Thursday, 16 December 2010

The Black House by Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith’s short stories deal with her usual stock in trade of dysfunctional families, misanthropic young men and ugly crimes, but as ever the writing is a joy to read and her insight into the human psyche is as sharp as in her full length novels.

In I Despise Your Life, twenty-year-old Ralph is coming home to his father’s house to tap him for cash. Living with the hip set in New York City, he needs to get $100 together for the rent on their loft apartment, the dump, but his father says no and tells him to get a job, despite first offering him a beer:

“Sit down, boy. What brings you here? ... Like a beer?” “Yeah, sure. Thanks.” Ralph was at that moment feeling a little fuzzy in the head. He had been a lot sharper less than an hour ago, higher and sharper, when he had been smoking with Cassie, Ben and Georgie back at the dump... Meanwhile a beer was what they called socially acceptable. Ralph took the cold can that his father extended.

Ralph retorts by telling his father that he thinks that his life is junk and storms off, although a letter from his old man a couple of days letter tries to mollify the situation, insisting that he’s free to do what he wants with his life. Ralph sulks because he feels he’s been cut off.

Cassie, Ben and Georgie decide to hold a party with $3 entry to get the rent money together. Ralph, in an inspired moment invites his dad to the bash, although when the day itself dawns he realises that this might have been of questionable wisdom. The house is decked out with tape hanging from the rafters and a phallic display of fruit (two oranges, banana) on the food table. There’s enough to drink, if you like wine:

Ralph tossed back a paper cupful of distasteful red wine. Why was he drinking the stuff? He preferred beer any time.

Oh well. His father arrives and Ralph tries to impress him:

“My dad!” Ralph yelled on a note of pride. “Is there a beer?” “Beer, hah!” said a fellow with a little brown bottle in his hand, waggling the bottle upside down to show it was empty. “Up yours!” Ralph retorted unheard, and lunged forward and upward, unsettling at least two standing girls, but the girls didn’t mind, only giggled. Ralph was acutely aware of his father, standing more or less in the doorway, and aware also of other people’s surprised expressions upon seeing an older man among them. But Ralph found what he was after, Ben’s precious beer cache behind the fridge, tepid, but still one small beer. Only one had been left there, and Ralph told himself to replace it tomorrow, otherwise Ben would be annoyed. He found an opener and go the top off. The paper cups were already gone. “A beer!” said Ralph, proudly handing his father the bottle.

His father is a fish out of water with all these bright young things wandering around, clearly bombed out of their gourds. He makes his excuses after running into Ralph’s housemate Cassie who is coked up and talking utter nonsense. Ralph sinks into a boozy torpor. When he comes round he feels nauseous:

Ralph felt like throwing up, surely due to the wine. Best to get to the bathroom, the toilet of course, and Ralph at once headed for the bathroom. The door was not locked, though a fellow and a girl were in there, leaning against the basin, and suddenly Ralph was angry and yelled for both of them to get out. He heard his own voice yelling, and kept on, until with startled faces they slowly made their way out, and then Ralph slid the bolt on the door. He did not have to throw up, though he recalled that this had been his intent.

He keeps his supper, but ends up slashing his wrists and wakes up in hospital the next day. Once again, it’s back to his father for money, this time to pay a $500 medical bill...

I Despise Your Life is no more than a vignette, but Highsmith skewers her characters to the page so well that it’s a miniature masterpiece on the generation gap, a highly astute study in father son relationships.

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