Your Own Personal Jesus
“Playing the Saint Is Bad for One’s Health”: The Death of the Adversary by Hans Keilson
“A small, plain-looking man, in the grip of something stronger than himself, was speaking as though he were strangling himself. He stood there like a damned soul. A torch was wavering at a crossroads. He had to choose… During those moments he became alienated from himself, and that which took hold of him was simply something alien. But at other times he thought that it was his own self. Then he felt himself as great and strong and irresistible as a river. He began to urge, to scream, and to rave. He could not contain himself, he burst his banks. But he did not understand what he was doing. To me he sounded like a drowning man who was screaming for help.” — The narrator of The Death of the Adversary on Hitler
Among other things, Adolf Hitler was a failed artist. Whatever it was that denied him advancement as a painter along the artistic strata of Weimar Republic Germany — insufficiently fine technique, lack of original vision, shortage of commitment or an underlying character flaw (‘and… how,’ says History) — he was able, as firebrand and chief of the Nazi state, to pillage galleries across the country, to decree what was and was not fit for German citizens’ aesthetic appreciation. For lack of precise criticism, brute force made for an obvious answer. As portrayed in the 2004 German film Downfall, Hitler resembles at his end nothing so much as a megalomaniacal magazine editor, unable to grasp the fact of collapsing advertising revenue and terrified to allow crass foreigners, the invasive other, to compromise his dream of an immortal Berlin. Alone with Nazi architect Albert Speer in a massive room where the city has been modeled in white plaster at reduced dimension, Hitler takes one last longing look, a boy forced to quit his toys forever and confront in life what it is he has done.
The name of the adversary in Hans Keilson’s WWII novel, first published in Germany of 1959 and recently re-released in the U.S. as a paperback, is never stated, a single initial serving to identify the man. In complement, the specific identity of the narrator and his people is not made overt, only the fact that they have been singled out. What The Death of the Adversary directly addresses is the intellectual conception of a Hitler-like figure in the mind of one of the persecuted. “In compensation for having to play the role of the vanquished,” thinks the narrator, “I conceived the intoxicating fantasy of being in an unassailably superior position, so that finally I succumbed to the idea that the way towards him and through him was the way to my own self.”
With a manuscript secreted into the hands of a stranger, Keilson’s novel begins; that stranger, a lawyer, having buried it until the war is over, subsequently presents the pages to a literary personage, to hear his estimation of their content. This framing device encloses the novel proper, the first-person account of a man delineating his relationship, largely imagined, with an adversarial figure whose deathly ire is first petty, then pitiable, then consuming, then terrifying, then something else entirely, as it takes root in a stricken republic.
Through a sort of titanic idiocy the narrator self-identifies with his sworn enemy. But that self-identification is no simple delusion, even if not a shred of it is present in the head of his other. Advises a friend of the narrator, “What are you after? You’re dissatisfied with the whole creation and rack your brains about your enemy. You brood. Do you think he broods over you? He acts.”
That Dostoevskian labor of self-identification with an enemy, no matter how remote — in this case, literally, Hitler — figures, at last, as an act of heroism, a vote for humanity, no matter how doomed or prone to contradiction the effort. Though the novel effectively ends with a joke, the breadth of its content defies any punch line. Driven from his home, the persecuted keens:
Even if you should think — but it is not true — that you are fighting me not because I hold different opinions or have differently colored hair, or because my nose has a different shape from yours, all that you are fighting against is your own; and the more you try to keep it from yourself and do not want it to be true and cannot accept it and start cheating, the more furious becomes your fight against it in me, carried on with a hatred that is no longer on the side of life. But there, where you are struggling with yourself, in that primal place, I want to take hold of you and be held by you; there, in that place, I stand beside you.
“A Tricky Guy”: God Says No by James Hannaham
“Disney World was the only thing I believed in as much as God.” — Gary Gray
Disneyland Park in Anaheim, CA opened to visitors on July 17th, 1955, its counterpart The Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, FL on October 1st, 1971. Over the entryway of the former, there is a sign reading, Here You Leave Today And Enter The World of Yesterday, Tomorrow and Fantasy. The latter, it happens — not significantly different in its machinery of enchantment — is a source of happiness for Gary Gray, the protagonist of James Hannaham’s debut novel God Says No. If Gary happens not to conform to Disney’s image of middlebrow decency, no matter. Even as a self-described fat, gay, black man, he cannot help loving it.
Or maybe it does matter: Gary’s exclusion from the fold of the mediated mainstream, his extreme otherness so defined, leaves him grasping for a sense of belonging — from, arguably, the very centers of his exclusion, Disney and evangelical Christianity. The irony of that premise is what carries the day in Gary’s journey from sexually confused youth to sexually confused married man to sexually confused gay tourist about town to sexually confused Christian reform camper to himself, Gary Gray, the end of all his exploring, narrator of the novel: “I was like Pinocchio, a wooden marionette always begging to become a real boy.” Like Hawthorne’s “Wakefield,” Ellison’s The Invisible Man or an actor on stage, Gary slips out of one context and into another, viewing the place he left behind through the eyes of his present standing.
The novel’s suspense, such as it is, hangs on the question of Gary’s agonized wavering, his desire to do what is right and what will hurt those dear to him least, while sorting out his own control, or lack thereof, over what his body wants — what he wants: “Was this Satan’s influence corrupting me, or the voice of my true self? Was my secret sexuality my true self? More true than my wife and family? I didn’t have an answer — I was a walking question mark.”
Along the picaresque way, the reader receives a theme park tour of contemporary America’s manifold attitudes and manners of response to homosexuality: Gary’s wife (Annie), daughter (Cheryl), an abusive father, a lover (Miquel), a theater director (Rex), a hyper-masculine homosexual cop (Manny), a prostitute (Penny), a Christian theorist (Dr. Soffione) and a friendly ex-lesbian (Gay), among many others. We are meant to laugh, yes (the novel is ripe with a comedy alternately overt and understated: “I thought how strange it was that you could meet really nice people in shameful situations like public-sex.”), but also to respect the heroic going-against-the-grain of Gary in struggling to uphold the banners of Disney and Christ — all be the grain, here, his own sexual preference.
In Charles Baxter’s novel The Soul Thief, the protagonist Nathaniel Mason confronts the cognitive dissonance of how he sees God: “The God that watches and loves him cannot be a personal God.” It is that same dissonance — between the Jesus who watches and the Jesus who acts — that plagues Gary, nettling his doubt. Being a nice and private man, he naturally keeps his rants to himself. Or to himself and his readers:
God never spoke about what He saw. Certainly not to me. How long had I pleaded with Him to help me, to fix me, to show me a sign, only to be ignored? If you thought on it, God let everything on Earth happen. God plunked Himself down at a big desk and okayed everything with a fat rubber stamp. Should it be a sunny day? Why, yes! Today, let’s wipe out the coast with a hurricane. Great idea! Should there be roller coasters? Yeah, let’s build a whole mess of ’em! How about a train wreck, Lord? Fine with me! Do we need a snack food called Cheeze-A-Roonies on Planet Earth? Heck yeah, bring on the Cheeze-A-Roonies! What say you create an evil dude named Adolf Hitler? Yessirree! Seemed He didn’t even have a rubber stamp for No. He let good and bad stuff happen all the time and didn’t care if folks did what they pleased if they could handle the consequences and keep the secrets.
Akin to J. Robert Lennon’s Castle, the rendering of reality in God Says No shimmers in a way that accentuates the artifice involved in its making, its status as a sort of silent performance piece by the author Hannaham. There are casually surreal, Kafkaesque moments (Fort Sumter called Fort Sumpter); at other times, Gary’s perspective seems informed by incident beyond his known character:
Feelings feel real enough when you’ve got them, but sometimes they don’t mean much more in the scheme of things than what the weather was on this same date last year. When you think about it, it gets tough to put your emotions into boxes called Real and Not Real, or even Sexual and Not Sexual. The way a friend of mine puts it, the problem with attractions might be that they’re all sexual.
Beyond Gary’s known character, though, is where the novel takes place, what it is about: “I reminded myself of how Jonah sacrificed himself to the sea to save his companions on the ship. But where was my whale?” If that makes, in places, for uneven narrative, well, This Side of Paradise isn’t a flawless first novel either. In God Says No, Hannaham takes no easy outs.
–Jeff Price is a Brooklyn-based editor and writer.