A REVIEW OF TERRE HAUTE BY WILL AITKEN
Terre Haute by American-Canadian novelist and film critic Will Aitken was published by Delta in New York in 1989. It is 274 pages.
For readers in the 1990s, Jared McCaverty, the fourteen-year-old protagonist of Will Aitken's first novel Terre Haute, may have an impact comparable to that which Holden Caulfield, the 16-year-old protagonist of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, had for readers in the 1950s. After forty years the United States remains stubbornly heterosexist, but the difference between today’s Jared McCaverty and yesterday's Holden Caulfield does indicate a modicum of progress toward sexual liberation. In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden's socially approved homophobia does not protect him from his own repressed homosexuality, and this precipitates a mental illness that a psychiatrist might diagnose as “psychosis aggravated by acute homosexual panic.” In Terre Haute, homosexuality still results in the usual successful and unsuccessful attempts at suicide, but no mental illness. Here, the pathology has shifted from the teenage protagonist, Jared, who refuses to repress his natural impulses no matter what, to a parent still unwilling to admit that his adolescent son is a sexual being and that homosexuality might be normal for some children.
Terre Haute chronicles twelve eventful months in the life of Jared McCaverty. In December Jared meets a boy and a man who will be his sex partners in the coming year: a transfer student, Randy Sparks, who appears brieﬂy in Jared’s ninth-grade home room; and the new director of the Slope Museum, Mr. Julian Clay, who hires Jared to work in the museum after school. On Christmas day Jared is caught by his father with the muscle magazine, Physique, and a condom, masturbating. In January Jared is assaulted by his father for being gay. In February a mouth injury, inflicted by his father, becomes infected. In March Jared begins a serious courtship of the apparently straight Randy Sparks. In April, Jared is vigorously courted by Mr. Clay. In May Jared’s love affair with Randy is consummated. In June Jared and his mother celebrate their mutual birthday (his fifteenth), and Randy appears at the party to invite Jared to spend the night. In July Jared's father catches the two boys kissing in Jared’s room, and ejects Randy from the house. This is the second time Jared's father has caught him with a boy-lover, and for the second time in his life, Jared tries unsuccessfully to commit suicide. In August when Jared and Mr. Clay are in Chicago to take delivery of the statue “Minos and After” purchased for the museum, Jared is raped by Mr. Clay. In September Mr. Clay meets Jared regularly in the museum storeroom for sex. In October a witch-hunt is launched when a state senator identifies the sculptor of “Minos and After” as a suspected communist and a homosexual. In November Mr. Clay, despairing for his job, tells the boy that he had sex with him only because Jared wanted it. Jared accuses Mr. Clay of hypocrisy and says “I'm going to tell my father exactly what you did to me.” Mr. Clay reacts by committing suicide. After the memorial service for Mr. Clay, Jared picks up a 20-year-old French exchange student, Alexandre. Using his own key, Jared sneaks Alexandre into the Slope Museum, which is closed for Mr. Clay’s funeral. Feeling responsible for Mr. Clay’s suicide, Jared reacts like a modern Huckleberry Finn, thinking “it’s not like this is anyworse than anything I’ve already done. So I’ll go to hell.”
Terre Haute is gracefully written, with passages often so lyrical that they are sometimes more like poetry than prose. The young narrator, Jared, is witty, and his outlook is droll. What others might regard as banal, such as the way Mr. Clay and his boyish-looking, short-haired wife, Dorcas, blow smoke at each other, elicits an original observation from the boy (“They exhale elegantly, blowing narrow streams of smoke above their heads so that the two streams intertwine. It's neat when married people have something they enjoy doing together”). The novel is filled with startling metaphors and similes, as when a weightlifter with dumbbells in his outstretched hands, pictured on the wall in Randy Spark's basement, looks to Jared “like a really meaty Christ waiting for the nails.”
The romance between Jared and Randy is the sweetest part of the novel. At school Randy looks “small, kind of lost,” but undressed he resembles a Greek statue (“every muscle right on the surface, perfectly outlined, perfectly curved, about to burst. Even his hair looks right, not too long but curling down over his forehead and down the brown column of his neck like a warrior's helmet”). Jared is so infatuated with Randy that he can’t stop thinking about him (“I can see him inside my head… like a private movie looping endlessly through my mind. I can do anything I want with it too - run it forward, backward, in slow motion. The only thing I can't do is stop it. Not even when I sleep”). Jared arranges to take piano lessons from Randy’s mother, a music professor at the University, so he can court her son. When the desired sexual liaison finally occurs, Randy employs the time-honored ruse that boys who want to appear heterosexual use to justify their homosexuality (“I’m only doing this because there are no girls around… So none of that lovey-dovey shit’). At first Randy won’t allow Jared to kiss him (“Would you stop the shit, for God’s sake”). Finally when the boys are alone in Jared’s room, the ruse is put aside and the boys kiss like the passionate lovers they really are. Unfortunately, at this instant of bliss the scene catapults from the sublime to the ridiculous, and Jared’s father suddenly bursts into his son’s room “eyes bulging, mouth twisted, like an angry puppet in a Punch-and-Judy show,” wearing a plastic chef’s apron that says “ALL FIRED UP,” and starts swatting the boys with a hot, aluminum barbecuing spatula “streaked with brown grease and charred specks of meat.”
Jared has courted Mr. Clay as persistently as the man has courted him. The affair with Mr. Clay turns out differently from what Jared had imagined, for with Randy there had been mutual respect and love. Mr. Clay likes Jared, who is extraordinarily bright and amusing, but not the way a boy-lover would. If Mr. Clay were a true boy-lover, their sexual activities would be consensual from the start, and his main emphasis would be in pleasuring the boy, not himself. Their first sexual encounter is a brutal anal rape, causing Jared real pain and injury (“I’m practically screaming it hurts so much, plunging, burning, scraping, tearing”). It is worse even than when Jared‘s father catches his son in some forbidden sexual activity and beats him on the bare ass with a leather belt. In both instances, Jared counts each stroke, but, unlike the rape, his father’s belting brings sexual release (“I can’t roll over. He’d see what I've done to the bedspread. That would make him mad all over again’). Afterwards, when his father caressingly applies Vicks Vapo-Rub (“like he’s sleepwalking through some slow ceremony’), Jared feels sleepy and sad as when he hears the hymn “There is a Balm in Gilead.” Jared continues the affair with Mr. Clay out of love, or possibly because his father has destroyed his romance with Randy, but the relationship never ceases to be one-sided and exploitative.
Even in the rape scene the complex technical virtuosity to be found on every page in Terre Haute is exhibited to advantage. Despite the wild, often grim action, there is an underlying comic touch:
Without warning he tips me onto the bed. He’s all over me now, like he's grown extra hands and legs. And an extra tongue. In my mouth, my ears, my nose. Disgusting. I never expected him to be like this. So wild. He wrenches of my shirt, almost ripping it. His cock presses into my belly, bony knees push my legs apart. It’s like I'm not supposed to do anything but lie here. He's doing it all.
He's back working on my neck again. Breathing hard through his nose. He burrows down and nibbles the nape. I start shuddering all over. That really sets him off. He bites down, I arch off the bed in pain. He catches me in midair and flips me over. My face comes down in the pillow and he covers my body with his, holding on to my shoulders like I’m giving him a piggyback ride.
Throughout the novel, no matter what happens, Jared maintains his sense of humor. As is often the case, his father never appreciates Jared's wittiness, or even notices. He keeps telling Jared that his mouth is going to get him “into a lot of trouble.” When his father asks “What kind of fruit do you think you’re going to turn out to be,” the response - “A kumquat?”—precipitates a physical attack that wrecks the car they're riding in and gives Jared a mouth injury that becomes seriously infected. It is significant that the ultimate cause of the mouth infection is none other than his own father, who obviously loves his son, but delights in spying on his son's sexual activities, sneaking up to Jared's room and pulling him off the bed by the ankles when he's masturbating, confiscating his Physique magazines, and making derogatory comments about Jared’s boyfriends. Prior to the present action, his father had caught Jared having sex with a boy from the Gifted Children's Summer School, Paul Herzog, about whom Jared’s father had said “He’s so pretty I bet he squats when he pees.” The horrible memory of his father’s catching him with Paul Herzog is for Jared the ultimate humiliation, and this is the standard by which he judges all subsequent sexual traumas.
Terre Haute is a marvelous novel, abounding with subtleties that cannot be touched upon in a short review. When America’s current anti-sex hysteria has played itself out and the dust of present-day sexual politics has settled, Terre Haute will be recognized as a true classic. For now, however, the subject matter may deny it the appreciation it deserves. In the meantime, to anyone interested in the contemporary adolescent experience, presented from a boy’s point of view, Will Aitkin’s Terre Haute cannot be recommended too highly.
Reviewed by Robert Rockwood in the March 1991 issue of the NAMBLA Bulletin (Vol. XII No. 2) pp. 17-18.