In the pandemic spring and summer of 2020, as lockdowns took hold and the coronavirus spread, the paintings of Edward Hopper enjoyed a resurgence of interest. Hopper’s ambiguous, voyeuristic depictions of isolated figures, dramatically lit and deeply involved in their private worlds, seemed to speak to that anxious moment, even as they captured something essential about the atomized poetry of American lives. Hopper was much on my mind that summer, which I spent hunkered down with my then-fiancée in a waterfront townhouse in Tarrytown, a village in Westchester County, New York. Taking walks along the Hudson, I could see the painter’s birthplace, the town of Nyack, just across the river—near but unreachable. Like so much else.

It was, as no one needs to be told, a difficult season of an impossible year. At the same time that I was rediscovering the painter of Nighthawks, watching at one remove the growing chaos in the cities, charting the frightening symptoms of my fiancée’s long Covid, and worrying about the future, I found myself reading the novels of Alfred Hayes, a mid-century original who resembles a sort of Edward Hopper in prose.

Reissued by NYRB Classics, Hayes’s three short novels of merit—In Love (1953), My Face for the World to See (1958), and The End of Me (1968)—form a thematic trilogy. Love and illusion, domesticity and its discontents are, for Hayes, permanent concerns. Most obsessively, his writings revolve around ambition and failure and the complex relationship that our professional identities have to our larger selves. Hayes seems to answer questions implicit in Hopper’s paintings. What is the lonely usherette of New York Movie dreaming of? What waits at home for the cinephile of Intermission? In what lines of work are his anonymous hotel guests employed, and whom, if anyone, do they love?

Hayes’s plots are deceptively simple. In My Face for the World to See, a married screenwriter, alienated from his own apparent success—he says he belongs to the “Screen Writhers Guild”—saves a penniless aspiring actress from drowning at a beachfront party. It’s unclear whether she is suicidal or merely drunk. Before going under, she raises her martini glass in a toast to the moon. Thus a connection is forged. Thus the unnamed narrator enters the equally nameless girl’s “unsuccessful” life, which acquires for a time, in his eyes, a kind of fatal glamour, compounded of her beauty and her defeated ambition and her desperation, a desperation to be seen, noticed—“discovered,” in the industry parlance—and compounded also of the fact that he has rescued this foundering beauty from what may or may not have been a joke but would certainly have had, delivered by the remorseless ocean, a permanent punch line. These, together with the man’s self-doubt and unhappy long-distance marriage, are the dark materials out of which Hayes builds his narrative.

Their brief, poignant affair, as unsentimental as it is inevitable, unfolds like a noirish romance. Equally hardboiled is Hayes’s depiction of the Tinseltown milieu. It’s a kind of purgatory that looks to outsiders like paradise, and which feels to those inside it, at times, like a special hell. Here, people wait to become famous. The girl has suffered various indecencies and indignities, come-ons in casting offices and unsavory business in “little photography dens,” all for the sake of a glittering career that may never come. Though even this hell—“the smoky and sullen bed of neons that was Los Angeles from the air”—is preferable to the nonbeing of one’s small-town roots, or the lonesome Antarctic of a loveless marriage back East. The protagonist calls New York “that immense slum.” After Christmas with her parents, the girl feels “a stiffening of her resolution to make money.”

Money promises to give substance, in Hayes’s novels, to those without it; for those with it, though, material wealth proves unsatisfying, even oddly insubstantial. The vast sums that flow from the movie business have a “phantasmal quality.” The screenwriter, who at 37 is 11 years older than the actress, suffers from a kind of affluent precarity. “It was something apparently in the nature of the work itself, this precariousness.” America still on the gold standard, and already there is something ghostly about the business of hitting it big.

Alfred Hayes (1911–85) was possible only in America. Born in London, he was three when he moved with his family to New York, where he attended City College. He worked as a reporter for the New York American and Daily Mirror before being drafted in 1943; that same year, three of his poems appeared in Poetry, along with work by Langston Hughes. In one, the poet attends, “dry eyed,” someone’s funeral, and thinks: “He’s had his; / You’re the horse now, life on you, / Your mouth cut by the bit and bridle of it.” After serving in the U.S. Army Special Services during the war, Hayes stuck around in Rome, where he secured a place in the history of cinema by contributing to the scripts of two films by giants of Italian neorealism: Roberto Rossellini’s Paisà and Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. Later, as a Hollywood screenwriter—he wrote screenplays for Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night and Human Desire, among other films—Hayes was twice nominated for an Oscar. By the end of the 1950s, however, his career had peaked, and for the next two decades he wrote mainly for television.

A fall, even feather-cushioned, is a fall; a slow fade into irrelevance is hardly sweeter for being preceded by success. Hayes, a master of psychological prose, seems to have cherished few illusions. The fictional world of In Love and the later novels is one of brief pleasures and bleak self-knowledge, of discoveries nearly made or made too late. The upwardly mobile come and go in a hotel lobby, and “nobody looked as though they understood the uselessness of it.” Hayes opts now for barbed and winding sentences, now for sharp declarative stabs or run-ons devoid of punctuation. His language is simple yet charged. At crucial junctures, description falls away, yielding passages of pure dialogue that are nonetheless visually suggestive.

Some novelists sketch or paint or inhabit their characters; Hayes X-rays his, but as though operating one of those early X-ray machines with no shielding around the tubes, the kind of hand-built device that, at the dawn of the last century, exposed unsuspecting patients and technicians alike to searing radiation loads. His authorial gaze is so penetrating that it’s practically carcinogenic: you get the feeling that it could, while revealing someone’s insides, disassemble atoms, mutate cells—the illumination of pain leaving scars of its own.

Hayes has few precursors and fewer descendants. In a century dominated by Hemingway and Joyce, Proust and Beckett and Kafka, no literary movement sprang from Hayes’s work; his novels, slim and sharp as stilettos, appear nowhere in the university curriculum. He wrote no canonical stories or verses. The very obscurity of his novels, however, has kept them new. They have lost none of their caustic power. Compared with more famous books of similar age, Hayes’s work, with its cutting, economical exchanges, still sounds modern to our ears, like the hard-bitten dialogue of Casablanca. Concerning a woman groped obscenely in an office:

“Didn’t she spit in his face?”
“She needed the job.”
“Not that much.”
“How much is that much?”

Hayes died in 1985, so he never saw the age of streaming media, in which the entertainment industry swallows up ever more of our leisure time; and the aspiration to be “discovered,” plucked from obscurity into sudden fame, is now, thanks to YouTube and Instagram and TikTok, a nationwide yearning. But he saw enough. Of the inwardly perplexed and perplexing Jorge Luis Borges, Guy Davenport once remarked: “No wonder he wrote about labyrinths.” Yes, and no wonder Hayes wrote about Hollywood. Laboring for America’s dream machine, his men and women are made to bear, in the end, too much reality.

Outwardly competent, the Hayes protagonist is inwardly lost, bewildered, struggling to take his own measure and that of his society. He drinks the usual drinks—martinis, highballs; he is seen at the usual parties, and he eats, at the invitation of people savvier and more successful, the usual steaks at the usual clubby restaurants, such as the legendary Romanoff’s on Rodeo Drive, with its plush booths and Waldorf salad and filet mignon, its waxed dance floor hazy with smoke from the wares of pretty cigarette girls. He is permitted the usual satisfactions. But he stands unusually outside the system from which he draws a salary “somewhat in excess of what they paid an aged vice-president of a respectable bank.” Finding himself rich, he harbors nonetheless a suspicion that “there was something sinister about the way [rich] people lived.” The sight of office workers early in the morning during rush hour saddens him. He carries the memory of marital strife or some other trauma deep in his muscles. Between his shoulder blades, a boulder of dread bears down on him.

Dread bears down on Hayes’s protagonists, though they are outwardly successful and they frequent glamorous social scenes, such as that at Hollywood’s legendary Romanoff’s, on Rodeo Drive. (SLIM AARONS/GETTY IMAGE)

Often nameless, the Hayes man is not a mere social type, though he might say, with the doomed bourgeoisie of Whit Stillman’s film Metropolitan: “I’m not destitute, but . . . it’s all so mediocre.” The attainments of middle-class life are powerless to make him substantial:

Here I am, the man in the hotel bar said to the pretty girl, almost forty, with a small reputation, some money in the bank, a convenient address, a telephone number easily available, this look on my face you think peculiar to me, my hand here on this table real enough, all of me real enough if one doesn’t look too closely.

Close inspection, in the novels, invariably strips Hayes’s characters of whatever solidity and certainty they possessed. Sometimes the inspection is their own, such as Asher’s in The End of Me: “I was in danger of not knowing what I meant, what my own experience meant, what, if anything, the experience of my generation meant.” Though his gaze inward is unsparing, self-examination defeats, rather than aids, understanding. When scrutiny comes from outside, as in the mockery and ill treatment that the 50-year-old Asher receives from his cousin’s son, Michael, an unpublished poet whom he has tried to help, it only winds up in humiliation.

Hayes wrote at a time when one’s 40th birthday was like an ax falling. On the far side of this guillotine year lie divorce and despair. (One of Hayes’s poetry collections, published the same year as The End of Me, is titled Just Before the Divorce.) His men think themselves “ideally alone” and are relieved to reach, with their latest paramour, the “final bitterness and . . . last quarrel,” yet they always wind up in one entanglement too many. Fear, more than desire, drives them into a lover’s arms: “I had wanted to avoid torment and isolation and self-doubt,” says one, and another says: “Growing old is just growing afraid.”

Acute perceptiveness is their equivocal blessing. Nothing themselves, like Wallace Stevens’s snow man, they can behold the nothing that is. From the vantage of his eighth-floor hotel room, a “well-furnished cave” he has slunk off to, the betrayed Asher awaits a kind of anti-dawn: “At precisely 7:05 the sun would rise. As over a battlefield. As over a junkyard. As over a devastated star.”

Though Hayes shies away from many of the big themes (war, race, social revolution) that filled the doorstop novels of his era, the personal crises of his characters, fleshed out with period detail—the actress’s high-priced, twice-a-week analyst is deferring payments until she makes good—resonate beyond the personal. They seem to reveal a fundamental unsoundness in things, an unsuspected emptiness at the heart of the American Century. Lovers slip each other’s grasp like shadows. Intimacy becomes a spectral exercise:

“Who are you?” she said.

She struggled to recognize me. She had a look on her face now that wasn’t pleasant. . . . I thought at first she had not yet identified me, that I was only as anonymous as any man would have been to her ascending from the darkness and the obliteration of the liquor. But I was wrong. I was apparently recognizable: I was somebody known. She had pierced my identity, and the knowledge was there in the look she gave me, in the expression at once cunning and afraid and defiant.

But the recognition is false. An old paranoid fantasy returns: she believes him to be an agent of the big studios, a cat’s paw of movie executives, the secret masters of her hothouse universe, come to spy on her, extract vital information: “I’d go back to them now, at that huge, that mysterious studio where they waited, and I’d tell them all: her last secrets, for I knew everything now.” The tragic irony is that he doesn’t want to know her secrets; when he does finally learn them, he is appalled.

In our early careers, we expand. Eventually, however, due to ill luck or faltering industry, obsolescing skills or an economic recession, some of us begin to contract. Our professional lives stagnate; we grow old without noticing it, while watching everything else. When did the momentum reverse? Suddenly, it dawns on us: we are old. Our stock of favors is depleted, our contacts are themselves out of the game or deceased, the professional network we once counted on has disintegrated like an old cobweb. Once-impressive credentials no longer serve. “Was it all simply because I was getting old?” wonders Asher in The End of Me. “One is discarded. The door closes that had always been open. The phone is silent that had always rung. Others are selected where before one had been selected.”

Asher has been made a cuckold. The despairing tone arises from having witnessed his wife’s act of betrayal, but the words, the implication, are of the unemployed professional, a man well into middle age who finds the work dried up, who goes through his house packing to leave for New York while resisting the violent urge to destroy all the fine things he bought “in the years when the money had been good.” The intertwining of all this, on Hayes’s part, is deliberate and says a great deal about the American relationship to work. A former screenwriter, Asher is on the same track as Hayes’s earlier protagonists, only further down the line. He is jobless—a word that better conveys the attendant sense of amputation than the bureaucratic-neutral “unemployed.” Briefly, he considers running away to Japan, where he once lived: “Japan was a good place to be nothing in.” Later, telling Michael’s girlfriend Aurora about the collapse of his marriage, Asher is even more explicit: “I should make the point here that this [infidelity] was all happening at the same time that the other thing was happening to me, too. I mean, the way the jobs disappeared, the people hanging up on the phone, the being turned into a ghost. They do that to you, you know: they ghostify you.”

All of this might be merely sad, were it not so relevant. In 1968, when Hayes published The End of Me—in an America already much changed from that of the Eisenhower era depicted in his earlier novels—80 percent of American men were employed. Since then, male participation in the workforce has fallen with each passing decade: by August 2022, it had dropped below 68 percent. Hayes’s cool vivisections of male pride, ambition, and lack of purpose remind us of the ongoing immiseration of the American working class, a sowing of dragon’s teeth that, over the past two decades, has yielded an epidemic of suicides, overdoses, and alcoholism. These “deaths of despair”—a term coined by Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton—are partly to blame for the steady decline in U.S. life expectancy since 2014. A disproportionate number of these deaths, as Case and Deaton explain in their 2020 book, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, befall white men without college degrees.

The picture hasn’t improved. Fewer men than women have rejoined the workforce since the pandemic began. Fewer boys than girls graduate high school or matriculate at universities; of those who enroll in higher education, fewer men than women complete degrees or go on to graduate school. What awaits American males who beat these odds is, increasingly, a managerial class that seeks to undermine their status, even their legitimacy, as leaders and thinkers—a white-collar corollary to the sociopolitical forces hollowing out the working class. “Even the worst things that happened to me refused to have dignity when they happened,” Asher complains. We might have fewer social ills today were it not for the progressive ghostification of half the population.

The antidote to despair is hope, which, in Hayes’s work, is forever in short supply. The sort of hope kept alive by artist biopics and A Star Is Born—a story in which we, the special ones, the talented, the elect, are discovered and lifted to an exalted place, in which our dues-paying at last pays off, and “the great trial by loneliness and hunger” comes to an end—is, in these novels, akin to desperation. In My Face for the World to See, the actress’s failure to land a part brings on an existential crisis. Her lover consoles her, badly; failure, he says, is ever-present, merely changing its aspect, and inescapable even amid success: a sort of Et in Arcadia ego for American strivers, losers, and hard-luckers. Even so, he is not without empathy:

I knew, of course, the contours of the pit into which she was looking. I’d looked into it in my own time; the pit of one’s own incapabilities. It never really closed over. . . . I was involved in any defeat she suffered now. Or thought I was involved; thought I was willing to be involved.

The repeated qualifications are masterful; the key attribute of Hayes’s characters is ambivalence, a reluctance to commit fully to anything, or even fully to credit their own feelings and choices. “I could not determine in my own mind, with any certainty,” the narrator of In Love says about the woman he has lost, “what it was I myself felt about her.” Meaning is uncertain because identities are unstable: he can’t decide what he feels about her because he doesn’t really know who she is—or who he is himself. Self-knowledge is a burden. These men don’t want to find themselves; they are too old and jaundiced to take part in a Bildungsroman. “I wanted to be lost,” Asher declares. “I wanted to be effaced.” Feeling himself a failure, he turns his back on the system that made him but is unable to abandon the terms by which, in that system, he is seen to have failed.

Who are we without our work? “I’d thought it was not a matter of importance where I was employed,” says another of Hayes’s suffering men, “or what it was I did to earn what I’d thought of as very good money.” Case and Deaton disagree:

Jobs are not just the source of money; they are the basis for the rituals, customs, and routines of working-class life. Destroy work and, in the end, working-class life cannot survive. It is the loss of meaning, of dignity, of pride, and of self-respect . . . that brings on despair.

To state the obvious, Hollywood screenwriters aren’t part of the working class. During the good years, Asher is said to have pulled down $125,000 a year—more than $1 million today, adjusted for inflation. Yet he was only a well-paid jobber, like the newspaperman Hayes once was. Despair is no respecter of income brackets; journalist Charles Duhigg reported that several of his former Harvard Business School classmates, in 2019, “weren’t overjoyed by their professional lives—in fact, they were miserable. . . . They talked about missed promotions, disaffected children, and billable hours in divorce court. They complained about jobs that were unfulfilling, tedious, or just plain bad.” One of them, earning $1.2 million a year in finance, told Duhigg that he felt as if he were wasting his life: “If you spend 12 hours a day doing work you hate, at some point it doesn’t matter what your paycheck says.”

Hayes’s writing seems to answer questions implicit in Edward Hopper’s portraits, such as that of the lonely usherette in New York Movie. (©2023 HEIRS OF JOSEPHINE N. HOPPER/LICENSED BY ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NY/ PHOTO © FINE ART IMAGES/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES)

In November 2021, more than 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs, more than in any prior month since the Labor Department began tracking the quit rate in 2001. What pundits have called the Great Resignation (though many workers went on to land better jobs) has given way, in a tight labor market, to “quiet quitting,” a homegrown American version of the “lying flat” movement in China, in which young people work the bare minimum, disdaining high status and resisting societal pressures to overachieve, in favor of a simple life. A Reddit forum devoted to “antiwork” (slogan: “Unemployment for all, not just [for] the rich!”) swelled from 180,000 members in October 2020 to 2.5 million in March 2023.

Lying flat, dropping out: this is the final possibility that Hayes dramatizes, in the person of Michael the poet. In contrast to his elder cousin’s $125,000 a year, before taxes, Michael complains that he “made shit . . . before, during, and after taxes.” A venomous cynic, Michael steals a large sum from Asher—already paying him $50 a week in pity money—and, when confronted at a poker game, tells his friends, “Asher doesn’t need it, do you, Asher?” But Michael doesn’t keep the money: instead, he cuts out the heads of Washington, Lincoln, Jackson, and Grant, and pastes them over Asher’s face in the older man’s photograph album. “It summed me up, I guess,” Asher admits, punning bitterly. “I wasn’t any of the things I’d thought I’d been. I was merely money.”

Like Flannery O’Connor writing the atheist Rayber in The Violent Bear It Away, Hayes is unable fully to inhabit Michael, and his bohemian hatred of his materially successful cousin, Asher, is the book’s most dated aspect. Nonetheless, their confrontation inspires a magnificent passage on the mutual incomprehension that obtains across a gap of years:

If he felt bitter and deprived, surely I, as much a victim as he thought he was, and an older victim, and surely the recipient of more real blows than he had yet endured, surely the one who’d done the realer bleeding, had at least an equal right to feel bitter and deprived. If he stood, black with anger, outside the edges of his world, I, too, who’d been inside, was being slowly forced out. We shouldn’t be enemies: couldn’t he see that? We should, if anything, be allies.

This possesses, if not a timeless truth, then a relevance nearly timeless. Boomers, millennials, Gen Z: How much generational conflict—how much discord of all kinds, left versus right, renters versus homeowners, working-class whites versus aggrieved minorities—betrays, at bottom, the fact that each group believes it has done “the realer bleeding”?

The content of Hayes’s novels spoke to the fraught conditions in which I first read them. I was, in the late spring and summer of 2020, jobless, the technology startup for which I’d been consulting having recently shut down. On Memorial Day, I survived, while cycling in the Fort George neighborhood of uptown Manhattan, a head-on collision with an SUV; while I lay unconscious, the driver fled the scene. Badly injured and concussed, I was nonetheless able to read Hayes’s novels in relative comfort: my wife’s aunt and uncle, who own the Tarrytown house, are wealthy; they belong, as Hayes did, to the class of people who have made it, and their generosity was a lifeline. Money can insulate, as Hayes knew, but everyone bleeds.

Pain, in these novels, generally has a long foreground. How did these men wind up so alone? Faith, family, community, voluntary associations “for political, literary, and religious interests” of the kind Tocqueville found so remarkable in American society—all these are absent from their lives. It is as though some private acid has eaten away at the civic order, leaving them with nowhere to turn:

Often I felt as though my own pain had cornered me in some room and I was alone with it, like some animal that was inescapable. It was a terrifying experience to find oneself at last helpless, and to be made helpless by something for which one could not, anywhere, ask help.

In my used copy of In Love, this passage was underlined, with a marginal comment added in an unknown hand: “me, over the last few years (2014).” Could there be a more eloquent testimony to Hayes’s enduring value? “We are all strangers,” he wrote, “live, die, breed, stranger with stranger, the unknown copulating with the unknown.” What might have sounded merely, in 1953, like fashionable nihilism is now, in a society transformed by mass immigration and deformed by hookup culture (in which restless partners “ghost” each other), something like the literal truth.

We live, as ever, in a nation of unknown sufferers—men and women the intensity of whose pain, for the most part, never comes near us, and yet it involves us, is in some measure like our own. Statistics give us a glimpse: between April 2020 and April 2021, more than 100,000 people in the U.S. died of drug overdoses. Most were middle-aged white men. By comparison, fewer than 59,000 Americans died in ten years of the Vietnam War. So long as such conditions persist—perhaps so long as the human condition persists—Hayes’s novels will be more than period pieces. When our money is phantasmal, love and success illusive, but suffering as real as ever, where will consolation be found?

Top Photo: The work of Alfred Hayes (1911–85) revolves around ambition and failure and the complex relationship that our professional identities have to our larger selves. (COURTESY OF THE ESTATE OF ALFRED HAYES)


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