Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall
“Few books published today contain the pure enjoyment that Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall does. And none are better written.”
Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall is a hoot, which is the headline and the most important thing.
No less than Tony (Angels in America) Kushner used adjectives like smart and playful and lyrical in describing Love Slaves’ author James Magruder’s 2009 novel Sugarless, and all still apply in this new novel, along with wry, insightful and, one of the best of our lost words, withering.
Where there are other authors aplenty that can make their readers laugh, Magruder’s is humor of the sort spun by Oscar Wilde or Dorothy Parker—stoked by intelligence mixed with a gift for the telling detail and an understanding of how the aches deep inside the sad hearts of humanity are ever the source of All Things Funny, with just a dash of the bitters plunked in at the end.
All this churns about inside an alarming amount of excellent sentences.
As here, in the single sentence of text dedicated to the description of Yale voice coach Estrella Cincha’s face makeup, in which it is we are told that she had “eyebrows like the brushstrokes on a Japanese declaration of war.”
A detail that is sublime.
There are many, many others. The young man who is described as having “a protagonist’s jaw.” Or that fact that Jasmina, who was eavesdropping, “nearly ululated with homicidal jealousy” on hearing what she heard.
“Nixie would wait up late, but when he returned from Three Sisters rehearsals, he would shed his clothes and stop the gentle nag of her questions with sleepy, instinctive couplings, like a bear drinking at a stream.”
The plot that envelopes these turns of phrase is simple enough. It is Yale. It is grad school. It is the early ’80s, and the stage is set as follows:
“Thirty-some years ago, beneath the shoulder pads of The Great Communicator and his crystal-gazing, gargantuan-headed First Lady, there were no personal computers or cell phones or cash machines in Connecticut, which meant that the money one withdrew before the banks closed on Friday had to last all the way to Monday. There was no Internet, only the card catalogue and the Yellow Pages. The Soviet Union was into its fourth decade as global bugbear. A mysterious disease had begun destroying the immune systems of urban male homosexuals but had not yet been identified as a virus. Quiche had peaked, fresh pasta had begun its ascent and in this world before the West discovered sushi, the seas were filled with fish.”
The speaker setting that scene is Helen Hadley, the one for whom the hall was named, whose portrait is hung over the mantle at Helen Hadley Hall. The hall that houses the grad students who become the Love Slaves suggested by the title. Not literally. But given the dramatics, the hormones, and the grievances of youth, it’s near enough.
Helen is quite dead (“I was born in 1895, and I passed from solid to vapor in 1951.”), but her restless spirit acts as narrator.
As she puts it:
“Today, some fifteen years into the third millennium, Yale threatens to bulldoze my home, and this is why I write . . . I have decided to chronicle my favorite year. This would be the nine months in 1983–84 during which Silas Huth, Becky Engelking, Nixie Bolger, Carolann Chudek, and Randall Finn took up the manacles of erotic attachment and parse meaning from every little movement of their rapacious, beating hearts. Theirs is a communal tale of love surprised, love confessed, betrayed, renounced, repelled, of suspect leanings and trembling declarations, of hymens under siege and innumerable searching looks in the mirror.”
Here, Helen neither overstates nor over-promises.
And reading of this roundelay of grad school Yalies, well, it seems all so Secret History, if Donna Tartt had a sense of humor.
The plot points sort of spasm off the page as if the author were tossing fistfuls of cooked spaghetti at the wall of the page and searching out those that stick. All in a way that also reminds the reader of the loose-limbed aspects of Tales of the City, which is a very good thing indeed.
As with those cherished books by Armistead Maupin, which housed as many oogley-googley character names as this one does, and as many of those aforementioned twisty bits of story-pasta fresh from the hot pot, some stick and others (like the sudden inclusion of a possible past-life regression named Katrinka that goes on for way too long and pays off not nearly well enough) do not.
But that is only to be expected. Slips and falls are likely when the author is working the high wire.
Plus, Magruder is every bit as skilled in creating the world of New Haven, Connecticut, circa 1983, to life as Maupin did San Francisco in a slightly earlier era. From that little pathway from the Taft Apartments to the Shubert Theatre that Addison DeWitt extolled in All About Eve, to the steps back and forth between Atticus Books and Yale Dramat, and the thing to which, in New Haven, in Magruder’s telling of it, all roads seem to lead, Helen Hadley Hall, it’s all there, throbbing, inside the Yale bubble. Hell, even Claire’s Corner Copia gets its due.
Like any great Shakespeare comedy, Love Slaves tells the tale of how order descends into chaos, usually due to unrequited love, only to have it all Come Out Right in the end.
Helen Hadley ends her narrative by breathing out a simple prayer before climbing back up into her portrait:
“Helen Hadley Hall still stands on Temple Street, for a few more years, I hope, beckoning brilliant fools to come learn and unlearn lessons in the slipstream of their own sweet times.”
And reading this, taking it in and all the other glorious nonsense contained in the volume, the reader settles into his chair for a moment, the book newly closed and placed on his lap, and very seriously considers opening it again and starting over.
Few books published today contain the pure enjoyment that Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall does. And none are better written.
Love Slaves is one of those media packages—book, movie, or television series—that, seeing some stranger settling in on a plane with it in front of his or her face, you think how very lucky they are to be having the experience of it for the very first time.