Giving Highsmith Her Due — and Her Dirt: Tyler’s Last by David Winner

by Jenna Leigh Evans

Devoted fans of Patricia Highsmith who rushed to see Carol, Todd Haynes’ ravishing film adaptation of The Price of Salt, might have noticed a missing element: ugliness. As film critic Anthony Lane put it, Haynes does beauty. Moreover, while the brutality of human desire is hinted at obliquely, the movie’s protagonists are neither vulgar nor repellent. Highsmith’s characters, on the other hand, are monsters, every one.

Those whose fondness for Highsmith is due in part to the satisfaction she took in depicting human beings as spiritually and psychologically deformed creatures will relish David Winner’s weird, compelling novel Tyler’s Last, an homage that positively bathes in the monstrous qualities she reveled in — and of late-life Highsmith herself, by most accounts a frankly awful person.

The novel works kaleidoscopically, a story-with-a-story in which the two halves of the tale start out distinct and divided, then begin to splinter, sending shards from one into the other. Yet it always holds its shape, remaining structurally tight, and a page-turner to boot.

In it, Tyler, an aging roué right out of the Talented Mr. Ripley — effete, cunning, lecherous — receives mysterious threats from a handsome goon he lusted after and tried to murder, in that order. Like Ripley, he’s essentially a pragmatist, and his practical solutions to this problem include impersonating the dead and abducting a child. Meanwhile, Tyler’s creator, an elderly lesbian writer, alcoholic and mean as a snake to her hapless caregivers, obsessively stalks her much younger ex-lover. In the background, the real world undergoes convulsive change, perceived by the narcissistic old drunk as nothing more than an inconvenience, ants milling on an anthill.

Both characters are driven by perversity, perversions and muddled romantic longings, and self-soothe with a comically inept attempt at meditation. Both have insides that are rotten both figuratively and literally. On every page, base corporality carries the day. As Winner’s Highsmith stand-in (never referred to by name) burrows ever more deeply into her guzzled whiskey, urine-stained clothes, and hateful views of the world, her literary creation descends ever further into dissolution, cruelty and gastro-intestinal distress. Stains, blood, semen, mud, pickled herring, piss: when it comes to the physical, Winner is as unsparing as William S. Burroughs; the pages practically stick together.

He’s no less so when it comes to character, driving his protagonists full-tilt into their own nastiness with an antic glee. The obsessive old author, in the presence — at last! — of her lost love, inflicts torment only a scorned writer could devise, tying her to a bedpost and reading aloud from a fictionalized version of their relationship, asking in conclusion, “Did the cunt factory that produced you fail to include a heart?”

Horrible, and funny. Is it dialogue that Highsmith could conceivably have written herself? Maybe not. Whether it is something she could conceivably have said is something else entirely, and for Highsmith fans, there’s a kinky pleasure to be had in this.

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