A Novel of Sex and Crisis in the Aftermath of the 1960s

Cynicism, laziness, anger, misplaced righteousness, vacillation between vanity and self-loathing: Such are the qualities of the superfluous men we’ve encountered in novels for centuries. Existing somehow outside the structures of family and regular employment, these prodigal sons have too much time on their hands — time to spend thinking, ranting, writing or intoxicating themselves.

In the novels they narrate, they are suspended between delusions of grandeur and the dread of hitting rock bottom. The books consider the possibilities of freedom and failure that arise from the times and places that inspired them, even if their protagonists are bound for the usual destination: bourgeois assimilation. They usually tell us something about their moment’s sexual mores because more often than not their rakish heroes spend much of their idle days on romantic intrigues.

One such case is Harold Raab, the narrator of Henry Bean’s first and only novel, THE NENOQUICH (McNally Editions, 198 pp., paperback, $18), originally published in 1982 under the title “False Match.” That title, imposed by a publisher that didn’t think a book called “The Nenoquich” would have a chance of selling, has the drawback of giving away the plot: There will be a love affair and it won’t work out. The new title, true to Bean’s original vision, derives from an Aztec word related to the five “useless” days, or nemontemi, that came at the end of every 360-day cycle. Babies born on these days would “have bad luck in everything and would be poor and miserable,” according to a scholar Harold cites. “They were called Nenoquich, which means ‘worthless person’ or ‘will never amount to anything.’” On his bad days, Harold thinks of himself this way, but he is not without ambitions.

The novel is set in Berkeley, Calif., in 1970. Harold is 26, has quit a respectable, unspecified job that came with a health plan and even dental coverage, and now collects unemployment benefits while trying to turn himself into something other than the “thoughtful, temperate twerp my father wishes I were” — that is, a writer. He’s composing the book we’re reading, a diary of his life that’s also an account of a project of seduction.

I use that inert word “project” both because it’s a word Harold uses and because his romantic intrigue springs not from something as conventional as, say, swooning over a woman he catches sight of at a party, but from a remark he overhears one of his housemates make over the phone: “Well, she’s mad about him, isn’t she? At least in the physical sense.” The remark, about a woman he’s never met, gives Harold a “peculiar shudder”; it is “the purest expression I had ever heard of a love that was indistinguishable from sexual desire,” he writes. “I felt myself grow hot and tight. I wanted someone, but for what?”

The desire will be in service of his literary efforts; at least that’s what he tells himself. Soon, at a party, he meets the woman in question, Charlotte. The conceptual project quickly becomes real, then a little too real. He seduces her, and their affair becomes the catalyst for her separation from her husband, Joshua, a young physician and the man she used to be “mad” about. Charlotte moves into the house Harold shares with three others, the two of them start seeing other people they catch sight of at parties, and the affair fizzles.

If the arc sounds trite, it also echoes the feeling Harold has after he first writes down the words “at least in the physical sense” in his diary. First, he feels the words “losing their force,” and then they become “empty, banal.” The more he thinks about them and tries to remember hearing them, the more “the magic eluded me, however briefly just a thought away, then receded into the irretrievable distance, until I found myself staring at something that, like an exhausted love affair, embarrassed me with the memory of what it had once been.”

Something else that hangs over “The Nenoquich” like an exhausted love affair is the 1960s. The book is told from a state of aftermath. Harold and his housemates Jimmy Wax, Shaw and Donna live a communal existence, occasionally strung out, possibly burned out; a polite way of putting it might be to say they’re all going through a transitional phase. Donna, the youngest of them, trained in classical piano, plays keyboard in a nightclub act. Shaw is a former political radical whom Harold recalls meeting at a riot “in a pose like the discus thrower’s but more extreme, and in his hand instead of a discus was a dark green bottle with a burning rag in its mouth.” The target is a U.S. Army vehicle that goes up in flames.

Since then, Shaw has been left by his fellow radical wife and has dropped out of a graduate program in political science. Jimmy has veered away from medical school for a job editing film, and gets a letter from his mother, who worries that he’ll become one of those people who “decide in their 20s that they are ‘totally committed to film,’ and wake up one morning to find themselves 40 years old and living in a rented room.” He posts the letter on the refrigerator, and the “rented room” stands in for the idea of rock bottom in Harold’s mind. After his affair with Charlotte, he does end up in such a room, but that’s not the end of the story.

On its initial appearance, the novel was praised and received a PEN award for first fiction. “‘False Match’ is a fine, sensitive and carefully written first novel,” Alan Ryan wrote in The Washington Post. “If Henry Bean can make the same transition as his central character here, we can look forward to more and even better books from him in the future.” That transition in Harold’s character is brought about by a crisis that befalls Charlotte: She becomes pregnant, unsure by whom, and then gravely ill. Harold is by her side throughout the ordeal, truly a new man, though the reader may be forgiven for thinking that one character suffers a little too much to bring about the other’s epiphanies and redemption.

On the other hand, it’s Charlotte’s illness that spurs some of Bean’s most vivid writing. After her bowels are perforated, Harold tells us: “Dinner arrived, and at the sight of the meat she raced to the toilet. A boiling porridge scalded her rectum, and between her legs she watched crimson serpents coil through the murky water.” The evocative unpleasantness is the dark counterpart to the other bodily theme that elicits Bean’s lyricism: sex. Bean writes erotic scenes with a frankness and gusto uncommon in literary fiction today. Here’s Charlotte in one passage: “Flinging me side to side between her swaying knees, she came like … what shall I say? … like a fast freight, the sounds not torn from but easing out of her, a long finish that rolled and rolled until it became a train I’d have ridden if I could have, and she finally shuddered and said, ‘Oh, God, that was really a good one.’”

The critics’ literary expectations for Bean were disappointed: He instead turned his efforts to the screen. His Hollywood credits include the screenplays for the 1990 Richard Gere thriller “Internal Affairs,” and the classic 1992 Laurence Fishburne neo-noir “Deep Cover,” co-written with the novelist Michael Tolkin. He also directed two of his own scripts, “The Believer” (2001) and “Noise” (2007), both studies in fanaticism.

Like his characters, Bean was not long for Berkeley. “All my friends,” Harold says, “are moving from the flatlands up to the hills, and eventually they topple over the ridge into Los Angeles or New York.” “The Nenoquich” now returns as a chronicle of sex and death in youth and a portrait of the baby boom generation at a turning point — between political radicalism and the path of temptation, fulfillment and disappointment that came to define it.

Christian Lorentzen’s work has appeared in The London Review of Books, Bookforum and Harper’s Magazine. He also writes on Substack.

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