16 September 2009

Book review: A Young Man’s Heart

A Young Man’s Heart (1930)
By Cornell Woolrich

I reviewed one of Cornell Woolrich’s late-period novels, 1950’s Fright, so I believe that I should provide balance by presenting a review of one of his early-period novels, A Young Man’s Heart. It’s available through print-on-demand—which is a netherworld between “print” and “out of print,” but at least means you can get it—from Ramble House, which also services the cult need for Harry Stephen Keeler’s insane webwork novels. I wish they hadn’t typeset the novel in Verdana, however; they must have anticipated that most people would want to read the download instead. Verdana is just an ugly font. See?

Woolrich’s first six novels are frustratingly obscure: Cover Charge (1926), Children of the Ritz (1927), Times Square (1929), A Young Man’s Heart (1930), The Time of Her Life (1931), and Manhattan Love Song (1932). (Woolrich claimed to have written a novel after Manhattan Love Song, titled I Love You, Paris, but then threw it away. As usual with anything Woolrich wrote about himself, we have no reason to believe that it’s true.) Four of these novels have not seen print in over seventy-five years. Manhattan Love Song has had a mini-Renaissance, reprinted in 1980 in a hardcover edition from Gregg Press and in paperback a few years ago from Pegasus Books. It’s one of the author’s best novels, and shows his turn toward crime themes. None of the other books are genre works; Woolrich was trying to make himself into the next F. Scott Fitzgerald at the time and had no idea he would turn into the literary equivalent of Alfred Hitchcock. The irony here is that this “mainstream literature” is almost unknown and unknowable (want a copy of Cover Charge? A hundred and twenty-five bucks, minimum) while his mystery and suspense work is legendary, although shifting in and out of print.

A Young Man’s Heart is Woolrich’s most autobiographical novel, and that’s probably the reason that Ramble House, with the help of Woolrich estate legal advisor Francis M. Nevins, decided to resurrect it. Nevins, the foremost authority on the writer, has provided numerous introductions to Woolrich reprints, but the one for A Young Man’s Heart is especially important reading because it contains new information about the author’s boyhood that Nevins uncovered after he completed the enormous biography, Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die.

Cornell Woolrich was born in 1903 in New York City, but in 1907 his father Genaro forced the family to move to Mexico, the land of his birth. This apparently put a strain on the relationship between Genaro and his wife Claire, and she separated from him and moved back to her family in New York, leaving young Cornell to live with his father until his adolescence. According to Nevins’s new information, which comes from a half-nephew of Genaro’s, Woolrich had a rough relationship with his father, who was a womanizer and heavy drinker. This forms the real-life backdrop for the fictional story of A Young Man’s Heart.

The novel opens with the “Young Man,” Blair, hearing his parents arguing. His mother, Sasha, has found out about the further infidelities of his father, Giraldy. Sasha finally decides to leave her husband, and also leaves her son. Giraldy promises “—to make a man of you,” to Blair, which sounds too much like a threat.

Giraldy soon has a mistress named Estelle (Blair assumed they are married, and is later shocked that they aren’t), and it seems that events swirl around Blair in spite of him, as if he isn’t important. He does form a bond with Estelle after an incident where Giraldy and other party guests had a good laugh watching Blair try to smoke for the first time. Something like romance enters Blair’s life with the devilish girl Mariquita, the niece of their Cook. Estelle experiences a bizarre religious moment during a lightning storm and leaves Giraldy for a religious sisterhood. This all appears through the baffled mind of Blair, and Woolrich writes it in its own flashes of lightning of understanding and then the darkness of the child’s confusion.

Intriguingly, it’s only near the end of this section of the book that the setting starts to become apparent. In the early pages, the story might be occurring somewhere in the U.S. But through pieces of the environment and dropped bits of language and names, Woolrich establishes that we are somewhere in Central America—probably a fictionalized Mexico City, where Woolrich grew up. Readers who hadn’t read the dust jacket might not catch onto the setting until nearly fifty pages in.

Years pass before the next section, when Blair is sixteen and his father decides to send him to France for his education—even though there is currently a war in Europe. However, Blair knows the real reason he is getting sent away: his father wants to move a new mistress (“a painted mannequin”) into the house, and would rather his boy leave. Some of the best writing in the book occurs here; Blair realizes he doesn’t wish to leave his home, even though his homelife isn’t a pleasant one, to go to the strange “north.” Also, he’s fallen in love with Marquita, and she seems to love him as well, making him promise to come back to her.

Woolrich’s prose poetry is excellent here:
He dressed slowly, making a rite of it, telling himself over and over this was his last day here. And when he reached the point of tying his necktie, and had already matched its two ends and tied it, he deliberately undid it again to allow himself the luxury of trying it a second time. It was perhaps on some such day as this that the habit of introspection first took hold of Blair. For everything he did to-day, no matter how trivial, he stood apart and analyzed, constantly reminding himself that it was for the last time he did that one certain thing, at least in this setting of his early youth. It was as though he were a spectator, surveying the actions of another person, not himself.
Time jumps again… and Blair returns to Central America with his new bride, a socialite named Eleanor. His father has vanished from the story, and apparently his mother is dead. The last three chapters of the book take place consecutively, and first follow Eleanor’s distraction with the culture of Blair’s home country that allows her to become the center of attention. She also has caught the attention of Serrano, a diplomat of the Argentine legation in the city. The “slow death of love” theme that Woolrich used in so many later novels emerges here, but then suddenly a revolution interrupts all other concerns. And Marquita pops up again.

This will all drive to a grandly tragic conclusion that feels as if Woolrich was trying to imitate his youthful experience watching opera. However, once the revolution enters, the book starts getting rushed and loses its focus. The feeling of A Young Man’s Heart shifts too radically in its last quarter, even though the author draws the threads together (maybe a bit hastily) for the downer of an ending. (What, a bum-out finale in a Cornell Woolrich novel? How strange.) The conclusion feels similar to the ending of Waltz into Darkness, although without that book’s tremendous, agonizing build-up.

Woolrich’s style at this point in his career was florid and dense, and it varies between beautiful and overwrought. His suspense years would get terser, although sometimes he would turn back the writing clock, such as in Waltz into Darkness, which, aside from the ending, has many more stylistic similarities to a A Young Man’s Heart. The writing in this earlier work still has the power to impress, and it’s what readers of 1930 would expect from their novels.

A Young Man’s Heart was meant for the mainstream of 1930—although the publisher printed limited copies and probably few people read it—but will only interest the hardcore Cornell Woolrich fan today. It’s a strange work with a very stream-of-consciousness approach that jumps through time ignores earlier key points as it does so. The “plot” is loose, and the story comes in chunks. However, it does provide a window into the author’s early life. Eventually, the direct autobiographical elements vanish: Woolrich didn’t marry a New York lady and bring her back to Mexico, for example. (A few months after the novel was published, he proposed and quickly marry a young woman in Hollywood, but the marriage lasted less than three months and according to her was never consummated.) The final effect of A Young Man’s Heart is a trance-like wandering through confused and often cold human relations south of the border, one that makes little linear sense but has the passion to carry the reader along.