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Lost & Found: Peter Behrens on Patricia Highsmith

Before David Sedaris endured Santaland, Patricia Highsmith served on the front lines of holiday retail.  Peter Behrens looks at Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, the novel germinated by her experience, in today’s Lost & Found.

Is Patricia Highsmith the most unjustifiably ignored American novelist of her post-war generation?

In the United Sates, Highsmith’s reputation rests on novels more-or-less inadequately transposed to film, like [1999’s] The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Werner Fassbinder’s American Friend, based on another “Ripley” novel, with Dennis Hopper deeply miscast as Highsmith’s sincere, murderous young American-on-the-loose.

Hitchcock’s purchase of the movie rights to Strangers on a Train gave Highsmith seconds of renown in the early 1950s and cash to fund a passage to Europe, where she stayed.  Just before sailing, she worked the Christmas rush in a New York department store.  From that experience comes her strongest, strangest novel, a lesbian love story published in 1952 as The Price of Salt under the nom de plume of Claire Morgan.  The novel has passed in-and out-of-print as a paperback under that title, but my favorite edition was published as Carol, by Patricia Highsmith, in the “Bloomsbury Classics” series, with an afterword by the author.

The Price of Salt/Carol unfolds through the point-of-view of a besotted nineteen-year-old orphan shop clerk and would-be stage designer, Therese Belivet, slaving at the doll counter of “Frankenberg’s,” a New York department store, in the hectic days before Christmas.  Therese meets cool blonde Carol (“Always Carol.  Never Carole.”), a suburban housewife buying a doll for her daughter, Rindy.

(Weird names contribute to the delirious atmosphere of the love story.  Carol’s estranged husband is “Harge.”)

Therese falls hard for cool, worldly, Carol and starts ignoring her earnest Russian-American boyfriend, who lives with polka-loving parents in Queens.  Therese sends Carol an anonymous Christmas card, then blows seventy bucks buying her a handbag.  In this novel Highsmith chose to explore ordinary, not criminal, passion.  Therese is besotted, but never pathological.  The love affair that develops during drives around New York City, in wintry suburban New Jersey, and in roadside diners where Carol and Therese eat fried-clam sandwiches, finally takes flight with a chilly, sexy midwinter car trip across the United States.

Highsmith knows how tiresome a plot can be, and there is mercifully little plot whirring in Carol, notwithstanding the presence of a detective.  Carol and Therese make love for the first time in a hotel room in Waterloo, Iowa.  They visit a one-ring circus “beside a railway track in a town called Sioux Falls,” sip cocktails at the Broadmoor hotel in Colorado Springs, and are trailed by the detective, employed by Carol’s husband, who seeks sole custody of their daughter.  Carol, trapped, is forced to fly back to New York where she will renounce either Therese or Rindy.  Therese waits it out, clerking in a South Dakota lumberyard and going to motorcycle races with an older couple who befriend her.

A landscape of loneliness and answering passion is terrain Highsmith is always comfortable in.  The dusty, obscure settings—department store cafeteria, suburban house, empty highways, hotel bar—perfectly chosen and delivered, nourish the reader’s sense of the characters’ moods and mental music.  Things seem to just happen, which means the novel has the best kind of structure, where the bones never show, and the imagined world seems just as desultory as life is.

The book owes much of its compelling, almost hallucinatory power to Highsmith’s gift for evoking sharp images of the American landscape of 1950.  She makes this lost world resonate—she gives it a metaphysics—as Carol and Therese cruise the country, collecting their mail at post offices, eating steaks at a hunting lodge on the Nebraska/Wyoming border, and staying at the best downtown hotels in Waterloo and Sioux Falls—cities that once, unimaginably, possessed downtowns.

Carol is a perfectly-pitched novel about infatuation and what happens next, a gay love story that just escapes being a tragedy, sung in Patricia Highsmith’s youthful, still hopeful, voice.

Peter Behrens is the author of The O’Briens, The Law of Dreams, and Night Driving.  His work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Brick, Best Canadian Stories, and Best Canadian Essays.  Visit him on the web here.

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  1. […] is easy to miss, but worth seeking out for finds like an original copy of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt , which was too dear for me at $25, but still […]

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