Monday, May 9, 2016

The Happy Man by Eric C. Higgs (1985): When I Got Some Flesh Off the Bone

Sometimes I would think back to the times 
Ruskin Marsh and I used to talk. 
I would think about the things he had hinted at, 
things that were so monstrous on the face of it 
that I never dreamed he might be in deadly earnest. But he was. Oh yes...

Whatever you do don't read the back-cover copy of the paperback edition of The Happy Man (Paperjacks/April 1986). It gives away everything. I went in knowing nothing about the novel save a couple intriguing reviews by folks I trust (which of course I avoided reading). I found myself quietly guided into a private universe of amoral appetites and infernal indulgences. Akin to Thomas Tessier's Finishing Touches, published around the same time, Eric C. Higgs's first novel is literate, incisive, and restrained, even when presenting behavior that leaves human decency far, far behind. Especially then. A scathing, chilling absurdist satire of the 1980s consumerist lifestyle, The Happy Man has an easy and readable quality to it that belies its cruel intentions. A slim 166 pages, I would've happily read more and more about these two men, narrator Charles Ripley and his new neighbor Ruskin Marsh, and their "friendship," a bond that tests all limits... and a few beyond.

No current info on Higgs could be found, although I located a 1987 newspaper article on him. He wrote one other horror novel, Doppelganger, that looks worthwhile, as well as a screenplay for Happy Man (it could be an excellent little blackly comic/horror indie flick). Wish he'd stuck to the game, because as a writer, Higgs is a marvel, a wonder, a relief and a delight: he says what he means and means what he says. He knows what he wants to say and he says just that. Mature and insightful, Higgs parses human complexities with an economic, unpretentious grace.

As I rushed upon [the old man] I told myself there could be no pity, not for his kind, not ever. 
And when I knocked him over and got on top of him, 
I brought the hammer down so hard and so often 
I was entirely unaware that I was making it end 
too quickly.

This, in the first few pages. What compels Charles to murder? Why is he disappointed he didn't make the killing last? We don't even know why exactly he is in a homicidal rage, why Charles attacks the man: ("confident that his death was as preordained as the orbit of the solar system"). The first chapter ends with Charles driving away in the dead man's car ("The inertia that had once held me was indeed gone"), ruminating on what's happened to lead him here. We will learn.

1985 hardcover, St. Martin's Press

In the suburban milieu of San Diego called Mesa Vista, Charles Ripley and his wife Shelly enjoy a comfortable life, having moved past the loss of a baby. The weeks and years pile on and maybe things aren't so exciting any longer. But when the Marshes move in next door, they seem to fit right into the dinner parties, home improvement projects and such. Ruskin Marsh has a charisma, a ruthless charm really ("the Aggressive Exec type" Charles notes), that draws Charles in. And Sybil Marsh, Ruskin's effortlessly attractive wife, makes a personal connection with Shelly. What strikes Charles most is Ruskin's ability to get him talking about things Charles had forgotten he'd once cared about: art, literature, ethics, life. Could his new neighbor have the long-sought, near-mythical key to a happy, satisfied life?

As their friendship begins, Ruskin lends Charles a leather-bound book; will you be surprised to learn it's a private printing of the Marquis de Sade's Juliette? *hint, hint* Ruskin also plies Charles with marijuana and cocaine, shows off his gun collection and tells a harrowing tale of being a fighter pilot in Vietnam. A fresh note of unease begins the night Charles and Ruskin go out for dinner together without their wives. We've already seen that Charles is not adverse to a little something on the side, as he's starting an affair with a young woman at work. But Ruskin, with gorgeous Sybil? Ruskin likes to slum: The brunette's name was Mandy. Her face was just this side of being haggard, but her figure was ripely endowed. The other one, Hariette, looked as if she belonged in a trucker's honkeytonk. Their after-party turns into a moment of sheer horror... but the two men walk away unscathed: But the most surprising thing of all was that I found I could live with it.

Things start to go wrong in this suburb. Surrounding this little oasis is an encroaching minority populace, being so close to the Mexican border, which causes mild worry for the Mesa Vista denizens. Brutalized bodies are discovered after horrifying screams in the night (a centerpiece of the novel). Several young women suddenly leave town. Violence (and sex) breaks out at neighborhood dinner parties soundtracked by Jobim. All of this is masterfully detailed by Higgs. Ruskin tells Charles about the "society of friends" he belongs to (not the Quakers!), slowly reveals to him the happy life: His tone was of the utmost reasonableness... His life had the serenity and peace that forever eluded me... "I think it's important to know oneself, Charles."

Screenplay, 2012

After I finished my first reading of Happy Man I set it down to ruminate on it, work on this review. Days, weeks, months went by, and I couldn't quite say what I wanted about the book. Finally I had to re-read it, three months later, something I almost never do. It captivated me yet again! I liked the various dinner parties, minor Cheever but twisted and cruel like Dahl. The pen Higgs wields is deft and ironic, exposing the base instincts, the very worst ones, satirizing them ably, all that suburbia tries to tamp down. I noted that Sybil and Shelly's affair, revealed near the end, probably went down very much like Charles and Ruskin's: platonic seduction leading to something... deeper, darker, almost delusional. Shelly leaves Charles, leaving him open to the final happy horror Ruskin has in store. The plan all along, I assume.

No way around it: Higgs makes many other horror writers I've reviewed for this blog seem like clod-hopping buffoons stomping and stumbling all over the English language. Do other horror writers even care about humans, pay attention to them, the small details that afford a glimpse into their inner workings? To the grit and grind of daily living? No, too often the horror genre appeals to writers unworthy of the craft, to the lazy and those satisfied with cliche and banality, unwilling to do the hard working of scraping off the surface and peering at what lies beneath, and then attempting, with honesty and imagination, to describe that which lies there. Higgs makes it all seem so easy, polished, yet still raw and painful. Pity he wrote only two novels. The Happy Man is an essential '80s horror read: smart, sharp, unforgiving, unlike anything else in the genre at the time. You need this book to make you happy: satisfy that unnamed hunger and read it!

Ruskin and I were one now, united on a plane of perfect understanding. 
My unhappiness had come to an end.


Ron Clinton said...

Excellent, tantalizing review...I'm keeping an eye out (no pun intended, the first pb cover notwithstanding) for this one!

Mark West said...

Terrific review (and I didn't know about the screenplay - how cool is that?).

CrabbyCrib said...

It's interesting you mention character/details/nuances of humanity in the last paragraph. I've come across many writers who, especially in horror, write as though their story should explain itself thoroughly. More specifically, they think we have to know the characters and the monsters from head to toe and often draw on cliches as a means to fulfill this goal. I'm beginning to think the revelation of character, as you say, "the inner workings" seems like a secret crux of horror in which readers and writers don't consciously realize, but unconsciously recognize...react to, as if effective characters in fiction are born living entities rather than fabricated. Good post.

highwayknees said...

How did this novel escape me since it was published at a time when bookstores were plentiful and I was a constant browser? Weird that I haven't ever heard of it or the author till now! So, thanks for that Eric! I have found many an interesting read here that somehow had passed by skimming under my radar.

Unknown said...

Glad you finally read and reviewed this, Will. I've been touting its virtues for decades.

Higgs' DOPPELGANGER is good, too, but not AS GOOD as THE HAPPY MAN.

Ryan C said...

I just finished this one. Damn that was good and not at all what I was expecting. The hardcover description is much longer but doesn't give as much away as the paperback (even that cover is going too far!) With this one, the less you know the better.

Future Val. Books, maybe? ;)