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A Visit to Priapus and Other Stories Hardcover – November 29, 2013
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A Visit to Priapus and Other Stories (with a Foreword by Wendy Moffat and an invaluable Introduction by the editor, Jerry Rosco) has just been given its first U.S. publication. Some of the stories have been published in various publications (mainly in the UK), but some of the material has never been printed before. All of the pieces are very autobiographical in nature with gay content that varies from subtle to explicit to non-existent. The stories reflect a very complex style of writing most immediately comparable to the later works of William Faulkner (1897-1962).
The first two stories in the collection are mere vignettes. "Adolescence" describes the joy of "two youngsters" getting ready for a masquerade party in which one, fifteen-year-old Philip, a somewhat naïve and innocent farm boy, is convinced to dress up as a girl. At the party he doesn't know if his convincing disguise is responsibility for the shunning he receives or if others have guessed his identity and are shocked by what he has done. His loneliness and humiliation apparently is a preview of things to come in his life as a gay man. "Mr. Auerbach in Paris" is a mere shadow of a story telling about a young male secretary working for an elderly, wealthy, and philanthropic man who "little by little" is going blind. The story reveals the gullibility so many in Europe and America in the late 1930s had in regards to Germany and the force that was soon to descend upon the world.
It isn't until the third story, "The Babe's Bed" (1930) that readers get a much more full-bodied tale which tells of a young writer returning from Europe to visit his impoverished family in the United States. Wescott fills the pages of his story with more descriptive gloom about life during the Great Depression than one is likely to find in any other work aside from the far lengthier and better known The Grapes of Wrath (1939) by John Steinbeck.
The collection's title story, "A Visit to Priapus" is close to novella length and certainly the most sexual tale in the collection. Distraught with the threesome in which he lives because he is receiving the least love and sexual attention, Alwyn Tower, thirty-eight and "sex-starved," is encouraged to visit a closeted, gay artist by the name of Hawthorne on a trip to a small New England Town. The mediocre (at best) artist is infamous for two things: desperately wanting critical attention (and praise) for his paintings and "the phallus of a demi-god, [a] nightmarish bludgeon." In lesser hands than Wescott's, the story would simply have descended to the level of pornography. Instead, the author gives readers an intense psychological tale and by the story's end, the narrator has learned as much about himself as he has the peculiar Hawthorne.
"The Stallions: Pages from an Unfinished Story" is another piece of autobiography in which Wescott in startling lyrical prose details the mating of two sets of stallions and mares for mating--hardly an everyday topic or depiction. "The Frenchman Six Feet Three" has Wescott once again calling upon his pre-WWII experiences in Europe. The narrator meets a tall Frenchman by the name of Roger Gaumond who is "summoned to do reserve military service for a fortnight." The utterly ill-fitting uniform he receives to wear when he reports to duty serves as a both a metaphor and foreshadowing of the lack of readiness and competence of the French military in face of the soon to be all too apparent military might of the Third Reich.
"The Love of New York" is the best example from A Visit to Priapus and Other Stories of how closely related Wescott's fiction can be from his non-fiction in both tone and substance with the story reading much more like an essay than a story. The tale extolling the beauty of Manhattan in the 1940s, in particular, contains an ominous, prophetic reference: "If anyone wanted to alter the country at one fell swoop, let us say by bombing, this would be the place to swoop." "An Example of Suicide" is likewise as much an essay as a work of fiction. Wescott creates a frame, coming across a crowd of "upward-gazing people" spending hours watching a young man on the edge of a seventeenth floor of Hotel Gotham trying to decide whether or not to jump to his death. Wescott cuts away from the action to deliberate on the topic of suicide and only after giving voice to his ruminations on suicide does Wescott return to the fate of the young man on the ledge.
"The Odor of Rosemary" has an elderly Wescott reminiscing about a 1935 ocean voyage and may be the most lyrical story in the collection.
Rosco includes two genuine essays in the collection: "The Valley Submerged" about Wescott's home being buried under water to make way for a reservoir which includes additional text that Wescott added when he was seventy-seven years old and a very intriguing (and moving) essay about Wescott meeting the French writer Colette in "A Call on Collette and Goudeket."
Throughout the tales in A Visit to Priapus and Other Stories Wescott utilizes contradictory images; sometimes involving the characters of people and frequently using vastly contrasting adjectives to describe the very same thing. Interestingly, throughout A Visit to Priapus and Other Stories Wescott is the thorough, keen observer of others and of life, but for such autobiographical works, the reader never really gets a good portrayal of Wescott himself. There is a certain air of mystery to the world of Glenway Wescott. It is as if in nothing is a given; no beauty without a taint of some sort. It may not be reading too much into his descriptions to state that his hidden sexual orientation led to the formation of such a worldly outlook and to the hidden Wescott of his autobiographical works.
A Visit to Priapus and Other Stories includes material written from when Wescott was only twenty-two up to the seventies. His youthful, "experimental story" entitled "Sacre de Printemps" in which he visits a gay male couple is written in the same complex style that makes the story instantly recognizable as coming from Wescott.
Wescott's writing is much like that of a poet. Every word used appears carefully chosen. Every detail and description, filled with as many paradoxical words as they may be, are as carefully chiseled as a block of marble under the hands of a sculptor. A Visit to Priapus and Other Stories is like a fine wine--meant to be sipped and not consumed in one sitting and contains a wealth of riches for the thoughtful reader.