The End of Me by Alfred Hayes

The British-born novelist and screenwriter Alfred Hayes – a man who spent much of his working life in the US and Italy – is fast becoming one of those ‘experience everything’ writers for me. His slim, expertly-crafted novellas, with their piecing portrayals of the pain of ill-fated relationships, remain some of my favourites in recent years. (I read the superb My Face for the World to See (1958) before setting up this blog, but my thoughts on In Love (1953) and The Girl on the Via Flaminia (1949) – a book that made my 2018 highlights – can be found by clicking on the links.)

The End of Me (1968) is a later novella, and the passing of time is somewhat reflected in the book’s narrator, Asher, a fifty-one-year-old screenwriter whose career is on the rocks. Having observed his socially-ambitious second wife in flagrante with her tennis partner, Asher flees his home in L.A. for the relative anonymity of New York, a bruised and anguished man. It is a city that has healed Asher in the past — ‘her crowds, like enormous blotters’ possess the ability to absorb his life.

Once ready to reconnect with the world, Asher pays a visit to his elderly Aunt Dora, who views him as the successful one in the family – the one with a good job, a fine wife, and comfortable home in the eternal sunshine. Unwilling or unable to dispel this idyllic vision, Asher submits to the falsehood, assuring Aunt Dora that everything is relatively well in his world. In reality, he lacks a sense of purpose and is pondering what to do. 

As a consequence of the visit, Asher agrees to meet Dora’s grandson, Michael, a young man with ambitions to be a poet; but when Michael comes to see Asher in his hotel suite, their meeting is a disaster. Asher is riled by Michael’s somewhat surly, disdainful manner, and his subsequent silence prompts Michael to leave.

The following day, Asher is ashamed of his behaviour; contrition sets in, and he calls Michael to invite him for cocktails at the hotel. When Michael arrives, he is accompanied by Aurora, a striking girl of southern European descent. The attraction for Asher is immediate and intense; Aurora intrigues him, and yet he knows she is part of Michael’s world.

She had immense dark eyes. The lids were whitened; the lips had been administered to with a pale lipstick. She wore her hair caught up in a rich, somewhat loose, coil that threatened if she laughed too hard (and she did, she always laughed too hard, she laughed, if I may amend Michael’s more graphic description of her laughter, vaginally) to come down in a disorderly mass. I wondered, then, how far it would reach: her hair. Down to where. Down to what. The skin was marvelous. And she was Michael’s girl. (p. 31)

In his keenness to reconnect with the past, Asher asks Michael to accompany him around NYC to revisit various places from his youth. Perhaps unsurprisingly, much of the city has now changed, neatly echoing the feelings of damage and loss that are central to the book. In return, Asher will read Michael’s poems – pieces that turn out to be rather crude and derivative, reflecting a poisonous, destructive form of love. However, Asher holds back from telling Michael what he really thinks of his poems, choosing instead to describe them as ‘interesting’ – a carefully-chosen word with an ambiguous meaning.

Despite all this, Asher finds himself drawn to Michael, seeing him as someone who might be able to learn something from Asher’s own experiences of life. There is an element of self-delusion on the part of Asher here – a sort of self-flattery, hinging on the belief that he can to pass into the world of the young, albeit temporarily.

Perhaps what I wished, not admitting it entirely to myself, was to attach the boy somehow to me. To establish between us (where the non sequitur existed) a connection of a kind. It wasn’t that I felt fatherly to Michael; I couldn’t even honestly say I liked him: it was simply that I felt he had a certain irritating importance for me. I might have been flattering myself, but I felt that, after all, something could be learned, that if I were rich in nothing else I was rich in experience, though perhaps not too rich in it. The generations touched somewhere. (p. 52)

In tandem to this, Asher begins to see Aurora – something he does with Michael’s permission. They meet in the park, chat together and go to the cinema. During these scenes, we learn more about Asher’s former loves, the relationships that have spoiled and soured. In contrast to these women, Asher finds Aurora intriguing and desirable. It is perhaps only with the benefit of hindsight that he appreciates quite how sly and calculating Aurora can be.

Oh, she acted. She played complicated games. As at the French film. Perhaps she even lied a little. Or teased me a little. Amused herself with me. But why not? I was the damaged one. Damaged by age, damaged by the profession I had chosen, damaged by marriage. She was whole, and young, and there wasn’t anything of value I could really offer her. I wasn’t going to fall in love with her; it would be absurd to expect her to fall in love with me. Besides, there was Michael: she was, in some way they accepted among themselves, by their definitions, his girl. Whatever being one’s girl at the moment meant. I wasn’t really too anxious to find out. I was being, by some consent, allowed to share her. (p. 95.)

With Michael pulling the strings, Aurora flirts wildly with Asher, twisting him round her little finger and manipulating him for the fun of it – lies, deceit and calculation are all part of the game. There is a form of ritual humiliation going on here, something designed to expose Asher for his past failings, reducing him to the status of washed-up hack with his productive, successful years far behind him. Michael, in particular, shows great contempt for Asher’s generation, the men who believe they were born into one of the great eras of historical truth, the time of America’s Depression. (The damaging impact of WW2 is part of the backdrop to much of Hayes’s work, and it remains in evidence here.)

There is a ruthless, fatalistic tone running through The End of Me, something that feels detectable from the outset. The impending sense of doom in the narrative is crystal clear; and yet there is something hugely compelling in the telling of it. Asher knows he is being played, but by quite how much only becomes apparent towards the end.

There is a brutal honesty to Hayes’s portrayal of various facets of human nature – perhaps most notably, desire, egotism, ruthlessness, vulnerability and cruelty. Once again, I find myself marvelling at this author’s ability to distil this degree of psychological insight into such an economical yet beautifully-written book.

In short, this is a bitter espresso-shot of a novel – a dark, concentrated gem of destruction and despair. Naturally, I adored it… (Annabel has also written about it here.)

The End of Me is published by NYRB Classics; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.  

24 thoughts on “The End of Me by Alfred Hayes

  1. Tredynas Days

    Your post reminded me that I read My Face a while back and admired it. I checked and found I didn’t post on it, having lent it to someone (and of course never got it back) – I simply called it a ‘taut, harsh little novel’, well written. I like the sound of this ‘espresso shot’, too!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that description of My Face certainly chimes with my recollection of it. There is a streak of bitterness running through these novellas that captures something of the cruelty of love. I’d like to revisit My Face at some point – luckily, my copy is still here in the house!

      Reply
  2. A Life in Books

    Impossible to resist the idea of a ‘bitter espresso-shot of a novel’, Jacqui, although you’ve already convinced me to put Hayes on my list with a previous review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Cool. I’ll be interested to see what you make of him, although you might be better starting elsewhere (especially as this is late-period Hayes). The Girl on the Via Flaminia would make a great entry point – or My Face for the World to See, which I must go back and re-read.

      Reply
  3. Radz Pandit

    I am really excited about this novel and hope to buy it sometime soon although I have yet to read In Love and The Girl on Via Flaminia. I absolutely loved My Face for the World to See.

    Would you rate this novel somewhere in between My Face and In Love?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I would. The brilliance of My Face remains the pinnacle of Hayes for me. Even though it must be more than six years since I read it, I can still recall two or three key scenes, along with the sense of hopelessness and dashed dreams. A re-read will be in order at some point, I’m sure.

      Reply
  4. heavenali

    Superb review. Your enthusiasm for this writer is obvious, and the quotes prove him to be an excellent writer. I love your description of it as ‘a bitter espresso-shot of a novel – a dark, concentrated gem of destruction and despair.’

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! Yes, it’s no secret that I’m slightly in love with Hayes. He’s been a great discovery for me in recent years – not a million miles away from Richard Yates in certain respects, especially in terms of the hollowness of the American Dream. The espresso-shot analogy just struck me as being particularly apt for this one with its tone of bitterness and despair.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Marvellous! You are definitely the right kind of reader for Hayes, if that makes any kind of sense. He strikes me as being right up your street…

      Reply
  5. Jane

    ‘a bitter espresso-shot of a novel’, what a brilliant description! I get the impression you preferred his earlier novels though, would you recommend those first?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! It seemed like a fitting way of describing it given the mood. I really loved this book, although you’re right to pick up on the thought that it’s probably not the best one to start with. I’d suggest The Girl on the Via Flaminia as a great stating point with Hayes. It’s an early novella, and probably less bitter than some of his later books, but no less well-written.

      Reply
  6. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Fab review Jacqui! I can tell you really love his writing, and those are excellent quotes. Almost like a non-crime version of the noir you love so much! I’ll definitely pick his books up should I come across them (if I ever get back to book browsing in actual shops again…)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. There is a bit of noir vibe going on here, certainly in terms of atmosphere and mood. And one could say that crimes are committed, if that definition is broadened to include affairs of the heart. There is something inherently fatalistic about these novellas, a sense of impending doom and despair.

      Reply
  7. Annabel (AnnaBookBel)

    Thank you for the link Jacqui, I’m glad you got so much out of it and you’ve picked some wonderful quotes. The End of Me had quite a different feel. Upon reflection, having read the three books, I like My Face the best. I have since bought The Girl on the Via Flaminia – couldn’t resist as you loved it so much.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, you’re very welcome, Annabel. It was interesting to see your review of this. I loved it, I have to admit; although My Face remains my favourite too, certainly based on my recollections of it. Hayes is such an economical writer; everything feels incredibly concentrated and compressed. That’s probably the thing that struck me most when I first started to read him. I’ll be interested to see where Via Flaminia sits for you, especially relative to the others…

      Reply
  8. Max Cairnduff

    It sounds great, but then it is a Hayes. I want to read the others first though. This sounds darker and looking at Trevor’s review over at mooksandgripes more intense in some ways than the others (and I note you call it an espresso-shot of a novel).

    I wonder if it’ll get a Penguin release in the UK. Lovely cover though from NYRB (but then NYRB books do tend to be physically very well presented).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I didn’t know that Trevor had reviewed this, although it makes total sense given his fondness for the NYRB releases. Thanks for mentioning that. I shall head over to his a little later to take a look.

      As for the book itself, I think you’re probably right to wait until you’ve read the others. I’ve seen it described as the last in a loose trilogy about doomed love, with In Love as the first and My Face as the second. So there is something particularly bruising and fatalistic about this one. I really loved it though. (It’s probably my second favourite, behind My Face – which I really ought to re-read at some point!)

      Reply
  9. moira @ clothes in books

    Very interesting! I have only read In Love, and didn’t like it at all, so I checked back on your review of that, I shared your negative sentiments if not your positive ones! So have never tried to read anything else by him, but oh you do make this sound good.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I’d definitely say that In Love is my least of the four I’ve read, but they all have that air of doom about them – something cruel and fatalistic. The Girl on the Via Flaminia might be the one to go for if you were ever minded to try him again.

      Reply
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  11. Caroline

    Who doesn’t like a dark espresso shot of a novel. I have My Face so will begin there. But it’s good to know that he’s a reliable author. This sounds almost like a noir.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is rather noirish; that sense of existential bleakness is there right from the very start. My Face is a great one to have in your back pocket. It’s where I started with Hayes, and I haven’t looked back since.

      Reply
  12. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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