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The Hair of Harold Roux by Thomas Williams

THE HAIR OF HAROLD ROUX by Thomas Williams

The reissue of a "thoroughly enthralling masterpiece" (Choice), a National Book Award winner from a critically adored and influential novelist, ripe for rediscovery.

In 1975 the National Book Award Fiction Prize was awarded to two writers: Robert Stone and Thomas Williams. Yet only Stone's Dog Soldiers is still remembered today. That oversight is startling when considering the literary impact of The Hair of Harold Roux. A dazzlingly crafted novel-within-a-novel hailed as a masterpiece, it deserves a new generation of readers.

In The Hair of Harold Roux, we are introduced to Aaron Benham: college professor, writer, husband, and father. Aaron--when he can focus--is at work on a novel, The Hair of Harold Roux, a thinly disguised autobiographical account of his college days. In Aaron's novel, his alter ego, Allard Benson, courts a young woman, despite the efforts of his rival, the earnest and balding Harold Roux--a GI recently returned from World War II with an unfortunate hairpiece. What unfolds through Aaron's mind, his past and present, and his nested narratives is a fascinating exploration of sex and friendship, responsibility and regret, youth and middle age, and the essential fictions that see us through.

See new reviews of "The Hair of Harold Roux" from the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Los Angeles Times. Links to the left.

by Ann Joslin Williams
     I was born in Iowa City when my father was a student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. My mother remembers being pregnant with me and wheeling my brother around in a stroller. She walked all over the city, giving my father time and quiet so he could write. They lived in a motel for a while. It couldn't have been easy to get any work done. A few months or so after I was born my father was offered a job at the University of New Hampshire and we moved to Durham. New Hampshire was my home until I returned to Iowa in 1995 to attend the Iowa Writers' Workshop myself. My father never knew that his daughter would eventually head back to Iowa, following in his footsteps.

     When I drove across the Mississippi into Iowa that August of 1995, I think I was hoping something would happen. Some magical revelation. It seemed something should happen when a body returns to the place where it came into the world. A few days later, when I walked around Iowa City and past the hospital where I was born, I was still waiting for something to become apparent to me—what exactly, I didn't know.

     I brought only one photograph with me when I left for Iowa. I was afraid of feeling homesick if I had reminders. And my car was small, a two-door Ford Escort; I packed only necessities. The photograph I did bring was of my father. My mentor. I couldn't imagine sitting at my desk without looking up at him every now and then. In the photo he's standing in front of our mountain, Mount Cardigan. My parents built a cabin there in 1954 and lived on the mountain in the summers. They built it out of stones and logs, with no power tools. My mother mixed cement in a wheelbarrow, shoveling sand they hauled in a borrowed dump truck. She chopped down trees and skinned the logs with a draw shave. My father laid the stones and rigged homemade pulleys to lift beams. Over the fireplace they erected a granite slab, dragged from an ancient cellar hole in the field below their site. On that slab my father chiseled Tom and Liz built this house, 1954 ADThat summer they slept in a tent next to the brook until the cabin was finished enough to move in. There are black and white Polaroids showing my mother in a halter top and shorts, pushing the wheelbarrow. She was beautiful, trim and light-haired. Strong. She was twenty-six or so. My father looked about seventeen at twenty-eight. He always looked younger than he was. 


     This was before they went to Iowa. He'd already written a novel, Ceremony of Love, based on his experiences in Japan during the war. There aren't many copies of Ceremony of Love around anymore, and I think my father was glad of that. It was his first novel and he was embarrassed by it, thought it could have been better. There's a copy on the bookshelf at the cabin that he doctored with a knife. After you turn a couple of pages there's a hole—a neat rectangle has been carved out through the middle of the rest of the pages, forming a sort of secret compartment, though there's nothing in there. My mother tells me how impressed she was with that novel, however, especially the vivid descriptions of the first scene in which a young man is on a boat, heading across the Pacific toward Japan.

     My father had asked my mother to marry him just before he left for Paris. He was going to the Sorbonne on the GI Bill. They'd been hiking in New Hampshire, and he very casually asked, "Will you marry me when I get back?" She didn't take his proposal seriously, and said, "Sure. When?" She'd just finished nursing school and was on her way to Pennsylvania for a postgraduate class, which is what she did, and he went off to Paris. Eventually, she moved to New York City to work in the operating room at Presbyterian Hospital. Then he wrote her, told her what boat he was coming in on. I love that he came back on a boat.

     She took a long weekend from her job and joined my father in Lebanon, New Hampshire, where he'd lived before the army. They went to a justice of the peace. Besides the JP's wife, they needed another witness. There was a man working in a nearby field; they called him in, and they got married. No relatives. No fancy celebration. No plans. When my mother went back to New York to quit her job, the head of the OR was angry with her. She said, "You don't just do that kind of thing."

     My mother got a job at Mary Hitchcock Hospital in Hanover, New Hampshire. My father didn't have a job, but he was writing. Once, while I was visiting my parents, my father told me that he'd gotten married so he could finally settle down and get to work. I was between boyfriends, a waitress who dabbled in folk music and spent way too much time hanging out with musicians at a local club rather than writing fiction, which I thought was what I wanted to do. He said I should get a wife.

     My parents didn't know where they'd end up, but they took a chance building that cabin, hoping it would be some place to call their own, and go to occasionally. A place to call home. When I think of them in Iowa later—my mother pregnant and with a toddler, my father just beginning the writing program—I admire the risks they took. They weren't going to wait for things to be just right, or until they had money, to have a family.

     In the photograph I brought to Iowa the ridge of the mountain arches over my father's head. It's the ridge of Fire Screw, the summit to the right of Cardigan. I've always thought the mountain resembles a woman lying on her back. Fire Screw is her stomach and my father is inside her. He loved that land. When he was dying, he'd say, "What more could I want, but to be here in this place?" He kept a little notebook in which he recorded how many deer or bears or moose he'd seen crossing the front field each week. He wrote down other things, often using the second person:

     Sixty-two years old this is the very teetering verge of being over the hill. And you are probably not going to do much about changing anything. You must be motivated by the novel now read it over.


     So what do you want? Can you spend the proper amount of time on this story, these stories? Can you make a book out of it? When are you going to do it? Tomorrow, yes, but after the fishing one, what? You need a model a beginning a possibility.
     When I read some of his little notebooks after he died, I was struck by the use of the second person. What's in a writer's head that he speaks to himself from such a distance? Separates himself from himself. Maybe we're always looking at the world omnisciently—even ourselves. It's safer—as if we aren't really real, just living inside our own creations.

     The mountain in my father's novels and stories is named Mount Cascom. His fictional land is Leah. Long before he died, he gave me those names and others. Passed them on to me. After reading one of my stories in which I'd given our mountain a name he didn't like, he suggested I take his names. I use them now in my fiction.

     When I went to Iowa, I couldn't stop looking for signs of my father. I'd imagine him on the streets, making his way to class. I did find one of his novels on a remote shelf in the Workshop office. That same novel's book jacket was framed on the wall of the Linn Street Café, an expensive restaurant in Iowa City. I saw it when an editor came through town and took a bunch of us out to dinner. I don't think anyone at the table knew how much it affected me when I suddenly spotted his book cover, hanging over the table of some nearby diners. I didn't say anything about it until we were leaving. I nudged a friend and pointed it out across the room. He was as pleased and intrigued as I'd hoped anyone could be. "My father won the National Book Award for that novel," I told him. "What's his name?" someone else asked. "Thomas Williams," I said. "You've probably never heard of him." No one had. "He's dead now," I said, amazed that it had gotten easier to say those words when I still could hardly believe them. We filed out, saying good-bye to the editor, but my thoughts were back inside the restaurant. It was as if the book jacket was my father, nodding to me, saying, I'm here. But it was just a wall in a restaurant and there were maybe fifty or more framed book jackets hanging next to people eating dinner.

     When he was very ill, going through chemotherapy, and radiation, and hell, I remember sitting with my father on the lawn looking out at our mountain. He was telling me things about our family's history. He'd lost all his hair. He joked that his head, white and the skull now visible and not completely smooth, looked like a used turtle egg. He often wore a stocking on his head to keep warm. For some reason the stocking material my mother had fashioned with a rubber band around the long end fit better than a hat. It was comical and he knew it, sported it with a smile, when he could.

     As he talked he bent forward, hands on knees, face screwed up. He was holding out through waves of pain. My stomach muscles contracted. I felt nauseated. I was always trying to keep my eyes from tearing up. He hated to see me cry.

     My source was dying. I wrote stuff down. I didn't want to forget anything and there was so much I didn't know. We often talked about writing. He was my teacher—literally, for two semesters when I was an undergraduate at the University of New Hampshire. In class we kept it a secret that I was his daughter. I loved his class—everyone was at ease and interested. Back then, we could smoke in the classrooms. I remember smoking cigarettes, sharing an ashtray with the student next to me, while we discussed stories. My father smoked too. There we were, father and daughter, in a classroom, smoking. I quit smoking a long time ago.

     Long before I was his student and long after, he read my work. He was an excellent critic--completely honest and thorough. I hadn't sent a story out that he hadn't read first. When he died, I was worried that I'd never be able to write a story without him. I couldn't imagine who would ever give me that kind of attention line by line that he gave me.

     After he died, my mother sat down every night and reread his books—all nine of them—until she'd read them all. It made me sad to realize she was doing this, but it was a way for her to hear his voice. Maybe it was a way for her to hold on a little longer, then let go. I remember that she felt bad about some criticism she'd given him on one of his novels. She worried that she hadn't been supportive enough. Maybe enough time had passed—the subject of the novel wasn't so close to home or immediate. Whatever reasons, she wished she could tell him how she felt about the book now. My mother also worried that she'd allowed the doctors to give my father extra morphine sooner than they should have—that maybe they could have held out longer. About this I know she is wrong.

     It took me a long time to reread any of my father's books. When a collection of his stories came out posthumously, I read it through tears. Several of the stories came from events I remembered—two boys lost on our mountain, hornpout fishing at night (the setting of my own first published story). The story "Goose Pond," about a fifty-eight year  old man whose wife has just died from cancer amazes me in its exploration of grief. He wrote it when he was in his twenties. He was a brilliant, beautiful writer. Such a smart man. He knew everything—any subject. In the introduction to Leah, New Hampshire, a collection of my father's stories, John Irving, a former student and friend of my father, wrote:

…he would correct you when your language was vague, he was instructive during walks in the woods: he knew what sort of moss or fern you were standing on, and the name of the tree you were leaning against; he knew the birds and the animals, and—astonishingly—he was also one of those men who understood how mechanical things work. He knew engines, he knew tools, he knew guns… But what I admire most in these stories from Leah, New Hampshire—and in Mr. Williams's novels—is how much he knew about human nature, and how much he fathomed psychologically about people.
     My father never got rich or famous, but he was content with his life and his accomplishments. He loved his mountain; he was proud of his children. He loved my mother, and they'd built that amazing cabin together. He'd won the National Book Award and many other awards. Even if people haven't heard of him, and may never read his books—most long out of print—I have his words, his worlds: his good, kind, sharp vision.

     My mother tells me that when I was born, my brother and father stood in the parking lot next to the hospital, looking up at the window of her room. Kids weren't allowed inside, so that's how my brother got to see her. She waved down at them. I was in the nursery nearby. When I got to Iowa City and walked past the hospital, I thought about that. Me up there in the hospital and me down below, standing in the place where my father once stood so long ago. It was like being omniscient, seeing all, being inside my dad and inside myself in the past and future.

     The day before he died, when I went to the hospital to see him in the afternoon, my father was sitting on the edge of his bed, still hooked up to tubes and breathing apparatus. I put on the usual face mask, and went into the room to see what he was doing. He appeared to be trying to get out of bed. His johnny had slipped off his shoulders and he was thin, grayish, bony. He was barefoot and stretching to get his feet on the ground. I hardly dared to touch him, he was so fragile seeming. He didn't know I was there as I tried to put the johnny right, and urge him back into bed. I looked desperately toward the glass window to see if any nurses would come and help, but there were none around. I started sobbing and trying to get him to lie back. He didn't know it was me; the morphine had clouded his mind. Then he looked at me and said in the most casual tone, "Oh, Annie, it's you. Hello." Suddenly he was lucid, and innocent, and there was his kind voice, and his face, full of delight at seeing me. At knowing I was there.

     He stopped trying to get up, to go wherever it was he thought he had to go.

     That night my brother flew in from Colorado and my mother and I met him at the hospital. My father could barely breathe. He was in pain. He'd already been through a year of chemotherapy and radiation, and was too weak for more. He was dying. That was clear. The doctors suggested more morphine and my mother agreed. They asked my father if he knew what that meant. He said he did.

     My father died of lung cancer on October 23, 1990. There are days I look up at his photograph and feel overwhelmed with sadness. I wish he was still around to coach me. I miss him, and I could use his help. But then I guess I have it. There on the bookshelf is a long line of books. I am lucky to have such an inheritance: all those words to guide me as I travel a similar road.
Note: Portions of this essay first appeared in different form in The Chattahoochee Review under the title "My Father's Footsteps."