Terror, Eros and Animal: The Fiction of Heather Lewis
I came into the world at ten o’clock at night, and I’ve often thought that was the reason I turned into such a nocturnal creature. When the sun sets, honey, I feel more, oh, alert. More alive. By midnight, I feel fantastic. Even when I was a little girl, my father would shake his head and say, “Let’s just hope you get a job where you work nights..” Little did he know what was in store for me. It takes talent to live at night. Ava Gardner from Ava: My Story
A saddle horse weighs over half a ton. One eleven-year-old girl can run you around, ninety pounds dripping wet. And yet, however outranked, if left unsupervised, she will hop right on. The more dangerous and male he looks, the quicker will a girl-child take pity on this steed and try to break him.
Even if he stands banished in the last stall, its slats all splintered by his single irate sidekicks, watch her mount him from behind. She springs with the ardor of a Plains Indian princess, not the hauteur of the second-best math student at Westchester Country Day.
And the horse himself, does he throw her? Not at first. Bracing, back-stepping, he flinches from such mane-grabbing authority dropped—conspiracy—across him. Why, if her sudden weight is not one-fifteenth his own, should this colossus act afraid?
Because the girl does not yet know to be!
My young friend and former student, the writer and rider of this book, Heather Lewis, grew up as a show-jumping prodigy. She put through their gorgeous paces America’s finest thorough-breds. Such animals were owned by folks even richer than her parents.
In this closed circuit, Heather was something of a child star (as Judy Garland lived cosseted if corralled at MGM). So much money was riding on Heather’s riding, adults found ways around trusting a pubescent’s unbridled moodiness. I mean: Heather was privy at an early age to the impartiality of performance-enhancing drugs. These had mainly been designed to help the horses, but that offered no obstacle to the clever pretty people atop them. (Recipe: Dilute to one-fifteenth full strength, inject, become one with your horse).
Grown up, Heather, a survivor of childhood sexual assault, joked that those flashy breeder-owners had secretly called her their “test-crash-dummy.” Back then, the tomboy considered this funny.
Notice ostensibly charts the fate of a child-prostitute who quickly negotiates past her own capacity for self-defense. But its truest subject is the cost of early sexual violation. Her very bravura is a pitiable try at remaining visible.
Our heroine worked the bars near a commuter train-station. She seems haplessly intent on “taking the money” from her harried, wedded clientele. One patron and father-figure soon “adopts” her, displaying a power to annex that proves as sinister as disinterested.
A classic symptom of any child enduring unwanted sexual attention is extreme dissociation. She becomes cut off from the warning proof of pain; she hurls herself at people, places and things, oblivious to all interior alarms. Such signs are evident from this work’s beginning. The central character mistakes her own recklessness for enterprise. Her cockiness is as endearing as dangerous. Her free time and lack of guardian family ties render her a public person, sacrificial.
The book’s toney Westchester setting lends its sexual strenuousness and guest-room unease a potent extra force. Contrast the hidden three-way erotic commingling with the sheer banality of that train-depot, one only a wizard of Cheever’s stature could convince you is lyrical. The neo-Colonial home, executive-suitable, keeps its Venetian blinds pulled shut. Its pale shag carpeting gives the private bloody rituals enacted there a surreal charge and a flat-footed credibility. Though the novel has the gravity of nightmare, from the start it seems half-again too real. We wish to believe it is happening soley on the level of Allegory. We are eager to rush its action to that realm. (We long to save its plucky Oliver Twist-like heroine. She is someone we want to shield and help or hire.)
On a street this good, the sexual tortures and custodial tyrannies are invisible to anyone not implicated, trussed. That makes the bond between our young narrator and the resigned if scarred mother-sister Ingrid all the more poignant. As they await the homeowner’s menacing return from a hard day’s work, they are MadonnaChild, trading off roles. Locked into a shared maelstrom, their Pieta is the more striking for making the comforter-and-comforted, the dead-and-the-grieving, belong to one besieged sex.
The “swinging” middle-aged couple has done all this before. Our one entry into their pathology comes via their latest—this per-diem child-slave serving as their buffer go-between, their preferred new sandwich-ingredient. She is already taking the fall for everyone else. She receives chump change for doing so. Heedless of the costs, most of all to herself, she seems to feel that only she can see the adult situation with helpful detachment and a super-human clarity. We come uneasily to feel and fear her indoctrination into a trapping allure: shared pain as the only true pact.
Awaiting the next round of debasement, the women take naps, naps narcoleptic, with all of heroin’s cliff-side erasures. We feel the slide start but never end. We soon note that our narrator is unable to imagine any sexual encounter in which the power imbalance is not dramatically stacked against her. A decent person must therefore choose: either the death-ray of blunt authority, or the preferable if demeaned role as noble durable work-horse. The rider or the mount.
Heather Lewis writes in a tone wry and under-modified. The language is stinging in its precision, sensual in its awareness of hot and cold, its relentless physical registration.
In the service of originality, Notice uses then subverts countless genres. I think of Nancy Drew mysteries, here centered on another tough-minded prim-looking Daddy’s girl, conveniently motherless. Lewis’s prose can also hint at those itchily playful, trailblazing lesbian paperbacks of the 1950s.
Notice recalls Noir classics; but here, the hardboiled male detective’s voice is subsumed by that of another: a comely young female victim, the one usually found naked, bound, gagged among cacti, on a canyon floor at the end of chapter three.
Notice contains writing as lean as the trout filets in certain superb early Hemingway stories. I mean those Nick Adams fishing tales full of cold streams and campfire-roasted fish. In Heather Lewis, all such quail-and-ale details—spoken in cleanly manly prose—involve a new wilderness, a more urban duress. Here we are privy, not to how you gut then butterfly a rainbow trout, but to the spatial hardships of sex with one large angry older man in a compact car during broad daylight. There is a comic displacement here. The classic action-oriented macho language is brought to bear on an active young girl’s sex-work woes and trade-tricks. “Good” writing about “bad” behavior. The rage behind this send-up, this appropriation of guy-talk, makes her back-seat side-street lore strangely hilarious.
Notice also brings to mind certain self-help works—confessional sexual memoirs written by those who’ve found salvation via a back-looking salacious honesty they hope will now prove cathartic and, if possible, bestselling.
But this novel is more than the half-conscious models lined snug behind it. It is so original it has required almost a decade to see publication. It is a nocturne, an indictment, a lyrical fever-dream. That Heather Lewis wrote it, that she managed to look down upon her pain with such ironic and benumbed perspective, is itself a notable physical feat. Olympic-quality endurance. How did she make of her shame and rage and experience this delicately registered chambered nautilus of shadow and white-hot sensation? This constitutes a miracle of both art and fortitude.
At first, seen from behind, I took her for a boy.
It was at Sarah Lawrence College, cocktail-hour for freshmen and their parents, to come meet the faculty, with free (jug) wine and (bulk, orange) cheese.
Across the terrace, I noted a nubbled riding-jacket flared at bottom to complement some implied saddle. I saw the straight-legged pegged jeans pulled snug over good brown English equestrienne boots. A back straight up and down, posture fine as the honor-guard Marine’s at some Presidential funeral. True, there was shoulder-length brown hair grown thick as a prize mane, but this was 1980 and such hair might be the further affectation of some over-confident young man.
The new student, shoulders squared, stood beside home-base: her clubwoman of a mom, far older than most here, was the one lady present wearing a costly floral dress with matching hat and handbag. Mother’s duds seemed to willfully reverse her child’s too-visible uniqueness. Mother, playing it “straight,” assumed the dry and difficult Margaret Dumont role.
I patrolled on duty as the newest junior faculty member—someone thought to look presentable and to own a reservoir of small talk (microscopic, in fact). I was here to chat up newcomers and reassure their parents. The college President’s house was a faux-Tudor enlarged by robber-baron money. So, earning my keep, I stepped around the mother. I had put out my hand to her when I saw that the son was not.
At first, this girl appeared younger than fifteen. Until I looked into her eyes. Dark, they glistened, first with surface mirth, then with prior experience that added decades to her age. She saw how, like many before me, I had mistaken her gender. She knew, with one sage glance, that my own sexuality had just been utterly in play (if only out of boredom). She enjoyed the way the joke was now on me. It was funny. And I smiled back into our sleepy conspiracy. As the mother chattered on-—genteel, garrulous, kindly, oblivious—the two of us, tall outlaws, stood silent, smirking like pubescents in the eye-rolling stage, Aren’t all grownups Hy-po-crites, man!
This girl’s brown eyes seemed wise, but at some cost. They shone as rich with a lore unmentionable as, say, Weegee’s eyes or Gandalf’s. Her voice emerged as alto, shading into tenor. The skin was beautiful but she was so pale. A serene regularized face, her upper lip was a bit longer than usual. Her chin’s slight shyness gave the strong face on this tall lean boyish person her one hint of scrupulous weakness or restraint.
"So you teach writing?" The mother remained impervious to our shared invert grin. "Because our Heather here writes. And extremely well, I must say."
For once, a parent, praising her child in public, understated.
Though Heather never enrolled in my college class, I adopted her. Early in her first year, at a student reading, I heard her twenty minutes of new work. The poets always went first, which was good. I remember the chair I was sitting in, wearing which thriftshop tweeds. I’d been hired to coach such pampered quantum inventively screwed-up kids. (Having gone here myself as an undergraduate, I knew the territory.) Heather offered, in her muffled halting voice, a passage from what would later be published as House Rules. I knew, two sentences in.
Such prose seemed the gorgeous toughened work of someone forty. It felt kilned, ceramic in its certainty and its fixity of surface. It had been cooked that hard by her own quiet skill and by a childhood of difficulties unimaginable to most denizens of the upper middle class.
I’d never done so before. I hung around till everybody left. Then I volunteered to be Heather’s reader for life, I will always want to see what you’re doing, I said. She looked me in right the eyes and, I saw she knew I meant it.
Like Edward Hopper, Samuel Beckett, Ad Reinhardt, Camus, like early Raymond Carver or Patti Smith or all of Patricia Highsmith, from the start Heather Lewis’s truest subject was the void. Any ride across said void might prove decorative, funny, make-work, sexy. But the void is always going to get the whip-hand. Suspense rests first in How? but mainly pivots on the inevitable When? Some might remember a given book for the specifics of its ride, not the chill vacuum through which said transit passes. The terms might be conspiratorial or erotic or, as in Notice, both at once. The violence that must come offers an almost-welcome flourish, a respite of brief color, in a generalized silence that underwrites and undermines every human effort to resist it.
There lurks behind Lewis’s active vision,a kind of despair so pure it feels, to use a drug term, un-cut. It is the purity that, if trusted then used in excess, can take you out. You have come to doubt you could ever get your hands on stuff this pure again. Gunky additives have, in fact, all along, been secretly saving your life.
She was physically brave, bent on discovery then bent on discovery through self-testing toward the point of possible destruction, then (via sex, credit card debt, nomadic escape, the toxic death-wish implicit in OxyContin) bent on whatever knowledge or rest awaited her in self-destruction. At each of these steps, Heather far too radically succeeded. The truest benefits to us? These, the notes from her brief and largely uphill expedition—steeplechase—these, her published works. Three novels, Notice being the third, the last unpublished and, in many ways—gorgeous and scary—the most intensely like its much-missed author. Meaning that this book is as mordant as hilarious, it is hard-to-bear exactly to the extent that it fights to keep itself tender.
Heather and I had been friends for decades since that day when, from behind—her looking so good—I mistook her for a boy. Every six months or so since then, we would visit, we would eat Indian food or talk an hour by phone. We kept up, whether the news be fit to print or not, our botched loves, the funny mishaps, our great loves, our money woes, our earnest screwed-up parents, our little breakthroughs.
She was always smart and loyal and funny and magnetic. Whenever there was somewhere to go, something to do after-hours, somebody new to get to know, she was up for it and waiting eager by the door. In her classes, she was known to always speak the toughest thing for a fellow writer to hear, but in such a way it encouraged and excited. No party could be said to start till Heather got there.
Her body English, like her written work, had the air of a great athlete enjoying her one day off. Heather’s laugh, bass-baritone, seemed wider than her ribcage; and when it came, it rocked her with wild cough-like barks that left her tearful, weak with glee, release. In a surprisingly rare combination, she was both very sexual and very sexy. She was seductive in the most minimalist of five-gaited ways. Aren’t there two kinds of classic seducers: one sort, the cheap suit all over you at once, an octopus you finally decide simply not to bother to resist? Then there was Heather’s kind: the silent one off to one side by the kitchen that gives you the fast unblinking hooded look that draws you closer. Someone who lets you enlist, who urges you to make the move, someone who knows you will sign up for all you guess she holds in wait, the goods.
Heather phoned me from Arizona some months before returning to New York where she would die. By this time, she had twice brought South for my approval her most serious recent girlfriend. Connie Jones and Ann Rower both adored her. They each, in turn, protected her, did everything they could to provide her the additional sanctuary needed to write her books they knew to be as necessary as particular. When Heather last visited me, she had seemed so very contained, productive and in love. “I don’t worry about you anymore,” I said then, making her smile.
By this time, Heather had quit or lost her Manhattan editorial job. Her first two novels had been published with energy and tact by Nan Talese. These works gained for Heather a serious reputation as a stylist, a force, a definite comer.
But Notice had been adjudged too dark and disturbing in its bleak sexual frontality to prove in any way commercial. So, what was arguably Heather’s greatest book (and certainly the one most intensely attuned to her characteristic triangulated daemons) went orphaned and unknown.
By this time, her addiction to OxyContin had grown replete. She had moved four miles from the Mexican border where this terrifying drug could, in those days, be scored over-the-counter, purchased easily as St. Joseph’s Baby Aspirin.
The phone rang at 2:14 pm. Heather’s voice, which could sound tightened to strangled, asked if I might copy down the following number at this motel’s payphone and call her the next day at exactly 2:14 pm my time. I read the number back to her. Correct, she said, and hung up.
Next afternoon, studying the clock’s second hand, feeling upset yet hopeful with something like stagefright, I dialed. Before the first ring ceased, "Hi, you?" Her tone was friendly, calm. Her news was not. American Express, she explained with great logical patience as if to countermand any latent disbelief, It’s like this. American Express, after her local imprisonment on drug charges, Am-Ex, they and the government and probably but not certainly, a cabal possibly consisting of entertainment lawyers, well, she was sad to say, they were pretty actively seeking to isolate, discredit and then end her, okay? Okay. She said she knew that, even on this public phone-line, even with my help in calling back using my own nickel to try and get around it (I had heard that first click, right?) the world’s finest eavesdropping equipment was presently deployed against her. And she just wanted to say to the man, she assumed it was a man, to the guy listening in, that she knew he himself wasn’t all bad, she understood this. Sure, he had a wife and kids to think about and feed, but maybe he should really ask himself if he wanted to taint them with his doing dirty-work of this low sort. (When I first met Heather, my favorite fictional and personal motto had been Chekhov’s: "No one must ever be humiliated." I recalled that now). She said she didn’t blame him, her bugger-monitor-man. We all had our jobs, right?
And on she went, on. I knew she’d been sexually assaulted as a kid. I knew she knew her way around heroin. I knew she was presently jobless and on the run and living at her family’s and girlfriend’s expense. I knew she was in the Southwest sharing drugs and the chore of daily finding them. But I hadn’t counted on what might be stupidly described as late-onset bipolar symptoms. I had trusted that all the damage done to her was at least done early, that as a functional and much beloved adult she was getting ahead of it at last. Finally making real progress. But when she next mentioned the likely role the Polish Government was about to have to play in her undoing (almost reluctantly apparently, it being a friend of friend sort of payback deal) I stopped her.
"Heather, darling, do you trust me?"
(She had dedicated her first novel to her girlfriend, Connie Jones, and to me, "my first trustee," meaning the first male she felt she could rely on.)
She said, yes, she did, but why? I told her: all intelligent persons in our Age must be, to some extent, conspiracy theorists. Goes with pattern recognition, our seeing design-links, that is pretty necessary, even to learn the alphabet, right? But, I explained, in my opinion, these conspiracies she had just laid out? these corporate plots bent on stopping a young lesbian author of two strong, innovative books, however gifted? Well, to me that did seem imagined, at least in part. I urged Heather to return to New York, to huddle with old friends, to seek out those who would surround, adore, then help her. I urged her toward solid medical attention, urged her to find a place safer than some Arizona motel lobby. (In the background I could hear the roar of an adjacent highway. I heard the weather-patter of some couple checking out.)
The next I heard, a few months later, Heather was dead. Though Notice falls chronologically as the second of Heather’s completed novels, has any book ever been more convincingly its writer’s last? In the work’s hushed depth, in its feel for torture’s previously-uncharted nuances and niceties, in its technical control serving up the subject of utter un-control, the novel becomes a bulletin from some last frontier. It is the outgoing half of a round-trip ticket whose return stub need not be saved.
Its final pages are nearly unendurable in their quiescent acceptance of defeat. Here the void is rampant, flying its national banner: Surrender’s white flag. By then, there is no law, no posse, no hope, no lasting form of love that can quite save our heroine. Her having somehow told her tale at all, her having survived until (and through) its very last words, that remains a large achievement.
The girl can really take a fall.
For a long while, this proved improbably true. Such a careless form of early adult praise contained, in fact, her death sentence. Heather completed the steeplechase-course of forty-one years; she got over the fearsome hurdles of finishing three books. She kept tight hold as long as she could and mostly looked superb doing so.
But, after years and tries enough, finally, after prompting by the death-wish inherent in that most addictive of drugs OxyContin, after feeling exhausted by being too long released to her own recognizance, after trying to deny and then subvert her interfered-with history, after finding herself unemployed and back on the paternal payroll, after inventing even more conspiracies than were actually thwarting her, after attempting unsuccessfully to check herself into Beth Israel Hospital to prevent herself from doing it, Heather took the belt of her favorite brown silk bathrobe and put an end to her life. But not her art. She has now, posthumously, with a typical and helpless generosity, with much loyal aid from her friends, lovers and editors, given the world Notice.
It is a suicide note of genius.
Notice is the plainest statement of the greatest pain imaginable. It is notable for the loving polish of its Keaton-like deadpan, and for the hellish depth with which it understands all that one human being can inflict on the rest of us. Why? Because he can. He practices cruelty as a form of artistry. Such Sistine-scaled cruelty needs, as its main surface and art supply, audience. A witness to that half-willing witness’s own sacrifice.
Heather Lewis was a prophet of the test crash and, therefore, a professional casualty. Made to fall herself so early, she made The Fall her subject. She choreographed it, over and over, both on and off the page.
The girl was every inch an artist.
This is a reproduction of Alan Gurganus's Terror, Eros and Animal: The Fiction of Heather Lewis originally published in Lewis’s novel Notice and reproduced by kind permission of the publisher Serpent's Tail.