In this supremely literary and very exciting National Book Award winner from 1975, newly reprinted, Thomas Williams, an almost forgotten author, creates a novel about fiction writing and its relationship to the "immensities" with which every human being must contend during his lifetime. In presenting his story, Williams creates, first, Aaron Benham, a professor at a small New England college in the 1970s. Benham is writing a novel entitled The Hair of Harold Roux, in which the "thinly disguised" hero is twenty-one year-old Allard Benson, a college student on the G. I. Bill just after the close of World War II. Allard is fascinated by Mary Tolliver, a naïve freshman and devout Catholic whom he hopes to seduce. Harold Roux, an extremely sensitive romantic, is also studying on the G. I. Bill, but he must deal with the mockery and bullying of cruder, crueler students. Harold lost his hair during the war and wears a terrible toupee which he believes makes him more attractive to women. He is writing a love story called Glitter and Gold, in which a main character is also writing a novel.
While Prof. Aaron Benson is writing his story set in the well-described 1940s, he is living his own life in the 1970s, just before the end of the Vietnam War. College departments are pushing the "publish or perish" requirement for tenure and have made the life of at least one of Aaron's friends a misery, while also exerting pressure on Aaron himself. His need to write his novel has created some problems in his marriage, and he often invents personal fantasies about what he has missed with regard to other women. It is the sometimes frightening stories he creates for his children, ages six and eight, that reveal his fascination with the dramatic effects of fiction. Cuddling with them on the couch as he spins his stories, he literally "feels the story with their reality," an event so full of emotion that "he loses his voice."
As he creates Allard's novel, Thomas Williams writes some of the best and most excitingly sensuous descriptions ever. Both Aaron Benham and Allard Benson describe the freedom of flying down the road on their vintage motorcycles, Aaron indicating that only then does he "feel the symmetry of having made something out of chaos" simply by arriving home safely. When Allard Benson meets Mary Tolliver's father, he notes that the yellow-brown skin on Mr. Tolliver's face "hung as though draped over his head and tacked here and there, at the corners of his eyes and where his ears were attached to his head." When Allard visits a friend at a miniature village, he rides on a hand-crafted railway with a 1/6 scale locomotive. Sporting "three brass lanterns on its front end...the engine seemed to peer straight ahead with the powerful yet slightly moronic, clownish intensity of a cyclops."
Constantly playing with fiction vs. reality, fiction as part of reality, fiction as an alternative to reality, and the special fictions one creates for love, Williams creates a powerful, dramatic novel, filled with events which keep the reader constantly involved with his characters. It is only when sordid reality destroys all the fictions that someone has created in order to cope with everyday life, that one recognizes just how important it is to keep going by creating newer but more realistic fictions. Mary Whipple