When the Costume Comes Off

Adam Mars-Jones

  • King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher
    Fourth Estate, 436 pp, £18.99, March 2011, ISBN 978 0 00 730133 1

I remember being struck in the late 1970s by the vigour of gay culture in the American marketplace. Two novels were selling strongly and being urgently discussed: one was lyrical and would-be Proustian (Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance); the other was bilious and aspired to satire (Larry Kramer’s Faggots). I disliked them both, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that gay literary culture had room for two such opposite productions, could accommodate two very different bad books. A gay cultural presence is now taken for granted, despite several decades of viral decimation, with breakthroughs commercial and institutional (or both, in the case of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, which won the Booker Prize). At the same time the market for literary fiction has shrunk, and writers who were perhaps thrilled when bookshops began to have Gay and Lesbian sections were soon dismayed to find that their own books were filed there in a niche or annexe, rather than in the alphabetical run of the canon.

Preaching to the converted gets a bad press (in fact, isn’t preaching always to the converted?). Preaching to the unconverted, a more specialised activity, goes by a different name: missionary work. Christopher Isherwood harboured a certain amount of rancour towards the majority, but disciplined himself for the missionary purposes of A Single Man, where his mouthpiece George is in mourning for a dead lover, and so benefits from the status of honorary widower. The sexual acts that the majority find so troublesome could be underplayed for the duration, in favour of a more palatable theme, equal rights to bereavement. These days reaching out to majority readers is more common: there’s nothing like a dwindling congregation to inflame the ecumenical impulse. Feeling perhaps that there are only so many minority coming-of-age stories a majority readership can be expected to embrace, a number of novelists have started to look for ways of remaining unapologetically gay writers without writing ‘gay novels’. Michael Cunningham won a large readership with The Hours, in which gay lives featured without being allowed to predominate, though his touch seems less sure in his most recent offering, By Nightfall. A narrative about a married man’s brief and inconclusive obsession with his brother-in-law is likely to miss both markets, striking gay readers as evasive and straight ones as paying only lip service to majority choices.

But what about the traffic in the other direction? For a straight writer to have a gay hero is still highly unusual. A fascinating essay in this context is Norman Mailer’s ‘The Homosexual as Villain’, commissioned by the gay magazine ONE in the 1950s. He’s pretty unsparing of his own past novelistic practice, saying that when he thought homosexuality was evil it made sense to dole it out to negative characters without bothering with more nuanced psychology. At the time of writing the essay he was working on The Deer Park, which included a villainous gay character, and set himself, if not to redeem him, then at least to build up his complexity. He refers to a growing depression

that I had been acting as a bigot in this matter, and ‘bigot’ was one word I did not enjoy applying to myself. With that came the realisation I had been closing myself off from understanding a very large part of life. This thought is always disturbing to a writer. A writer has his talent, and for all one knows, he is born with it, but whether his talent develops is to some degree responsive to his use of it. He can grow as a person or he can shrink, and by this I don’t intend any facile parallels between moral and artistic growth. The writer can become a bigger hoodlum if need be, but his alertness, his curiosity, his reaction to life must not diminish. The fatal thing is to shrink, to be interested in less, sympathetic to less, desiccating to the point where life itself loses its flavour, and one’s passion for human understanding changes to weariness and distaste.

Open-minded, self-critical, conciliatory – it couldn’t last. Mailer’s later career wasn’t an exercise in dismantling the male ego.

The most famous and successful venture in homosexual ventriloquism by a novelist is still Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers. I had doubts about the book when it came out in 1980, disliking the easy equation of homosexuality with cowardliness, even though this was an equation accepted by many homosexuals of the generation of Burgess’s octogenarian narrator, Kenneth Toomey. Terrence Rattigan was surprised to find during war service that he was brave in an ordinary way. Out of this realisation came his interest in such non-cowardly homosexuals as T.E. Lawrence (Ross) and Alexander the Great (Adventure Story).

But perhaps the question to be asked is: why should a heterosexual writer adopt a gay point of view? What’s the benefit, not to the person, but to the novel? There needs to be some novelistic payoff, if we accept that the mere desire to extend your range, to become a god in your medium, speaks more reliably to vanity than talent. For Burgess, the project of writing a long novel bringing together far-flung crises and corners of 20th-century history more or less required for plausibility a rogue element, taboo-breaking and border-crossing, plentifully supplied by that ‘reprobate section of the human collectivity, but an important one, suspected where it does not exist, flaunting itself, insolent and immune, where its existence is never guessed’ (that’s Proust, of course).

With Philip Hensher, there’s no question of having to crank up an interest outside his constituency, since homosexuality has until now played a relatively small part in his fiction. The Northern Clemency (2008) showed an extraordinary flair for building up the large social picture, and the same amplitude is there in his new book, King of the Badgers, with the addition of a genre element, which intermittently brings it close to crime thriller territory. The setting is the seaside town of Hanmouth, a genteel Devon resort with an underclass hinterland, bearing enough resemblance to Topsham – where Hensher lives – to make his neighbours anticipate the book with a certain tension, I suspect, despite the altered topography.

The crime element concerns the disappearance from the hinterland – where they don’t even have the breeding to pronounce the town’s name Hammuth – of an eight-year-old girl called China. The way the alarm is sounded, the mother’s fears first allayed then confirmed, allows Hensher to establish the main social currents of the town, before they become complicated by doubts and strange alliances: ‘On the whole, Hanmouth thought little of the despoiling and misspeaking suburbs that surrounded it and had taken on its name. Though they poured right up to the gates of Hanmouth, they were obviously the city’s, Barnstaple’s, suburbs, not Hanmouth’s. Hanmouth could never have suburbs.’ A whiff of mystery and potential horror is almost enough to override the genteel town’s distaste, at least for a while.

There was a new noise in the air, of disagreement and disapproval and pleasure. It was like the load of a substantial lorry shifting and rumbling; it was like the bass voice that announced coming attractions at the cinema clearing its throat; it was like a Welsh male voice choir saying ‘RUM’ in unison. It was the sound of a community centre in the west of England, every chair filled and every spare standing space occupied with onlookers, journalists, locals, cameramen, people who had no reason or every good reason to be there.

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