Recent Reading: Henry Henry by Allen Bratton

Hal Lancaster is twenty-two, gay, Catholic, and the oldest son of a duke. He spends his days (and nights) bouncing from party to bar and back again, buying and consuming cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol, sleeping with inappropriate men, and dodging the calls of his father, Henry, who is constantly lamenting his son and heir's profligacy and dissipation, deriding him for his lack of purpose or sense of duty, and making dark predictions about the fate of the family line on the day Hal inherits his role. You may have already spotted some Shakespeare references in that description, but the early chapters of Allen Bratton's debut novel are positively swimming in them. Hal has a best friend named Ed Poins, and a frenemy named Harry Percywho unlike Hal, perfectly embodies the ideal aristocratic heir while also having professional and political aspirations. Much of his carousing is done in the company of washed-up actor Jack Falstaff, and Henry only became the duke because his cousin Richardalso a gay mandied young and childless. 

The effect is to lull us into a false sense of understanding what this book is and what it is trying to accomplish. The frequent, wry bon mots that poke cruel fun at Hal's situation and dissipated lifestyle"Hal ... thought, it won't hurt if it's just the once. He had never in his life done a foolish thing just once"; "nobody liked Hal when they first met him unless it was a man who wanted to fuck him or a girl who wanted to marry him"create the expectation of a sparkling, lightly ironized novel about bright young things cursed with wealth and ennui. More importantly, they fool us into thinking that we understand the cause of Hal's aimlessness, depression, and oppositional behavior. It's not until Hal visits his father, and the older man initiates a sexual encounter that Hal greets with blank resignation, that we begin to understand what his story is actually about, and the dark places it is going to take us.

That feeling of sudden disorientation is our constant companion throughout this subtle, probing novel, which repeatedly reveals to us that everyone in iteveryone in Hal's class and social setis lying with the truth, using geniality, old-world charm, and the supposed diminishment of their power to obscure utter viciousness. Henry plays the hapless patrician who is just trying to save his son from his own worst impulses, the bemused fuddy-duddy who makes weak, ineffectual objections to this newfangled LGBT lifestyle he doesn't understand. But as we realize when we start to grasp the true contours of Henry and Hal's relationship, Henry is a man who weaponizes his weakness (the novel periodically shocks us with the reminder that despite the old-fashioned trappings of his life and his constant grousing about his aches and pains, Henry is only in his mid-forties). 

Every one of Henry's querulous, already-resigned-to-their-ineffectualness jabs against Hal is in fact a razor-sharp barb, part of a campaign that has kept Hal under Henry's emotional control since his early teens, and which has allowed Henry to continue abusing his son at an age where we might have expected Hal to be able to break free. His woe-is-me performance in response to Hal acting out is a way of using the damage he himself has caused as a justification for exercising emotional and financial controlwhen Hal, in a burst of anger, nearly lets slip what Henry has been doing to him in front of their relatives, then runs off, Henry cancels all his credit cards. 

The novel's early chapters offer an interesting overview of the diminished circumstances of aristocratic families in the 21st centurythe Lancasters are cash-poor, with their family seat opened up to tourists; their London house is in posh Belgravia, but unlike his oligarch neighbors Henry can't afford its upkeep; the Percys can only keep their grouse range running by renting it out to foreign visitors. It's easy to roll your eyes at this sort of tragedy of the richoh no, Henry can't put all his children up in apartments on a mere 500,000 a year. But the novel makes it clear how damaging an upbringing like Hal's can be. None of Hal's younger siblings appear to have been abused by their fatheror, at least, not sexually; a recurring plotline involves his youngest sister Philippa's struggles with disordered eating, and there is a strong indication that Henry's constant browbeating and wounded displays of disappointment are at the root of that illness. But like Hal, they have been raised to be useless, mere placeholders in a dynasty that matters more than they do.

The self-effacement that accompanies such admissions as "North Sea oil was drying up; in ten years they might have become the kind of family who need to figure out how to extract a profit from houses so grand they could only have been built with the profits from some other extractive enterprise" turns out to be a false bottom. Beneath it, people like Henry and Percy's father take their position with total, crushing seriousness, convinced that it is the purpose and duty of the young to twist themselves up in order to serve the institution that produced themthat Hal's gayness, for example, is only a phase from which he must inevitably emerge, to marry a suitable woman and produce the next heir. (That Richard did not follow this path, that he persisted in living openly as a gay man without caring about his title or the family's continuity, is viewed with a horror that is mingled with, but also separate from, ordinary homophobia.) When Hal and Percy stumble into a surprising, and surprisingly resilient, romantic relationship, golden boy Percy is shocked to realize how easily his family's supposed, abstract acceptance of queerness crumbles in the face of the possibility of the heir being gay.

Henry Henry was acquired for Unnamed Press by Brandon Taylor, and it's easy to see why it appealed to him. Like Taylor, Bratton writes incisive sentences and paragraphs that cut to the heart of a character or an interaction with surgical precision. Like him, he writes about sex and bodily functions with an unsentimental frankness that borders on the grotesque (it's an unacknowledged but very noticeable expression of Hal's fucked-up-ness about sex that he seems to encourage Percy's roughness towards him, and often doesn't climax himself). And also like Taylor, Bratton is deeply suspicious of therapy-speak, and of the assumption of so many recent novels that psychological healing is a straightforward process with concrete, fully attainable goals. 

Plot-wise, there's not much between Henry Henry and recent popular romances like Boyfriend Material or Red, White & Royal Blue, in which the upper classes' power to crush young people to their will is defeated by queer love. But Bratton's take on this premise is nowhere near so reassuring. When Hal tells Percy a watered-down version of his experiences (he pretends to have been abused by someone outside his family, and neglects to mention that the abuse is ongoing), the other man retreats into indignationhe's angry that Hal never reported his abuser, thus shirking his responsibility to future victims. When the scene ends, however, it's hard not to notice that Percy hasn't actually engaged with what he's learned about his lover, and it remains largely unspoken between them for the rest of the novel (it is never made clear, for example, whether Percy realizes who Hal's abuser actually was).

A more profound psychological impact on Hal comes from his Catholic faithwhich, like his social class, initially seems lightly held, almost like a joke, and gradually reveals itself as an all-encompassing system that affects almost every aspect of his life and personality. Unsurprisingly, this is hardly a purely positive influence. Hal's guilt over being gay is almost inextricable from his guilt over "allowing" Henry to abuse him, and in some ways their shared faith even creates a framework that normalizes the abuse. As a boy, we're told, Hal confessed the abuse to a priest, and was disappointed to be told that he was being hurt and should ask for help. What he wanted, he tells us, was to be punished, to be given a means of processing what was happening that would heap all the guilt for it on his head. In the present, he has so incorporated the abuse into his grasp of Catholicism that in one shocking scene, he tells Henry that he should "do it" that night, so that he can more easily give up their encounters for Lent.

All of which perhaps creates the impression that Henry Henry is a narrative of queer misery, something in the vein of Hanya Yanagihara's much-discussed tome of unrelieved gay suffering A Little Life. But although reading the novel can often feel like an exercise in vicarious dreadthere is always a sense that Hal could easily go under, surrender to his father's power over him, or to the demand that he become the sort of person that his social set expects him to bethat dread is mingled with hope in a way that gives both emotions a greater force. 

This is not the sort of story where the queer hero boldly stands up for himself, speaks his truth, and runs off to live his truest lifethere is, in fact, almost a parody of such stories late in the novel, when Hal, attending Henry's wedding to a wealthy Frenchwoman, is called upon to give a best man speech, and realizes to his horror that he has nothing to say about his father except the unacceptable truth. And despite his namesake, Hal doesn't have a bright destiny just waiting to be embracedthe Shakespearean framework eventually comes to seem like a red herring, with Hal's fate perhaps presaged more by his antecedents in novels like Brideshead Revisited, doomed to a life of loneliness, frustrated sexual desire, and self-destructive drug abuse. 

Through it all, however, and at first almost imperceptibly, Hal begins to grow stronger. Little by little, he seems to stand a bit more firmly, to take up a bit more space in world. He forges stronger relationships with his siblings, makes peace with Richard's memory, and a connection with his former partner who can function as a more positive, more accepting parental figure. Most importantly, he starts to draw away from Henrynot in the explosive break that we might have hoped for, but in a way that is somehow quintessentially English, adopting a polite refusal to care about his father's displays of suffering and ill-use. Without perhaps even realizing that he is doing it, he starts to claim parts of his lifehis faith, his family history, his relationship with Percyfor himself. 

These are never definitive triumphs. Even towards the end there are setbacks that seem horrifyingly like Hal letting the water close over his headwhen he moves in with Henry for weeks, cutting off other relationships, or when he starts to think of his relationship with Percy as something transient and unreal. All the way to the novel's final page we find ourselves straining for that undeniable indication that Hal is going to be OK, and not getting it. There is, we finally have to accept, a darkness that will always have the power to swallow him. And yet that capacity to destroy himself is also a reminder that Hal has the opposite power too. To put it another way, Henry Henry is not a novel about a man who is saved by love, but about his growing realization that he can love, and be loved, and that this is where his salvation can begin. The hope the novel offers for him is fragile, but all the more precious and rewarding for that fragility.


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