Absence is a central condition in Alfred Hayes’s three loosely linked short novels In Love (1953), My Face for the World to See (1958), and the newly reissued The End of Me (1968). In the first two, the central characters—both writers, with experience in Hollywood—remain unnamed. In the third, the writer figure is called Asher, as if he’s been invited to his own funeral. Hayes’s men are so bitter they’re funny, and in their desperate comedy, romance is wounded. No love, yet that’s all Hayes’s characters talk about, and it hurts and it hurts and it hurts, deliriously, cruelly, until we love to be in hurt, too.
Marriages and divorces take place earlier or almost exclusively out of town in these stories. If that sounds like the experience of the narrator, Faye, in Rachel Cusk’s 2014 novel Outline, it’s hardly a coincidence. When Cusk was profiled for the New Yorker in 2018, the bookshelves in her new office were “mostly still bare, except for some essential volumes”—including In Love. Hayes had created “an amazingly precise representation of what the world looks like if there’s no love in it,” Cusk explained. Love, Hayes writes in that novel, is the virus that leads to the “violent dispossession of myself.”
Hayes was born in London in 1911 and brought to live in New York at the age of three. This was before World War I, and the pandemic of 1918, and the stock market crash that took place when he was 18. Even after those transformative events, he never quite assimilated. His fatalism was stubbornly European; he was a Marxist journalist and poet in New York until he was sent to Rome during World War II. While in Italy, he received an Oscar nomination, along with the young Federico Fellini, for his work on the script of Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan and contributed dialogue to Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves.
After the war, Hayes went to Hollywood, where he received a second Academy Award nomination, for Teresa (1951). He worked with Fritz Lang and forged a successful career. But the frustrations of working in the movie business led him to pour his acid brilliance into his novels. He wrote seven in all, spending time in both New York and Los Angeles, where he lived for about 10 years after finishing My Face for the World to See.
One day, after lunch (or so the story goes), Hayes returned to his office on the Columbia Pictures lot and his name had been removed. It’s a scene that might occur in the life of one of his protagonists. In Love, My Face for the World to See, and The End of Me share a skepticism about Hollywood, and as the last of them begins, its narrator, Asher, is already on the downward slope. He believes that were he to let the world know how he really feels, he would be “affrighting these houses. These well-kept lawns. These softly polished pianos. The dens would shiver. Rugs cringe. If I stopped. If I ever let it out of me. This wounded this stricken animal. And I didn’t. I didn’t howl. I ran. I still wore my tennis shoes.”
In his bleakest moments, his living nightmare, Asher animates the dens and the rugs, but they can’t hear him. Vacancy equals destiny.
Hayes begins In Love with “a man who privately thinks his life has come to some sort of an end.” In My Face for the World to See, he writes of someone who wants to “escape for a brief interval” where no one will see his face. And in The End of Me, he tells his story via what Asher refers to as “minute surrenders”—his resistance is narrative tension—as he lets go and watches the human parade pass him by. Asher is a writer; he is committed to, and in many ways defined by, words. But words, or their meanings, can be elusive. In the opening of The End of Me, Asher has us thinking he is in control until he reveals otherwise.
“But the most dreadful thing was that it was not unexpected,” he acknowledges. “I had watched it come.… Padding toward me. Even if I could not see it clearly and even if I had not believed it I had known it was coming. I was getting old. Was it all simply because I was getting old? One is discarded. The door closes that had always been open. The phone is silent that had always rung. Others are selected where before one had been selected. On the floor through the window with the unheard music he reached under the soft sweater and he unhooked her brassiere. I had not howled. I had run. I was finished.”
Asher leaves Hollywood to go “home” to New York. He has a panic attack on the flight east, but once he arrives, he realizes, “I wanted to be lost. I wanted to be effaced. I wanted the place that could suck the pain out of me.” Soon, he will be convalescing in the city’s “indifferent arms.” He meets his nephew, Michael, who should be in college but instead lolls around by day in bed with his girlfriend, Aurora, writing poetry about their sex life, and gambles through the nights. Michael sneers at Asher and his memories, and at Asher’s desire for the young Aurora. Then one evening, Michael and Aurora move on.
Abandoned again, Asher offers a twisted rhapsody in his hotel room, watching the world outside. “A girl with a large net shopping bag went by,” he observes. “Heavy-wheeled a truck went by. A cab went by. They went by black. Old they went by. Middle-aged they went by. They went by young. They went by slowly. Quickly they went by. Cold they went by. It didn’t stop. The going by didn’t stop. It would never stop.”
It’s the end of an era. Or is it a parody of conclusion? Hayes writes most beautifully in his descriptions of defeat and solitude. When he died in 1985, he was resentful that his books had been forgotten. If only he’d known that his characters, in both their reluctance to declare themselves and their habitual irony, would be what we need now to feed our poverty of spirit, our ridiculous mysteries, our indispensable vanity.
Lucy Gray has written for Elle, Interview, Brick Literary Quarterly, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and American Theatre. Her most recent book is Balancing Acts: Three Prima Ballerinas Becoming Mothers.
• By Alfred Hayes
• NYRB Classics, 178 pages, $15.95