December 5, 2007
Evan S. Connell: The Diary of a Rapist
Now here is a title to conjure with. What’s a nice guy like me doing with a book like this? Well, I came across Evan S. Connell on Literature Map, when I was looking for authors similar to Richard Yates. His was the most prominent name I didn’t know, so I promptly investigated and found that he is the author of the books Mr Bridge and Mrs Bridge, made into a joint film starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward – imaginatively titled Mr & Mrs Bridge. But The Diary of a Rapist was more readily available, and had the added bonus of being published by NYRB Classics, my latest literary fetish.
Here then is a book which inspires strong feelings – visceral as much as intellectual – not only when you’re reading it, but even when your eye snags on the title as it’s sitting there innocently closed. (Mrs Self has already decreed that it will not be displayed on the bookshelves once finished with.) To give it such a bold title, Connell has taken a risk – it catches the eye all right, but the fascination it evokes is ghoulish, and more will surely be put off, or uncomfortable picking it up, than will be drawn into reading. And once over the barrier and into the story, by calling it The Diary of a Rapist Connell has removed any tension or mystery, just as Bret Easton Ellis did with American Psycho. In fact that book, and Joseph Heller’s masterpiece Something Happened, were constantly in my mind as I read, though Diary predates both.
Connell’s narrator, Earl Summerfield, like Bob Slocum in Something Happened, doesn’t believe in easing us into his world gently, and gives it to us with both barrels from the start. He pities and despises his co-workers, but not as much as he hates his wife Bianca:
If it wasn’t for Bianca I’d have been able to make something out of myself by this time. She’s ruined everything. There’s no limit to what I might have done by now. She knows it too. I guess it gives her some sort of pleasure.
That’s on page 2. By page 7 Summerfield is already considering that “I think it’s certain mannerisms of women that makes us want to kill them.” He quickly warms to his theme, when he’s watching two schoolgirls that his wife tutors on a Saturday:
Don’t know why I despise them. They act so innocent but then something turns up in the papers like last week when one of these little innocents was “taken into protective custody” because police discovered she was earning about a thousand dollars a week between the time she got out of school and the time she came home from supper. … The little pig was rolling on her back squealing with pleasure every afternoon in somebody’s apartment or hotel room, earning more in five minutes than I make by working all day. Yes, but if you’d see her at school you’d assume she was a sweet little girl. Same as those two Bianca tutors. They’re probably up to the same tricks. Well, if I had them here right now in this room I’d teach them something they’ll never learn from B.
This is pretty hard to read, partly because it’s rare we encounter such undiluted misogyny in a character, and also because we are shocked by Summerfield’s apparently wilful interpretation of victim as offender. In his eyes, the only victim is Earl Summerfield (“I’ve decided she made use of me”), and it’s a moment’s work for him to twist this around into self-aggrandisement and revenge fantasy (“I’m going to be somebody one of these days, which means I already am somebody”).
He fixates on a beauty queen, Mara St John (“she looked to me like one of those professional sluts from Hollywood”), whom he first sees on Washington’s birthday. His obsession with her reaches its climax in a silent diary entry on Independence Day, where the reader is left to work out what Summerfield has done that is so bad even he can’t bring himself to write about it. But then, we already know from the title.
The holiday dates are significant, because Summerfield’s other obsession is the decline in America, and as his deteriorating mental state (“My head’s as full of light as a shower of meteors … Yes, I become more meaningful at night, my brain alert and flickering with bright perceptions”) is mirrored by reports in the news of beatings, murders and death row executions: he professes disgust at them while lapping them up. The introduction to the book tells us that Connell wrote the book after reading about a beauty queen who had been raped twice by the same man: and the second time he had driven her home to make sure she got there safely. Connell believes the rapist truly believed
that if she truly understood him, when she realized that he was a nice man, they could become properly acquainted, have lunch together, visit the zoo together, get married, and live happily ever after. I suspect that only in America could anyone be so deluded. Only in America, addled by the Puritan legacy.
If The Diary of a Rapist then is also a record of the failure of the American dream (“See American white with maggots, red with blood, blue with hypocrisy”), it is one which presents its case in full flood and with not much subtlety. On the one hand almost every line is quotable and in its right place; on the other hand they all seem very much the same and (again as with Patrick Bateman or Bob Slocum) there is not much that one would call character development. I can imagine many readers finding the whole conceit so repellent that they would abandon the book quickly. We do however get the occasional flicker of sympathy when we see Summerfield struggling to attain normality:
Decent life waiting for me twenty minutes from here. It’s that close! It’s that close to me and I can’t get to it.
Normality is impossible for him however, as I realized when wondering why Connell had decided to make Summerfield just 26 years old when his voice is that of a much older, worn-down and weary man. This must be so that we can’t presume he is an otherwise normal man who has been beaten by life once too often. At 26, he hasn’t experienced enough life to justify one percent of the bitterness and hatred he expresses. To verify this, Connell gives us a couple of flashbacks to Summerfield’s childhood, where he was exhibiting a taste for sexual violence even then. So we are to conclude that he must ‘simply’ by unbalanced. If that is a tenuously optimistic thing to take from it, then grab it with both hands and run with it: it’s the only optimism you’re going to get around here.