The Horizontal Man by Helen Eustis


published 1946

HOrizontal man 2
[reporter Jack is in a student bar, trying to get information for his story]

He sat down discreetly, not giving the girls any kind of obvious eye. One of them was quite a tomato – what is referred to as a long-stemmed American beauty. This was going to be what you call mixing business with pleasure. The other [Kate] was on the dumpy side, with a frowsy feather cut and horn-rimmed glasses like the young man’s own. She was wearing dungarees and a sweatshirt; the first had on a pink sweater and skirt
 












Horizontal man 1
[later he arrives at Kate’s student residence and asks her on a date]

‘Now will you go fix your face for me?’ he grinned.

‘Yeah,’ she said, flushing, ‘yeah!’ and turned to fly up the stairs when he caught her on the landing and kissed her resoundingly.

‘Take those damn pants off,’ he said, smacking the logical place, ‘and drop them in the nearest incinerator!’…

In something more than a jiffy, Kate reappeared, looking respectable in a sweater, skirt and cosmetics. She took her polo coat from the coat rack and they went out of the door in silence….

 
observations: Helen Eustis died recently, at the age of 98: this was her best-known book, and it won the Edgar Award for best first novel in 1947. It’s a campus murder mystery set at a women’s liberal arts college in New England - it was interesting to find out from her obituary that the womanizing academic who is murdered (plenty of those he has treated badly might have a motive) was based on her own professor husband.

It reads quite strangely to modern readers for a number of reasons: the main one is impossible to discuss without spoilers, so all I will say is that it must have been rather startling at the time, whereas in 2015 the direction of the book gives itself away. I also found it had a great unevenness of tone: there are some very dark passages, a look at lives that are difficult and disastrous, and a serious attempt to see psychiatry and psychology as a way of helping people. But then Eustis will turn to the couple above, who seem to have wandered in from an episode of Scooby Doo or Nancy Drew (Scooby Drew?). We need to judge books by the standards of their own time, but it still is rather depressing that Kate, above, who is obviously one of the brightest people in the book, has to put up with the dialogue above, and from a woman writer. Kate is also told by her new boyfriend that she is too fat, and he over-rides her food choices in a bar for that reason.

Their route to coupledom is obviously meant as light relief, which works only occasionally, as at the point where Jack asks Kate if she ‘wants to be a virgin all your life?’
‘There’s a difference between abstention and discrimination’ said Kate huffily.
And although it is a serious book, there were occasional funny moments. I liked the colleague being asked over the phone to take part in a memorial event for the murdered professor Kevin Boyle:
‘I wondered if you would be willing to say something [to the group]? What do you think?’
I think it is a maudllin, disgusting self-advertising notion, and quite typical of your very vulgar mind, he thought. ‘Very well; at what time?’
Eustis is plainly trying to be uptodate about gay people: there’s a student who says Kate can’t be a lesbian because she is full-busted, and a claim that where you found the picture of Van Gogh’s young man in a straw hat ‘you would find a homosexual.’

The students all drink like crazy – beer, and whisky, and brandy Alexanders. This is interesting – now they most certainly couldn’t, not in bars, as stringent rules apply. Then, as now, the minimum drinking age in Connecticut is 21– but obviously not much notice was being taken of that in 1946.

The book is readable enough and quite gripping, although it’s a pity so many of the characters are grotesque and miserable. Eustis led the way in creating a new kind of psycho-sexual thriller, and like many trailblazers looks a bit clichéd now. I still enjoyed the picture of life at a small college in the snow, and the contemporary details.

Pictures from the New York World’s Fair in 1940, a fashion show for college students, via the New York Public Library. A 'typical student' in the book is described as wearing a ‘nondescript tweed coat and the usual socks and moccasins’ and brown mittens.
















Comments

  1. Moira - I must admit, the way Kate's treated would probably put me off straight away. But books are products of their times... I do like an academic mystery though, and that aspect of it interests me. And there's something to exploring books that served to take the genre into new territory, even if they seem cliched now.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Margot, you have to read this one with two sides of your brain - one side clocking the things that would be unacceptable today, and wincing, and the other side reading it as an interesting and innovative book....

      Delete
  2. I very much agree - an intriguing book. Have you read her very different book, The Fool KIller? lmprobably, it inspired a quite wonderful song written but not included in the film version, and performed by....Gene Pitney

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No I haven't Martin, but you;ve certainly got me intrigued. There didn't seem to be much else by her available, but I'm going to have to try to find that one!

      Delete
  3. and a claim that where you found the picture of Van Gogh’s young man in a straw hat ‘you would find a homosexual.’

    I have Van Gogh's Portrait of Armand Roulin, I wonder if that one counts?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Perhaps we need an art expert to give a judicious verdict on which exact Van Gogh portraits have meaning...

      Delete
  4. Happy to see that your posts aren't tempting me.......first thoughts - avoid like the plague, though I am of course pleased you find things to like.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't know, Col, you might find the vicious attitudes and weird goings on quite enjoyable to read about - but I don't think I'm going to be able to convince you!

      Delete
  5. An intensely nasty book that a lot of people will not like. I wrote a detailed essay on my blog a couple of years ago and many readers misinterpreted my review as a slam because I pointed out how Eustis made nearly everyone so unlikeable. I admired the book. I was fascinated by her obsession with the worst of humanity. She seemed to be a very bitter and cynical woman when she wrote this book.

    I have to say that I found this statement to be incredibly naïve: "The students all drink like crazy – beer, and whisky, and brandy Alexanders. This is interesting – now they most certainly couldn’t, not in bars, as stringent rules apply."

    In the US legal age drinking laws do not stop teenagers from finding ways to get their alcohol. They may not be drinking in bars, but they are drinking. A lot.

    You think those comments about gay people are meant to be up-to-date? They're examples of narrow-minded thinking to reveal the characters' prejudices. She's being satirical there.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Young people always have and always will find ways to get alcohol. My point was that they easily get served in bars in this book (to the point of passing out drunk), and they wouldn't be able to now. I do specify 'in bars' so I'm not sure where the naivete comes in?

      Obviously the remark about being full busted is satire, but the point is that Eustis plainly feels that being gay would be less desirable than being straight, and it is clear that Kate is not above being reassured by the other girl's remark: she happily 'views her own contours' immediately afterwards before embarking on the new life of having a boyfriend.

      The other is a joke, but I do not think it is meant to show narrow-minded thinking. And I most certainly do think she shows her own prejudices.

      I would agree that those remarks are satirical:

      Delete
  6. I re-read it about a year ago and still thought it held up fairly well - the final twist maybe not so much, but enjoyed the nastiness of it all actually!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, that's a very good description of it, Sergio. If that appeals to anyone, they should read it!

      Delete
  7. Ordered the book. But don't we know that attitudes were different in the past? Looking forward to the book, especially the unpleasant people. ;-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Look forward to hearing what you think of it Lucy. It must have been very surprising in its day.

      Delete
  8. I was surprised at the mention of "feather cut"; I thought that was relatively new, but when I looked it up it said it originated in the 1935-40 period. I was also surprised at dungarees but I know trousers on women has been discussed here before.

    I agree that books should be read in the context of their times, and I don't expect them to reflect today's attitudes. But it is hard sometimes to enjoy a book which has biases which make us mad or uncomfortable. Guess it depends on a lot of things.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, me too Tracy - feather cut and dungarees totally sounds like a student from the 1970s. Some things definitely came earlier than you think...

      Delete
  9. Moira, from your review this book sounds very interesting, especially since I have never head of Helen Eustis and more so since reading John's comment and your reply to it. In spite of being "grotesque and miserable" and notwithstanding the other elements, "The Horizontal Man" promises to be entertaining even if in a skewed way.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, Prashant it definitely is entertaining, and does give a very good picture of New England in the 1940s.

      Delete

Post a Comment