Tuesday, October 02, 2012

The Long Bright Days by David Westheimer

Quite a while ago, whilst looking through new stock in a bookshop not far from here, I realised that they must recently have bought a collection of books that had belonged to a gay man. Title after title I recognised and put in my pile and came away feeling happy and most of those books found a place either on my shelves or on the shelves of my customers. This book, however, was a bit of a mystery. Clearly, the picture on the cover gave some hope that this was from the same lot of books but I had never heard of it, nor the author. Flicking through it quickly and reading the blurb it was apparently a book which centred on the relationship between two boys in the same neighbourhood in 1940s Houston, (the book was published in 1950) and it seemed that the younger one was pretty much infatuated with the older one. When I got it home I looked it up online and, at the time, could find no other copy, nor was it in Young's bibliography so I was half hoping that I'd discovered a new gay classic, half expecting that I'd misunderstood the signs. It went on the 'to read' shelf.

That was a couple of years ago at least. I had to go to London today for a meeting at the British Museum (behind the scenes at last - I got a bit fanboy about it!) and on the way out of the house grabbed a book for the train. This is a short book and so, in just three hour's travelling I read it. It's certainly worth reading, it's intense and very tightly written and tells the story of four years in the life of a young boy, Joe, as he watches the older boy with whom he is completely smitten, grow and develop and ultimately fall and break. There is no particularly gay element to their relationship but it is a very acutely drawn portrait of one of those intense hero-worshipping adoring relationships that literature tells us were common between boys in the mid-twentieth century but which I detect might have been out of fashion for a while now. The fact that the older boy, Pershing (!) gets into some kind of serious trouble is outlined in the first few paragraphs so I am giving nothing away. This is definitely a coming-of-age tale but really it's a heterosexual one, and Pershing's trouble would have been rather shocking I imagine, given the times, indeed it would still be problematic today if not actually shocking to read about. Westheimer was a young-ish novelist at this point and this is a really good psychological study of a small group of people, their lives and loves and sins. Although the author wrote about 15 books in all, and only died in 2005, it is perhaps surprising that he was not, eventually, better known.

I discovered today that one of the reasons I couldn't find another copy of this title online back when I bought it, is that this is only one of at least three titles under which this book was published. Its shocking subject matter was of sufficient oomph for it to be picked up by the pulp paperback publishers of the 50s and they put it out under the title Day Into Night (cover below but the strap line has something of a spoiler so avert your eyes if you're thinking of reading this one day). Whilst I'm sure Mr Westheimer was grateful for the added royalties it must have generated, it does rather trivialise a novel which was much more serious and substantial in both intent and achievement than such treatment suggests. The Long Bright Days would appear to have been its title in this first UK publication and its first US publication, also in 1950, was by Macmillan who titled the book The Magic Fallacy after the narrator's often referred to, 'magic fallacy of youth'.

And for those who keep track of these things, the design of the jacket is credited to a Sheila Dunn.

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