Friday, February 12, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Tennessee Williams' Hard Candy

Even if, as Tennessee Williams tells us, they're only looking for love
By Don Stradley

He wrote about horny old men in the pitch dark balconies of movie theaters, ogling the rough trade that wandered in; he wrote about the oversexed ladies who ran boarding houses and slept with any tenant who wouldn’t recoil from their gnarled hands; he wrote about the spiritually spent wives  who catered to their sickly  husbands, as loyal and bored as any longtime employee; and always, there was sickness, blooming in the bodies of his characters like demon weeds. These illnesses, which could take a person out quickly, torture them for years, or just settle in like a quietly sinister guest, were spoken of in quiet tones, kept as guarded as, say, the kindly clockmaker’s penchant for young men, for Tennessee Williams’ world was held together by secrets. They’d only spill out, as a character says in one of the stories collected in Hard Candy, when “the soul becomes intolerably burdened with lies,” to the point where it “will finally collapse beneath the weight of its falsity.” With the sort of baggage these characters are carrying, it’s a wonder they haven’t all exploded, their contaminated guts splashing against the walls of their furnished rooms.

When the Hard Candy collection was published in 1954, Williams was spending much of his time in Hollywood where his plays were being adapted for the movies. Generally, the transitions went smoothly, though both The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire were subjected to studio tampering and the scissor cut of the censors. Williams told Hollywood columnist Bob Thomas that the movie business was still a few steps behind contemporary tastes and sensibilities. “The screen,” Williams said, “should be allowed to deal in all human problems, as long as they are done in good taste.” That’s why the nine stories in Hard Candy feel so ahead of the times, and possibly why Williams’ fiction was never given the attention of his plays and films. He’s mining areas in these stories that weren’t spoken of in post war America, namely, the all-encompassing sexual urges that turn us all into blithering idiots, but doing so in a poetic prose style that, for my money, surpasses what he wrote for actors, as if the freedom to enter the darkest galleries of his mind loosened up and then crystalized his writing. 

Which isn’t to say the characters from Hard Candy don’t resemble characters from his plays. Starting with the tempestuous married couple in ‘Three Players of a Summer Game’ who would be further developed in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the lonely widow waiting patiently at the door for the handsome drunk she hopes will love her and her fat, whining child, and the low-brow neighbors who barely understand the deviant behavior going on all around them, Williams shoves himself away from the melodrama that burdens his plays and grabs something closer to neorealism. In his fiction he focuses on details that would be lost on a stage, like the sounds of a kid munching candy as a pathetic chicken hawk closes in (very much like a lonely man trying to befriend a stray dog), or when Kamrowski, the out of work screenwriter whose prostitute girlfriend has died in ‘Rubio Y Marena’, can only express his grief by stealing a child’s doll and running until he “was able to get alone somewhere and cry.” As with Williams' plays, the psychic turmoil of couples torn apart is as palpable as fog, and loneliness is to be despised. A character in ‘The Vine’, for instance, a self-absorbed failure who is terrified that his wife has left him, considers a life alone as “less conceivable, somehow, than life on the moon.” Kroger the obese pervert  in ‘The Mysteries of the Joy Rio’ warns that it’s wrong to be “so afraid of being lonely that you forget to be careful,” but none of Williams’ characters ever take that advice.

People covet each other to such a demented degree in Williams’ stories that their reunions are often grotesque, such as the end of ‘Summer Game’, when the wife is seen driving a car with her derelict husband propped up in the backseat, “exactly the way that some ancient conqueror such as Caesar or Alexander the Great or Hannibal, might have led in chains through a capital city the prince of a state newly conquered.” It’s ominous that so many of Williams’ objects of desire end up dead, or in a sort of zombified condition, as if people can’t survive being so badly wanted. Perhaps incapacitation is what the desirers secretly wish, so the poor victims can only lay prone like mannequins to be adored. How can it be otherwise, when the delights of love at first sight are so exhilarating, such as in ‘The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin,’ when a boy first meets the unsuspecting object of his yearning, and an awareness enters his mind “like the sudden streak of flame that follows a comet.” 

Yet, in the midst of this love madness that sweeps over his characters and drives them to run “farther and farther up the forbidden staircase into regions of deepening shadow,”  there’s a sort of twisted stoicism on display, where people endure the worst indignities while waiting for their loved one to come around. The female barfly in ‘Two On A Party’ is so smitten with her gay male friend that she’s willing to go cruising with him. In the story’s melancholy climax, she saves him from getting gay-bashed by allowing  their brutish pick-up to bed her down, where she suffers “the most undesired embrace that she can remember in all her long history of desired and undesired  and sometimes only patiently born embraces…” What is Williams telling us about love in the tales collected here? I imagine he’s saying that love is not only blind, but can’t even feel its way toward something resembling sanity.



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