While reading novels I like to imagine the author toiling away on the very words I’m absorbing. In the case of Richard Hell’s Godlike, I visualize Hell transmitting the novel psychically to a mother ship, where it is formatted, copyedited and submitted to publishers. I can picture Hell in a dingy East Village coffeehouse or dive bar staring at a wall. Punk nostalgic tourists in CBGB t-shirts might walk by and whisper, “Is that Richard Hell of the Voidoids?” prompting a waitress, who has been appointed to guard his best interests, to scold, “Shhh! He’s thinking!” It’s impossible for me to imagine such a cerebral book traveling through something as banal as a typewriter.
Godlike follows the relationship of a married man and his teenage boyfriend, consequently making for an unnerving read. Between stream-of-consciousness ramblings is a characterization of two fascinating men entangled by one another. Abstract metaphors are presented throughout, some amazing (a hotel room is “a woven fart in your head”) and some less so (“the weather was like a pornographic high-fashion magazine” — what does that even really mean?). The prose is intertwined with poetry by Hell, Edwin Denby, Ron Padgett, and James Schuyler, making for a novel that is as much about poetry as it is sexual obsession.
At age 27, in the mid-1970s, Paul Vaughn leaves his wife and newborn baby to move south with his 16-year-old boyfriend. Paul narrates the romance in the third person from a bed in a mental hospital 25 years later and intermixes it with his own musings from the present in first person. Despite latter-day Paul’s newfound Catholicism, he never contemplates or reveals the fate of his wife and baby or considers the moral ramifications of his under-aged liaison.
Paul first meets the boy, Randall Terrance Wode (“T.”), at a poetry reading and realizes him as the same boy that wrote beseeching letter expressing his admiration for Paul and his desire to leave his childhood in Kentucky. In short order, T. is set up with an apartment, drugs, booze, and sex with his new mentor. However, he quickly asserts himself as the dominant one in the relationship as Paul allows T. to alienate all his poet friends with hilariously offensive high jinks. When Paul is writing in the third person he tries desperately to understand T., but can never stay in that frame of mind long enough to fully confront his own frailty in the mind of his lover.
Perhaps the most amusing part of the book is the introduction written by Paul describing T. as “a scumbag” and insisting, “it’s important that you not like him either.” Paul would like his readers to believe that T. is Lolita with a penis, and Paul is helpless in the face of his boyish wiles. Oh, but I do like T.! He’s a brat that never doubts that he is smarter and more powerful than his mentor. Paul is used for all the cash he’s got, and degraded mercilessly. Towards the end of the relationship, T. even reveals himself to be the superior poet. While passing the typewriter back and forth to construct a co-written poem, Paul objects to T.’s addition of the word “turd,” to which T. simply responds, “Reconsider.” The turd stays in the poem.
It’s Paul that is truly unlikable. Unable to cease his chase of a boy that looks down on him or feel a modicum of sympathy for his wife, he instead devotes himself to a religion that “gives you your virginity back over and over.” He lies in his hospital bed endlessly contemplating his aging state and the many facets of his own penis. Since Paul is the narrator, the reader is forced to endure his often tedious and pretentious existentialism that takes up more than its fair share of the very short book.
The novel ends in a sequence of dramatic scenes narrated scantly. The overall affect is the same as if your best friend called one day and said, “An elephant walked into my apartment today and to get it out I had to beat up a rabbi,” and then hung up. It leaves you wondering: Were the rabbi and the elephant together? Did the elephant climb the stairs or take the elevator? Wait, what? There’s a chance for Hell to paint some spectacular scenes of the downfall of Paul, but he declines because he’s loyal to his characters, even at the expense of dramatics. Paul would have wanted it that way because his defining trait is ignorance of his own flaws and wrongdoings.
What Paul and T. conjure up in Godlike is classic of the sometimes scary sexual power that the very young have. I remember meeting men in the latter-half of their lives at the library when I was 13 who would follow me around and offer to pay for my photocopies. It occurred to me even then that I had an icky power over them that I didn’t want to exercise, mostly because I never had to. My mother helpfully supplied me with a fiver to cover copying expenses, but T., without such luxuries, takes Paul for all he’s worth, leaving a satisfyingly cashed husk of a man in a hospital bed.