A review of Roy by Roger Peyrefitte, Paris, 1979 (no authorised English translation from the French)
Pride goeth before a fall ****
Out skateboarding one night in September 1977, rich 13-year-old schoolboy Roy Clear, “said to be the best-looking boy … in the whole of Los Angeles,” meets and is easily seduced by ugly police chief Jack Sherman, plunging him into fourteen months of increasingly wild adventure, including exclusive prostitution to the rich and famous, and richly varied experimentation with sex and drugs. Though often sensational, the story remains credible in both its plot and the palpable excitement motivating the protagonist.
Roger Peyrefitte had evidently made himself deeply familiar with his setting, since the novel also serves as a detailed description of life in California at a particular time of change, most especially its early gay politics, its religious cults, and, most typically of Peyrefitte, salacious gossip about its celebrities. While most of this is quite interesting, there is so much of it that he falls into the trap, for a novel, of telling rather than showing what it was like.
Readers of Peyrefitte’s bestselling earlier novels, especially the first and best, Special Friendships, with its heart-breakingly authentic depiction of the powerful emotions of an older and younger boy in an unconsummated love affair, may well be startled by the copious and graphic descriptions of Roy’s sexual escapades. Somewhat forewarned, I had hoped that in the hands of a writer so gifted at evoking emotion in beautiful language, the result might be an erotic masterpiece, but it was not. Peyrefitte curiously fails to convey the emotional as opposed to purely physical pleasure and relief, which matters more. Moreover, for me, towards the end, he crosses well beyond that always nebulous and personal border between the erotic and the disgusting with mercifully brief and restrained descriptions of sado-masochism and coprophilia.
The novel is expressly intended as a satire on how “the Americans cover [barbarism] with money.” Brought up to worship money by his ridiculously socially-pretentious parents, Roy resorts to blackmail as well as prostitution and concludes he should only have unremunerated sex with youngsters of his own wealthy class, while Sherman hypocritically persecutes gays not belonging to the super-rich circle he thinks should alone be allowed to indulge themselves. Despite this, there is simultaneously a pervasive sense that Peyrefitte is besotted with America as pioneer of the supposedly ultimate “libertarian revolution” and California in particular as “the freest state” with “the best looking” youngsters, which slightly undermines the point of the satire. Though Roy finally regrets his excesses, he never learns to love, and I could not help wondering whether the great writer had not himself become jaded in choosing such a theme.
Ramsey, Roy’s university-student mentor in gay life, explains to him that every kind of venereal disease “could easily be cured these days. ‘So that’s not a reason,’ he had concluded, ‘to refrain from doing what one wants to do.’ ” Alas. I dread to think what is bound to have happened to many of these young characters all too soon after the story ends. Likewise, one wonders if Peyrefitte, whose personal interest was in the pederastic rather than gay form of homosexuality, would have been enthusiastic chronicling in quite such detail the advances of the gay liberationists of the time if he had realised how catastrophically their struggle would soon end as regards everything he and some of them stood for. What would he have thought of the next generation of gays joining the rabid popular denunciation of pederasty in order to gain the sort of pretentious respectability he was so fond of puncturing, and with the part of the world here depicted very much leading the way?
Though Roy is never moving and hardly inspiring, and I was a little disappointed in my hopes for it, it is still worth reading as an intriguing, mostly lively and well-written story.
No authorized English translation of Roy has ever been published. An anonymous one is circulating online. An extraordinarily generous labour of love, it is excellent so far as I am up to commenting, except that it is too literal with respect to dialogue. Consistently using words like bugger, lorry, wank and (neutrally) negro, Roy sounds more like an Englishman of Peyrefitte’s generation than a Californian boy of the seventies.
Reviewed by Edmund Marlowe on Goodreads.com, 16 April 2017.