Thomas Williams, author of the book "The Hair of Harold Roux." (Peter Williams / Boomsbury )
The Hair of Harold Roux
Introduction by Andre Dubus III, afterword by Ann Joslin Williams
Bloomsbury: 384 pp., $15 paper
Thomas Williams' novel "The Hair of Harold Roux" occupies a peculiar limbo of the lost: Published in 1974, it shared the 1975 National Book Award for fiction with Robert Stone's "Dog Soldiers," then disappeared almost entirely from the landscape of contemporary literature. The same might also be said of its author, who published nine books of fiction before his death of lung cancer in 1990 at age 63. Before this month, the only book of his to remain in print was a posthumous 1992 collection of stories, "Leah, New Hampshire," named for the fictional town where much of his work is set. Here, we see the paradox of Williams' career: a well-regarded writer, friend and mentor to Andre Dubus III and John Irving, among others, and yet as unknown now as if he'd never written anything.
Such matters occupy "The Hair of Harold Roux," now reissued in paperback, which deals with the vagaries of art and creativity and the importance of stories, not because they redeem us, but because in a universe of entropy and chaos, they provide the only meaning we have. "He has always thought of a novel, before it has taken on its first, tentative structure, as a scene on this dark plain, the characters standing around a small fire which warmly etches the edges of their faces," Williams writes of his main character, Aaron Benham, a middle-aged novelist and professor. "It is that small fire he must constantly re-create or these last warm lives will cease to live, will never have lived even to fear the immensities of coldness and indifference around them. Absolute Zero is waiting, always. In Paradoxology that is perhaps the name of God."
"The Hair of Harold Roux" revolves around Benham's attempts to write a novel, also called "The Hair of Harold Roux," which is revealed in increasingly detailed fragments. It's a risky strategy, the kind of literary looking glass that often collapses under the weight of its own self-reflection, and Williams addresses such concerns head-on. "[W]ho wants to write about or read about a professor who is a writer who is writing about writing," he observes early in the novel. "It's all incestuous and even narcissistic."
As to why that works, it has a lot to do with Williams' rigorous sense of interior examination, the minute-by-minute way he traces the existence of his middle-aged protagonist, a man beset equally by responsibility and the sense that time is no longer on his side. This is hardly an uncommon set of circumstances, but here it becomes the stuff of a minor epic drama as Benham must navigate, over a solitary weekend, his own peculiar minefield of memory, loss, longing and (yes) satisfaction, and how all of this plays out in his life and his work.
To explore these layers, Williams constructs a novel that is as simple on the surface as it is nuanced and dense underneath. It begins with Benham at his desk, looking to escape the burden of his imagination. When he gets a call about a colleague who cannot finish his dissertation, he jumps at the chance to get away. Still, even this mission is complicated — not only by his desire to be distracted, but also by his infatuation with his colleague's wife.
Benham doesn't act on any such impulses, for he is a committed husband and father, his wife and children "the forces that keep him alive, shocking him into his duty with the irritant voltage of pacemakers." And yet, by visiting his colleague, he inadvertently overlooks a visit to his in-laws, arriving home to discover that his family has left without him, leaving him to wrestle with the ensuing mix of love and remorse. In a few short pages, Williams establishes the central theme of the novel: the push and pull between our obligation to other people and our obligation to ourselves.
"Sometimes he doesn't like any of them," he writes, describing Benham's feelings for his family. "He feels misunderstood, taken for granted, attacked.… All he wants is for them to smile and be happy when he feeds them. He can't remember everything! Don't they understand how much he tries to remember, has to remember?… He finds himself shaking with indignation and guilt."
For Benham, the only solution resides in stories, which console us or don't console us, allow us to recall or to regret. "The Hair of Harold Roux" is marked by both, as Williams seeds his narrative with other narratives — Benham's novel in progress; its relationship to his history; an extended bedtime story he used to tell his children (which functions as both narrative and memory); his sense of how little it will matter in the end.
"You have to forget for longer periods or you won't get your work done," Benham thinks, reflecting on his own mortality. "Not that it matters in the long run whether you get your work done or not. When the sun turns super-nova your work reverts to hydrogen atoms, anyway. But in the short run, if you have been cursed by art, you have to do your work or you die before you stop breathing." It's a key issue in the novel, which, in the end, is about authenticity, the need to stay away from "what is currently fashionable, which is a disaster and the death of energy, the death of sincerity," in favor of something more universal and deeply felt. For Williams, as for Benham, that's the draw of art, of literature, its ability to uncover, however briefly, all our complexity and incompletion, to reveal us as the flawed, striving creatures we are.