The Upper Hand

Soon after finishing the first draft of And Wait for the Night, Bill began his second novel. He announced this to his friend Thomas Bell in a letter written soon after he finishing the revisions to his first novel requested by Putnam’s:

JWC to Thomas Bell, August 10, 1963
Fumbling with writing scenes from second novel. Tentative title: THE UPPER HAND. About a renegade priest, a professional abortionist, a cop who buggers prisoners, a Westchester young exec type on the lam after being caught as head-man of homosexual-sadistic movie productions in New York. Some book. I’ll show you a few scenes I’ve done when I come over.

That fall Bill and I and our first two children, Shelley and John, went to England so that Bill could complete his D.Phil. at the University of Sussex. He was supposed to be busy writing a dissertation on James Joyce’s Dubliners (and did indeed complete it and won his degree) but still found time to work on The Upper Hand.

JWC to Thomas Bell, November 8, 1963
Second book underway. Not much telling yet what’s happening, but the characters and the ideas are beginning to settle a little. Hope it’ll come faster than the last one.

JWC to Thomas Bell, January 31, 1964
The second novel is taking wild and horrible shape. I’ve finished four sketches and the first chapter. I’ll have Joyce make a carbon of DR AORTA, when she does a fair copy for magazine submission. I want a couple of the early chapters in print quick so as to immediately counteract any tendency to label me a ‘historical’ novelist.’ I think you will find Dr Aorta of the 20th century.

It is worth noting that Bill’s way of beginning a novel was to write character sketches consisting of incidents from the past of the main characters that shaped or reflected who they were. These were then inserted as standalone chapters to the main body of the narrative soon after that character was introduced to the reader. He succeeded in placing two of these character sketched in literary magazines before the novel was completed.

The “Dr. Aorta” chapter was published in Motive (Nashville, Tennessee, Vol. 26, No. 2, November 1965. 12ff) and the Mary Ann Downey chapter, titled “To Carthage Then I Came,” in The Southwest Review (Dallas, Texas, Vol. 51, No. 2, Spring 1966. 110ff).

JWC to Thomas Bell, March 3, 1964
I’ll have some of novel #2 for you to see pretty soon. Hoping to finish it in a furious year’s work this coming August onward. Putnam’s has seen one piece and likes it a lot. It has to be good if I can write at all. It’ll really interest you because it’s a novel about God, I think. Some our own problems will be in it. And maybe even a solution or tow. But don’t count on that.

The Upper Hand is a novel infused with religious symbolism and concerns. Bill had been raised a Catholic and at the time he wrote the novel was practicing that faith. The first line of the novel is: “God Almighty,” the bus driver groans. The reader soon learns that a passenger on the bus, Christopher Nieman, is a young priest who, in the midst of celebrating the mass, reciting “Credo in unum Deum,” realized, “No, I don’t.” This loss of faith drives Christopher to abandon the priesthood and eventually journey into the Hell of the New Orleans French Quarter, “La Bas” as the middle section of the book is titled. There he discovered an array of demonic figures–none worse than Dr Aorta, a former Nazi and an abortionist. (Bill was greatly affected by seeing, as a child, the horrors of the Nazi death camps revealed, and his Catholic rearing caused him to strongly object to abortion, so in Dr Aorta, Bill created a double-dyed villain). Near the end of the book, when Dr Aorta is killed, the marquee light he lies under shows his face as alternately red, yellow and black, like the three faces that Dante gave his Satan. In the last scene of The Upper Hand, Christopher sits looking at a misty street lamp that exhibits a corona of three radiant circles, Dante’s image of God. Christopher experiences a “hunger he cannot bring into focus” and seeks to satisfy his hunger with a glass of Ballentine ale, a “sprit” which has on its label the same three interlocking circles that represent God. Whether Christopher’s journey into Hell leads him to regain his faith is left to the reader to decide for himself, but the last section is titled “Anabasis,” Greek for “an advance upward.”

Fortunately, there was not much difficulty in getting the novel published.

JWC to Thomas Bell, March 18, 1964
Putnam’s is talking about a contract and advance on my second book before they get my first one out. Good. I can use the money now, and won’t need it when I get home and on salary again [as an Assistant Professor on the English faculty at LSU in Baton Rouge].

JWC to Thomas Bell, May 20, 1966
Big news. I’ve been offered the job of Associate Professor and Chairman of the Loyola University English Department in New Orleans, and will almost certainly accept it.

The novel is being typed now, and will, I hope, be off to Putnam’s by 1 June. Very tough book. I have hopes for it, but you never get up for a book if you’re smart. Too much to go wrong.

JWC to Thomas Bell, October 26, 1966
I’ve just ended a long brawl with Putnam’s, have beaten them to pulp and buggered them in the ear. The book will be out early next year and it will be the book I wrote. It may not be very good but will have the earmarks of my own profound, sexy and constipated personality.

But the reception of the book was mixed. I recall that the cashier at the Loyola University Bookstore, where it went on sale while Bill was teaching there, told people who were purchasing a copy that it was a terrible book and no one should buy it. But literary people were more appreciative:

Jim Harrison to JWC, June 12, 1967
I finished your book, and it is sure damn good. I, too, am anxious to see what the reviews will be like. Some of it is awfully strong stuff, even in the days of William Burroughs an those of his ilk and/or habits. The great thing about the book is its linguistic energy and drive (I wonder if Walker [Percy] would agree with me on this. He is such a deceptively mild, understated, particular kind of writer). What you do, I think, is to create a particular kind of speaking voice—several of them, in fact—that are not only convincing as speech (and not just novelistic speech, but real speech) but interesting, consistently interesting, as well. I won’t say any more until I go back through the book and level down on trying to figure out how you do what you do, and then I’ll will write you a very long letter on it, if you like. Anyway, it’s great. Congratulations, indeed.

This kind of mixed opinion about the book is not surprising. The Upper Hand is a serious novel about the difficulty of maintaining faith in God in the corrupt modern world. But the many religious references (Christopher becoming a bread delivery man for Staff o’ Life Bakeries, the pornographer Benny Boundoch making a blue movie about sex between monks and nuns titled “The Question,” Mary Ann Downy becoming pregnant with a child of uncertain parentage, etc.) are humorous, ironic and even sacrilegious. That ambivalence resulted in The Upper Hand never finding a large popular audience in the 1960s. Perhaps the more liberal world of the twenty-first century is more ready to embrace it.

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