I like nothing better than when an author puts a different spin or finds a new wrinkle in an old story. It always puts a smile on my face when I close the book and think about how the character or the plot has unfolded and how involved I’ve become in the ending. In his new novel, Pennsylvania Station, an homage of sorts to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Patrick E. Horrigan does just that.
Staid, middle-aged architect Frederick Bailey isn’t really crazy about New York City’s Pennsylvania Station, at least architecturally, but it represents an urban continuity of the mid-1960s Manhattan he’d rather maintain for a number of reasons. When he goes to the theatre to see My Fair Lady, he meets Curt, a cute blonde boy with few inhibitions and fewer options. Frederick is unwillingly drawn to Curt but helpless to disregard his feelings for the flighty young upstart. Curt gives Frederick a badly-needed sense of play, and Frederick gives Curt stability–or at least as much stability as the boy will tolerate. Their relationship sputters along but lasts. Until Venice, of course.
As with most, if not all, modern re-tellings of Mann’s classic story, Curt/Tadzio is fleshed out and we get some relief from Frederick/Aschenbach’s point of view. Horrigan takes us inside Curt’s head so that we have a better understanding of his motivations and what drives him both to and away from Frederick. Thus, the focus is different from the original. It becomes less a study in worship and more an examination of a relationship. Whether this is to the work’s detriment or not, I’ll leave up to the reader. I suppose it depends on how attached you are to the original. While I enjoy the portrayal of obsession inherent in Mann’s story, I have to say I prefer the two points of view of the modern versions. And Horrigan’s novel is no exception to this.
Curt interests me because even though he is (as the book’s blurb says) mercurial, he has an innate sense of justice and fairness about being queer. He’s an activist who seeks out the Mattachine Society as he rejects their suit-wearing normalization. He sees nothing wrong with himself and has a positivity about his sexuality that most boys his age simply did not have then. Nor did most men Frederick’s age. This schism is the biggest difference between them, one that can’t be bridged by either sex or love. Or both. No matter how freely Frederick loves/is obsessed with Curt, he feels it’s fundamentally wrong and is, beneath it all, ashamed of it.
Not that this causes Frederick much grief. He’s happy hating himself. He’s come to that decision long ago and simply no longer has to think about it. No matter how much Curt tries to argue or persuade him otherwise, he won’t be moved. Is it any wonder this relationship is headed for disaster from the very beginning?
Horrigan throws these two polar opposites together but somehow makes them work and, especially when Frederick brings Curt along to Frederick’s father’s funeral, thrive. His family is mystified (well, not really, but no one talks about it). Curt actually seems happy playing the spousal role, even though he insists he won’t be monogamous or tied down.
Pennsylvania Station, then, is a detailed and totally believable examination of a mid-Sixties gay relationship. Its characters are real and its attitudes are wholly in line with the sentiments of the time. Well-written and accessible, it’s a classic in the making. It may only be March, but I know this one will show up on my ten best list in December. Count on it.
© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler