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Reissue Of 'The End of Me' Helps Cement Alfred Hayes' Status As A Great Novelist


This is FRESH AIR. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, has a review of a new reissue of a novel by Alfred Hayes, who John says is one of our great writers about social and personal disillusionment. Hayes was a poet, novelist and screenwriter, whose name largely fell from view in the years after his death in 1985. But with the reissue of three of his novels, his reputation has been making a comeback Here's John's review of "The End Of Me."

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: A few years ago, I was having a lunch with my friend Pierre (ph), one of those French cinephiles who knew more about Hollywood than I ever could. John Powers, he said, what do you think of Alfred Hayes? I said I'd never heard of him. Pierre beamed with a smile that was equal parts derision at my not knowing and delight that now he'd be able to tell me. It turns out that Alfred Hayes lived a life that was like an encapsulated history of the 20th century. Born Jewish in London, he moved to New York as a kid and grew up to become a left-wing journalist and poet. He wrote "Joe Hill," a poem about a labor activist. It became a song made famous by Joan Baez. He served in World War II and stayed on in Italy, where he helped write such famous neorealist films as Vittorio De Sica's "Bicycle Thieves" and Roberto Rossellini's "Paisan." He got an Oscar nomination for that.

Moving to Hollywood, he worked with high-class directors like Fritz Lang and Nicholas Ray before ending his career churning out scripts for TV series like "Mannix." During the '50s and '60s, Hayes also wrote three brief, clear-eyed, deeply unsettling novels about screenwriters. New York Review Books already republished the first two, "In Love" and "My Face For The World To See," and is just now bringing out the third one, titled "The End Of Me." Along with the other parts of this loose trilogy, this elegant, oddly-gripping novel establishes Hayes as the even more disenchanted heir of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

First published in 1968, "The End Of Me" is narrated by Asher, a middle-aged Hollywood screenwriter whose career has gone kerflooey, along with his second marriage. Hoping to rekindle something, Asher, in whose name you can almost taste the powdery ruin, takes a hotel room in his hometown of New York City. He plans to explore his Lower East Side roots while trying to figure out his future. But '60s New York isn't what he knew in the '30s. It's been alterated, as a waiter says at an old haunt, that's no longer the same. As a favor to an aging aunt, Asher meets up with her grandson Michael, an aspiring poet. He treats the young man with condescension and receives corrosive disdain in return. Asher is more kindly disposed to Michael's lover, a vibrant, fur-coat-wearing actress in her early 20s who swears her real name is Aurora d'Amore. Pursuing Aurora down an amorous rabbit hole of his own digging, Asher discovers, as many of us do, that neither he nor his place in the world are as special as he once thought they were.

"The End Of Me" is stingingly good. But it's no great surprise that it isn't well-known. Like the earlier novels, it was wildly out of sync with the grand, eloquent postwar cultural moment in which it emerged. Hayes doesn't share in the sentence-flaunting pyrotechnics of Saul Bellow and John Updike. Nor does he pontificate about America like Norman Mailer. Resolutely unshowy, he's never out to prove that he's a great writer. Hayes writes with the unadorned clarity of the neorealist filmmakers. But he stirs in a ruthless, psychological perceptiveness. His work is colored by disillusionment with himself, with Hollywood, with writing, which he calls writhing, and with a postwar America that appears shorn of deeper values. Indeed, all three novels end with their heroes mingling with people they don't actually want to be with.

Hayes is at his most brilliant in exploring romantic relationships. He creates vividly alive female characters. Aurora d'Amore fairly leaps off the page. And he's unblinkingly honest about the selfish, often paranoid ways his heroes view women. This is nowhere clearer than in his masterpiece "My Face For The World To See," the lacerating story of a writer and an aspiring young actress he saves from drowning. Perfectly suited to the hashtag #MeToo era, the book is an unmatched portrait of how Hollywood misogyny chews up young women. Early in "The End Of Me," Asher says that New York is - and I quote, "constantly existing at the periphery of your sight. You are almost always seeing at the very edge of what you see something else that you are still not seeing." The same is true of Hayes' slim novels, which are perfectly lucid and down-to-earth yet keep hinting at moods and meanings you can't quite pin down and that keep lingering in your head. Even when you finish a book by Alfred Hayes, his book isn't finished with you.

GROSS: John Powers reviewed "The End Of Me" by Alfred Hayes. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about what happens to women who get an abortion just under a clinic's deadline and what happens to women who just missed the deadline and are denied an abortion. And how does the reality of these women's lives compare to preconceptions many people hold about the impact of abortion on a woman's life? My guest will be Diana Greene Foster, the principal investigator of a 10-year study comparing those two sets of women. Her new book is about the results of the study. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering from Mike Villers. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.