Alfred Hayes – My Face for the World to See (1958)

This wasn’t the best reading year for me. While I was very lucky with my nonfiction choices, more than one novel was a dud. Imagine how happy I was to see my faith in literature fully restored before the end of the year. Alfred Hayes’ novel My Face for the World to See is just marvelous. A perfect gem of a novel. I couldn’t fault a thing. I discovered it a few years ago on Guy’s blog here, but forgot all about it until Jacqui reviewed another of Hayes’ novels, The Girl on the Via Flaminia.

Alfred Hayes was born in London but moved to the US as a child. In 1943 he was drafted and spent time in the US army, in Italy. In Italy he contributed to some of the most famous scripts of Italian neo-realist cinema – Rosselini’s Paisà and de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. The following ten years, he worked as a screen writer in Hollywood, writing  scripts for people like Fritz Lang, John Huston and many more.

While The Girl on the Via Flaminia, his earlier novel, is set in Italy, My Face for the World to See is set in Hollywood.

Before starting the review, I’d like to share the opening paragraphs, which set the tone and the mood of the novel.

It was a party that had lasted too long; and tired of the voices, a little too animated, and the liquor, a little too available, and thinking it would be nice to be alone, thinking I’d escape for a brief interval, those smiles which pinned you against the piano or those questions which trapped you wriggling in a chair, I went out to look at the ocean.

There it was, exactly as advertised, a dark and heavy swell, and far out the lights of some delayed ship moving slowly south. I stared at the water, across a frontier of a kind, while behind me, from the brightly lit room with its bamboo bar and its bamboo furniture, the voices, detailing a triumph or recounting a joke, of those people who were not entirely strangers and not exactly friends, continued. It seemed silly to stay, tired as I was and the party dying; it seemed silly to go, with nothing home but an empty house.

With hindsight, it’s amazing to see how perfect this beginning is. It captures the tone and the mood of the novel, as well as the narrator’s character. The narrator – he’s never named – is a successful, rich script writer, who spends some months of the year, in Hollywood, far from his wife and kid, who stay in New York. He’s successful but it doesn’t seem to mean much to him. He could be part of a crowd but he stays outside. There’s one person one could call a friend, the host, but other than that, he seems like the ship he watches – passing by, detached. At the same time, he’s the guy who is eternally watching, witnessing. A couple of moments after this short intro, he’s again a witness – this time to the near-suicide of a young, pretty wannabe actress. He saves her and this act is the beginning of a terrible mistake. While he may think he’s just being friendly when he contacts her again, it dawns on the reader that loneliness and boredom – also mentioned in the first paragraphs – might be the true reasons.

From that moment on, the reader gets to witness an awful Maelstrom of an affair. The beginning is somewhat sordid and the end disastrous.

I absolutely loved this novel because of the tone and the mood. And the writing style. It’s pared down and economical, not one superfluous word. It’s also chilling at times, because the narrator never fully engages with anything that happens. It’s almost as if he’s never really there. And the more he is withdrawn, the more the girl seems to sink deeper and deeper into her despair. I felt so sorry for this girl. A typical pretty small town girl who comes to Hollywood with big dreams, which a crushed instantly. She was hoping for “My Face for the World to See”, but what she gets instead is the wrong male attention. Almost all of her lovers seem to have been married and, invariably, it ends badly and she tries to console herself with alcohol. There’s a scene with a cat, who she loves dearly, that’s utterly heartbreaking.

I think one reason why I loved this so much is because it reminded me of Dorothy B. Hughes fantastic novel In a Lonely Place, which made my best of list in 2016. I’m sure Hayes knew the book and certainly knew the movie with Humphrey Bogart. Even though My Face for the World to See isn’t a crime novel, it has all the trademarks of a noir like In A Lonely Place. There’s the melancholy mood, the jaded, lonely people who try to connect but fail, love affairs that turn bitter within weeks.

Of course, Hollywood is the perfect setting for a story like this and one can easily see that Hayes knew what he was writing about.

I’m not entirely sure I will write a best of post this year, but if I do – My Face for the World to See will be on it.

17 thoughts on “Alfred Hayes – My Face for the World to See (1958)

    • I’m so glad to hear that. Jacqui’s review of The Girl on the Via Flaminia made it sound just as wonderful. I’d love to hear what you think of the Hughes. It’s so good.

  1. I’m so glad you loved this too. As you say, it has the tone and feel of a noir novel, two damaged souls and a relationship that seems doomed from the off (In a Lonely Place is a great touchstone for this). I think it’s probably his best novel, certainly my favourite of the three I’ve read to date.

  2. I am glad to hear that you ended the year on a high note. I have not read Hayes but he sounds very good. This sounds very sad. I like the passage that you quoted. I see what you mean about the lack of full engagement.

    • Thanks, Brian. It was a frustrating reading year overall. Some very good books but too many lame ducks.
      I thought it was very sad but wonderful nonetheless. That first passage contains the whole novel in a nutshell.

  3. I love that first scene and the way you analyse it, Caroline. It’s wonderful when a book’s opening encapsulates so much about the character and situation while also being a joy to read. I’d never heard of Hayes, to be honest, but I’ll look out for this one now.

    • Thanks, Andrew.
      I agree, it is wonderful and masterful. I only realized it when I went back how this echoes the whole book. I only recently discovered him myself but was very glad I did. I think you won’t be disappointed.

  4. This one ended up in my some folder for some reason.
    I liked this one a lot. It captures the superficiality and loneliness of Hollywood. Although how I’d know it’s like that is beyond me.

    • It was your review that made me get it. It’s so good.
      I alos felt it was authentic although – how would I know but I seem to remeber some actors or screen writer’s biographies in which it was described like this. There must be some movie focussing on this aspect of Hollywood too. I’m sure you’ve seen them.

      • I will never forget a piece I read about Marilyn Monroe which must be the icon for what can happen in Hollywood.
        She wasn’t famous at the time and was on contract to one of the studios. Her breasts were being discussed (one man said they pointed in opposite directions) so she called in, told to remove her shirt and show the men her breasts.

  5. Pingback: Best Books I Read 2018 | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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