby Spoon," and later works "Oona, the Jolly Cave Woman," "Two Disagreeable Pigeons," "Not One of Us," "Woodrow Wilson's Necktie," "The Terrors of Basket-Weaving," and "The Trouble with Mrs. Blynn, The Trouble with the World."

"A Mighty Nice Man" is O'Connoresque in its depiction of a predator and his stupid, backwoods prey. "The Baby Spoon" revists a theme that reappears often in Highsmith's work, of the put-upon husband and his idiotic wife. "Two Disagreeable Pigeons" is a frankly hilarious story of domestic terpitude and strife, as acted out between two pigeons. "Not One of Us" is a chilling story of the cruelty of pack mentality, and probably hews most closely of the stores included in this anthology to the idea of Highsmith's work as containing morally bankrupt, callous and self-indulgent characters. "Woodrow Wilson's Necktie" is the most overtly violent of the short stories, and also the most laughable. It reads like a pitch for that awful Paris Hilton vehicle, House of Wax, and the plot's reappeared in horror movies, YA fiction, and at least one episode of Bones.

Although this collection is but a fraction of Highsmith's impressive body of work (twenty-two novels alone!) it does a competent job of displaying some of the recurring themes of her work while showing how her writing eluded classification. One recurring motif (notably absent in The Price of Salt) shows characters being thwarted just before they get what they desire, with murder or violence being the preferred mechanism.

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