Is Richard Hell gay? In the extensive promo bumpf accompanying review copies of his second novel, the question isn’t approached – not by the image doctors, not in reviews scanned from the (mostly New York) press and certainly not in the excerpted superlatives describing his first novel, Go Now, about a punk rocker on a womanizing tear across the US.
The new novel, Godlike, is about poets and queer love. The absence of a firm gender fetish is part of the Hell mystique. Who is this guy with the diabolic handle? Richard Meyers of Lexington, Kentucky, changed his name when New York City became home. He was 17 then, soon to be a seminal force in the scene that gave us punk rock.
With Godlike, he’s given us an update on the tortured affair of 19th-century French poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud.
We join poet Paul Vaughan in 1971 New York, at the most grim poetry reading in literary memory. The ambiance, in a room of “see-through brown” is like a parody of pathos. Paul is “gorging on” the bleak candour.
A cocky teen poet circulates after the readings, offering impudent put-downs of the published. Randall Terence Wode (“T” thereafter) had sent Paul an admiring letter from his Kentucky home (“I’m going nuts in this nowhere”). Now he’s arrived to sink his babyteeth into the daddy bard.
Paul is married – thin armour against his buried hunger. They hit the bars, then go to Paul’s and get sloppy-naughty. Paul’s pregnant wife discovers them, upchucks and exits (the first in her series of cardboard walk-ons.) “Why don’t you slap that thing?” asks T endearingly.
“As Paul kneeled over the pool of vomit he looked at [T’s] penis… but no, he wanted to wipe up the mess. The smell stung, but for a second he liked it: scent of death rot, home, the sticky inside of his own asshole when he stuck a finger in it masturbating. He was getting a kind of hardon.”
Piquant, oui? Hell’s erratic genius careens from banal to inspired like the carnal, deeply incarnated work of William S Burroughs. He’s more engaging than Burroughs, in a way, because he presents people more as people, less as servants of rampant satire and symbolism. The downside is the glancing blows used for (and against) Hell’s female characters – which is Burroughs, too.
Paul takes T to another poet gathering, where his motormouthing insolence punches holes in the social fabric. To the hetero majority he posits, “Aren’t females a little passé in the fuck arena by now?” Then he intimately describes his morning dump.
Hell offers some striking observations. On memory: “My memories seem to migrate to a dead-quiet fall afternoon…. It’s like a single lovely changeless afternoon that is their setting. There’s a slight chill and the sky is cloudless.” On dying: “And the night sky falls into your heart. Which is some kind of ice cream. The heart in flames of dark ice cream. Licked by death. Is this Satan talking?”
A meditation on God dovetails with an homage to the light-scattering qualities of plastic soda bottles. Why? Asking is counterproductive. Hell’s prose is best appreciated by the intuitive mind; raising objections (playing the critic) can feel a bit like pedantry.
Still, there are missteps. One flashback casts T as a caring lover and confidante to a suicidal woman – fine, except that he’s either childishly indifferent or an utter asshole in the rest of the book. There are sentences that seem stranded between profundity and nonsense: “Paragraphs on pages do seem like clouds, like the interesting dirt behind the detergent container in the cupboard.”
T soon tires of New York, while Paul longs to escape the wife. They hop a bus to Florida, though anyplace will do. A gun enters the mix, and Hell’s borrowing from the lives of Verlaine and Rimbaud becomes pretty much explicit. It’s a perk for poetry and queer-lit scholars, but Hell doesn’t need to piggyback on icons; he’s got his own panache.
Here’s a motel room in Memphis: “The orange and brown patterns of the rough synthetic fibres of the curtains and bedspread and carpet were probably intended to hide dirt, but things had gone beyond that…. The odour of the room was like vapourized headache.”
Hell’s settings are filled with murk and human leavings. Then the essence of what’s human – the mystery and wonder of it – peeks through again. Paul writes in his notebook that he feels like “a node of human being… that consciousness itself is the entity, not individual people.” It’s like returning to those debates with smarty-pants friends that went so deep into the wee hours you began to feel transcendent, slipping outside yourself. I’ll reread this book just for that.