Monday, September 12, 2016

Cages, binaries, toxic masculinity

Last month I found a cardboard box full of old books down by the loading dock at work, bound for the dumpster. Most were eroded hardcover pictorials about furniture and fashion circa 1970; one was a novel. That novel was one Cages (1971) by one Paul Covert. I'd never heard of the book nor its author.

Judging from the front cover, which does its damnedest to convey a youth culture/Beat vibe, and the back cover, whose copy does describes the teenage protagonist's "world of psuedo-Hemingway fantasies and ingenuous adolescent sex," and speciously characterizes the young Covert as a kind of postwar Thoreau/Papa successor, Cages sure looks like a mediocre freshman novel whose publishers tried way too hard to pimp. The novel's sink into obscurity would appear to verify the impression: Cages has only one review on Goodreads and none on Amazon, Paul Covert appears to have vanished from literary history, and a search for "liveright new writers" on Google Books mostly yields publishing catalogues from 1970–1974.

In spite of this, I decided to snag Cages and give it a read anyway. For obvious reasons, I can't help sympathizing with a forgotten novelist who once stepped up to the plate and swung the bat, even if it never landed him in the big leagues. Selfishly, and probably self-delusionally, I entertain the conceit that by reading a forty-five-year-old novel I haphazardly found in the dustbin, I create a statistical precedent for someone doing the same with a corroded copy of The Zeroes they find in a recycling bin circa 2050.

I was pleased and surprised when Cages turned out to be much more interesting than its packaging would have me believe. Despite Liveright's attempts to sell it through a fabricated tie to Hemingway, Cages is much more like Catcher in the Rye than The Sun Also Rises, and bears thematic and stylistic similarities to middle school reading list mainstays A Separate Peace and The Pigman. Actually, I'd be very tempted to label Cages a young adult book, were it not for all the misogyny, profanity, homoeroticism, homophobia, teenage sex and alleged rape, liberal use of the word "fag," and the unresolved and unanswerable questions the reader is left with after reaching the end.

Chris Rock spoke of the comedian's method of saying something really offensive on the way to making a valuable (inoffensive) point. This is good a way as any to characterize the purpose of which all of Cages' meatheaded coarseness acts in service, and the quote-unquote message of the book is actually quite progressive, and still relevant four decades later.

We'll get into that in a moment. First, some details.

Setting: the backwoods of Pennsylvania, a rural town on the outskirts of Scranton. Enter Eric Williams, teenaged narrator, protagonist, and (for lack of a better word) redneck.

Eric lives with his father on a small farm. He is an only child and his mother is dead. He appears to be a poor student; his primary interests are fishing, hunting, and dreaming up schemes to get into the pants of one Samantha Cromley, the buxom new girl in town. He is very much an outdoorsman, often preferring the woods, rivers, and hills to hanging out with his classmates at the malt shop.
It was one of those days when I just liked sitting and not saying anything or even breathing but just listening. Some of the things I heard sometimes just sitting on top of that mountain were surprising. It kind of gave you a whole different way of feeling about things....

[O]n top of the mountain you could look at that dam and get a whole new feeling about it. From there it wasn't noisy at all. It was real small and shiny looking and the sound it made was like a whisper. You could almost forget how powerful and scary it could be.

And the whole valley too. Sometimes when you were walking in it, there were so many noises in the valley that they just went together to make one big sound. But sitting on the cliff, you couldn't hear the trucks and cars on the highway going to Scranton or Charley Brown's ancient farm tractor or the belching sounds that the woolen mill made or the damn awful screams Tom Wolfe's mother would let out with when she wanted her herd of brats home for dinner. From up there, the sounds were just barely those of a breathing baby sound asleep....

Maybe the softer the sounds were the happier you were. At least that was the way I felt sitting on the cliff listening to the wind blowing through the fall leaves. If I had seen a squirrel, I don't think I would have wanted to break the spell to shoot at it.
Covert's prose doesn't exactly crackle, and that's rather the point. We're to be reading this as the confessional missive of a fifteen-year-old boy who's not at all well-read, and whose aesthetic faculties remain undeveloped because introspection, emotion, and all that "beauty is truth, truth beauty" crap are things he deems "scuzzy," which in Cages is basically a synonym for "fruity."

Aside from the tranquility of nature and the size of Samatha Cromley's tits, Eric is also very affected by the ability of his father's cow Herod to take massive dumps on command.

So Eric meets Bob Ward, whose family recently moved in from New York. A sheltered city kid par exellence, Ward is pensive, unathletic, and prone to getting beaten up. Eric finds him scuzzy beyond belief—but takes him under his wing anyway, and tries to make him less of a scuzz. At length, the two become bosom chums, even if they're on completely different wavelengths. Eric's program to harden Ward the fuck up are only slightly more successful than Ward's attempts to get Eric to understand where he's coming from. The most conspicuous difference in their personalities is their comparative depth of feeling: Eric avoids scenarios and lines of conversation in which The Feels are liable rear their myriad heads (it's all a lot of scuzz), while Ward's emotional spectrum runs from inconsolable dejection to soaring elation.

The various plot arcs in Cages needn't be described in much detail, but a few deserve mentioning. Ward suffers from a rough family life; his relationships with his emotionally distant workaholic father and jock brother are particularly fractious. He tries to write a novel about it, but never finishes it. Eric's final attempt to impress Samatha Cromley and humiliate his rivals vying for her affection leads to a freak accident that kills an aloof local boy named John, Ward's only other friend. Eric and Ward try to navigate through puberty together—Eric is perpetually horny, while Ward copes with the out-of-control emotions and overwhelming concern with "fitting in" that come with being a fifteen-year-old boy. Ward's mother worries about her son spending so much time with Eric—not because Eric is a bit of a give-no-fucks punk, but because she suspects the boys might be turning each other gay.

There might be something to this.

Take this early scene where Eric tries to console Ward after some local kids bully him with a "hey little cock" chant.
"Come on. Whip it out."


"Whip it out. Come on, we'll compare them."

Watching to make sure nobody was coming, I dropped my pants as Ward did the same. Pulling and stretching ourselves, we got as close to each other as we could so we could be side by side.

"There. See that, Ward? Damned if we aren't the same size exactly."

Without saying anything, he just stared at our hands.

Looking down, I was wondering now if Ward's was normal or if mine was small too. But then, looking up at him I said, "As a matter of fact, I kind of like the looks of yours better."

"No fooling," he said, smiling at me. "You really do?"

"Sure," I said, pulling up my pants. "So let's go back and swim some more before it gets dark."
Later on, when Ward is spending a night at Eric's place (which he usually does anyway, if only to get away from his folks), the boys steal beer out of the elder Matthews' fridge, get sloppy drunk, and end up perusing a "how-to" sex guide for married couples, taken from the library by the ever-prurient Eric. When they come to the section on masturbation, they're curious enough that they give it a try—together. (Not to each other; with each other.)
Well, it worked. Jesus, it worked. I never felt anything so weird in my life. For a minute, I thought I was going to pass out. Ward almost did. He kept grabbing my arm and whispering.

"I'm getting dizzy."

"Then stop doing it."

"I can't."

I wish he had. After he finished, he lay there for a minute just breathing real heavy like he was going to die right in front of me and without his pajamas. Then all of a sudden he sat up and said, "I think I'm going to be sick."

"Oh, that's great. Well just don't puke on me."
The next morning:
The whole thing turned out to be damn scuzzy. We were both sick all day, and I felt kind of funny about looking at him. Neither of us said anything about the night before. And neither of us did much that next night. I went to bed right after dinner leaving the empty beer bottles under the mattress where I had hid them that morning. I just lay there hoping Ward wouldn't tell anybody about what he had done and made plans for Samantha Cromley.
Eric doesn't get anywhere with Samatha Cromley; Samantha's role in the story ignominiously concludes with her giving Hal Denning crabs and moving out of town. He starts going out with a classmate named Alice Hemingway (and there's your Hemingway connection), who Eric likes well enough, especially after her chest rounds out. Ward begins spending a lot of time with social misfit Barbara Garrett who, like him, is frequently the butt of the boys' jokes and inured to a peripatetic family life. Ward and Barbara become inseparable, and Ward seems beside himself.
"It's just great," Ward said. "I've got everything a person could want....Sometimes, she holds on to me like she's afraid she'll lose me."

"Yeah," I said, looking up at him. "She's a grabber, isn't she?"

"Boy, is she."

"Wonder why? I mean, Alice holds a lot too, but not like Barbara."

"I don't know," Ward said. "I guess she was so lonely for so long that she just doesn't want to lose me."

"Fat chance!"

"You can say that again. God, I love her."
Eric thinks this is scuzzy indeed—but then he hears what Ward has to say next.
Then he said it. I thought I'd die. I couldn't imagine Ward saying something like that, even if it was true and even if I could have said the same thing. It was just something you didn't go around saying to your friends. I just stared at him, still hearing the words bouncing around inside my head.

"I love you too."

My face felt like it was flaming. I just swallowed hard and said, "You better watch it. You'll have your mother thinking we're screwy again."

"I don't give a damn," he said, still grinning. "I said it and I'm glad."

But that's the way he was after he started going with Barbara. Everything was "love" to him. Love this, love that. And everything that wasn't love was "pretty," or "wonderful," or "marvelous," or "great," or "out of this world." He was buying new clothes, fancy ones. His hair had to be just so. And when he was in the malt shop with her, they didn't even talk; they sat there staring at each other, holding hands on top of the table. It was crazy. I mean, he was turning into a worse goddamn scuzz than he was the day I met him.
Ward's dalliance with Barbara comes to an awful end. One night when Eric has the house to himself, he throws a couples party with Ward, Alice, and Barbara spending the night. He and Alice lose their virginity to each other. As they're trying to sort through how they feel about what just happened, Barbara tears out of the house, sobbing. She claims that Ward raped her, and within a couple of days the entire town has heard the story.

A few days later, an exhausted and miserable Ward comes by Eric's house for the first time since the night of the party. Eric's solution? Take Ward out hunting to get his mind off everything. 
"[I]f I was you, I wouldn't give a tinker's damn about fucking her."

I didn't know what I'd said. One minute he was standing there, holding the gun, not saying a word. Then all of a sudden he was yelling at me.

"No." he kept saying. "Why can't you listen to me?"

"I'm listening. I'm listening."

"Eric——I——I didn't touch her! I——I couldn't do it."
"Oh, come on Ward. It's me. We're friends. I told you, I don't care."

"Goddamn it, will you listen. I did not!" Then he was turning the gun around in his hands. "She wanted me to. She kept saying I should prove that I loved her. I kept telling her it would only prove that I had a cock and she had a cunt. But she kept clawing at me, feeling at me."

"No shit."

He started shuddering then, his lips shaking, his eyes watering. "She told me that if I wouldn't do it, she'd go out with Hal Denning. I——I didn't know what to do. I was so afraid of losing her. I——I just wanted to make her understand. But she wouldn't listen. She kept screaming how I must think she was ugly because I wasn't doing what I was supposed to do."
Eric shrugs this off, and advises Ward to do the same. But Ward says there's another part to Barbara's story:
"She's been going around telling people that we're weird——queer——fags! She's telling everybody that I told her that you're better in bed than her."

"Jesus," I said, hardly able to breathe. "Jesus." All of a sudden I wasn't seeing right. But my mind was still working——remembering all the kids at school who weren't saying much to me——Alice not having lunch with me and not answering the phone——the snickering way Hal Denning told me about Barbara Garret's fucking. "Jesus."

"I'm sorry," Ward kept saying.

"Jesus," I kept repeating. Then, when the shock started wearing off, I said, "Have you said anything to anybody? I mean, Christ, we're not, are we?"

"I don't know," he said, trembling all over. "I don't know what to say. My father was screaming and my mother was screaming. One minute I was rotten because I fucked Barbara and the next minute I was terrible because I was a damn queer. It got so I didn't know which would be best to admit to."

Barbara Garret, the bitch! I hated her. Seeing Ward standing there like that, crying now, holding a hand out to me, I wanted to kill her.

"And I love her," he kept saying. "I love her, Eric. I love her." 
Not long afterward, the desperate and miserable Ward tears outside and into the street with Eric's hunting rife, with Eric racing after him. When Ward reaches the bridge over the river and ascends the trusses, Eric apprehends that his friend doesn't intend to come back down alive. With the bystanding members of their scandalized community gawking on, Eric allows the dam in his heart to burst at last:
"Ward," I was screaming, crying, shaking, wanting to reach out to him. "I——I need you! You're all I have——without you——Oh god, won't you listen?....Ward——Ward, reach down here. Please. Take my hand, touch it, feel it. It's warm. It's alive. It——it needs you....My hand, Ward. Look at it, it's reaching for you, wanting you——It's——Ward, it's loving you! Can't you just stop for a minute and see that?"
It's not enough. Ward puts a rifle bullet through his own head.

Cages is a forgotten novel. Pretty much everything a Google search turns up are product pages on used book websites. But among the results are two books about gay YA fiction.

It gets a passing mention in Gerald Unks' The Gay Teen: Educational Practice and Theory for Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Adolescents (1995):
One of the boyfriends swears eternal love and loyalty, but his promises are not enough to keep his lover from jumping off a bridge to his death because he cannot accept his homosexuality.
Ward actually dies from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, but whatever.

Allan A. Cuseo gives Cages a much more substantial overview in his Homosexual Characters in YA Novels: A Literary Analysis, 1969-1982 (1992). Cuseo's read is more or less the same as Unks's: he asserts that the relationship between Eric and Ward is foremost a gay one; homophobia is what accounts for Ward's social isolation from the beginning; Ward dates Barbara "to assure himself and Eric of his masculinity" (although I think he means to say "heterosexuality"); that the suicidal Ward makes his last stand in a tree, not a bridge.

I might feel a little less confident about gainsaying Unks and Cuseo's fundamental readings of Cages if they weren't so prone to fudging fairly important plot details.

Cages manages to be an interesting novel not because it lends itself to being read as a story about closeted gay teenagers, but because it lures readers into them. Such readings are selective and ultimately reductive, as the title Cages implies.

They're selective in the way that headcanon and half-baked fan-theories are, ignoring countervailing evidence and trumping up the details that support the critic's pet theory and the Tumblr fan's claim of a fictional character as a secret member of their own social tribe. Eric and Ward are obviously gay—so long as we ignore Eric's obsession with buxom teenagers, skin magazines, and his lack of compunctions about losing his virginity to Alice, and refrain from acknowledging Ward's intense affinity for Barbara, which predicates his "I love you" confession to Eric.

Even so: Eric certainly shows himself to feel more deeply for Ward than he does for Alice, and Ward's emotional investment in Barbara doesn't lead towards a sexual relationship with her. Saying that Eric and Ward are just buddies would be to reduce the complexity and circumstances of their friendship to the same degree as diagnosing them as incipient gay lovers.

Ward's mother relates her misgivings about her son's friendship with Eric during an intensely awkward moment when she catches Ward masturbating in his bedroom.
"She said——well——she said that if I kept doing that, my cock would shrivel up to nothing and I'd be a damn girl. That's what she said."

"Oh, Christ!"

"Yeah," he said, wiping the sweat off his face. "And she said that I should stop spending so much time with you and start going out with girls or——"

"Or what," I said.

"Or——I'd turn into a fag."

"She's nuts!" I said, getting off the bed.

And all he'd say after that was "I don't know. I don't know."
 "I don't know" probably isn't the "yeah, she is nuts, I'm not gay" that Eric might have been hoping for—but "she might be right, I might be gay" probably wasn't a feasible answer in Scranton, Pennsylvania circa 1970.

Eric and Ward's relationship and Ward's sexual orientation are ambiguous—as is so much of oneself and the world is when one is fifteen years old.

Sexual experimentation between teenage males isn't (and wasn't) that uncommon; where there's erupting pubescent hormones, ego plasticity, and cordial trust, a same-sex friendship isn't altogether unlikely to take on a homoerotic dimension, even temporarily. (Do I speak from experience? Probably.) These facts—and the underaged drinking factor—may account for Eric's and Ward's same-bed masturbation experiment as much as or more than the proposition that either of them are bona fide homosexuals.

The word "homosexual" lately has more of a pejorative than an clinically objective flavor, but we use it here because its meaning is definite. If one wants to say for sure that someone is homosexual, then one can't be sure of it unless (1) the person states an absolute sexual preference for those of the same sex (2) we know that person is in the habit of engaging in sexual activity exclusively with partners of the same sex.

Contrary to Unks and Cuseo, it is not a given that Eric and/or Ward are gay, although much more of a case can be made for Ward. Ward clearly doesn't enjoy looking at dirty magazines or voicing his sexual fantasies vis-a-vis his female classmates like Eric does; Ward is the one who blurts "I love you" to Eric; Ward is the one who can't bring himself to have sex with his very willing girlfriend Barbara.

But most observations along these lines run up against contrary evidence elsewhere. Ward expresses his love for Eric, but he also expresses his love for Barbara, and much more emphatically. Ward isn't willing to have sex with Barbara, but he also doesn't seem to demonstrate much physical interest in Eric, either. (We don't know what he's thinking about when he's masturbating.) It's impossible to know Covert's intent, but it seems unlikely that he'd set so many red herrings a-swimming in his story if he really wished to make Ward's sexual preference an open-and-shut case.

We could go on. What's more important here is how we're trying to assess Ward's sexuality in the absence of actual evidence: we hold up the locus of behaviors typically associated with heterosexual males—in other words, a model of masculinity—and measure Ward's actions against it.

This is why an academic volume's critical evidence for Ward's sexual orientation is strikingly similar to the observations of a jockish father who's terrified he's raising a sissy. So the troubled and sensitive fifteen-year-old boy isn't ready for sex? Well then, he must be queer. So he tells his best (male) friend he loves him and doesn't append the declaration with "no homo?" Then he is a homo, surely. The boy prefers carrying around a poetry book to playing organized sports? Can anything possibly be more faggy than that?

The lingering mystery of exactly how much homoeroticism factors into Eric and Ward's friendship is subordinate to the overarching theme of Cages, a novel that's secondarily, possibly a tale of tragic gay love and primarily an exploration of (toxic) masculinity.

Most of Cages' cast is male, and most of them act the part. The young men gleefully objectify their female peers and boast to each other about their conquests. They beat each other up, viciously make fun of each other, and try to show each other up in social settings—nakedly primatial displays of aggression and dominance. Really, most of the boys in Cages only open their mouths to make salacious comments about girls or talk shit to other boys—and Ward stands alone, makes himself a target, and an object of suspicion precisely because he doesn't treat everyone else like crap, and because he's more disposed to sit quietly than noisily project himself, smack people around, and rub his proverbial dick all over everything.

Ward is also one of the least misogynistic characters in a novel where most mentions of women are followed by a comment about appearance, breast size, or willingness to put out. Eric's father tearfully remembers his late wife as the best kind of woman—the kind that does whatever her husband wants to do. Eric's recap of Ward's novel implies that Mr. Ward routinely bullies Mrs. Ward. Eric blows off steam taunting the old cow Herod in his father's pasture in terms that might be telling of his overall attitude towards females—"Damned ugliest cow I ever saw...What bull would ever look at something like you?...And furthermore, you need a brassiere." When Ward is outraged at the other boys' ridiculing Barbara, Eric lashes out at him: "I'm sick to death of the way you go around moping like a fucking girl." Worse, before hearing the truth about what happened between Ward and Barbara, Eric makes it clear he wouldn't think any less of his best bud over something so trivial as date rape. (Bros before hos, after all.)

There are about four recurrent female characters in Cages, and half of them exhibit an internalized misogyny—a consequence of what academic types might call a phallocentric milieu. Recall Mrs. Ward's warning to her son: keep jacking off, and your penis will shrivel up; and without a penis, you'll be a girl. Mrs. Ward seems rather preoccupied by her son's penis; the reason for Ward's vulnerability to cracks about its size is his mother's fretting over how small she believes it is. And as we've seen, the novel's climax and slide towards tragedy begins with Barbara's thwarted seduction of Ward. We see that her self-worth is largely dependent upon her sexual desirability, and Ward's reluctance to sleep with her—for whatever reason, and in spite of his high-minded love and respect for her—is an insult deserving swift and ruthless retaliation. Within a few days of the sleepover party and her savage rejection of Ward, she's fucking one of his classmates, whose interest in her is purely carnal.

But Cages is (obviously) less interested in how masculinity hurts women than how its imposition affects men: it reduces them, limits what they're allowed to be and do, and like any enduring meme, relies on its carriers to propagate and enforce it. Eric's incapacity for empathy and emotional avoidance is impressed on him by the same cultural forces that conspire to have Ward made fun of by the other boys, compel Mr. Ward to favor his outgoing athletic son over his bookish son, and inspire fears of her son's deviancy and inadequacy in Mrs. Ward.

The matter of Ward's sexual orientation—or, rather, the veracity of of the allegations of his homosexuality—is ancillary to the allegations themselves, and to the grounds on which they're made. If Ward's behavior doesn't match up to the other boys', then he must be girlish; and if he's a girlish boy, then he must be gay.

Believing that Ward's anomies and discomfort spring from a repressed sexual attraction to Eric, or to boys in general, is a facile reading—Ward suffers because of his inability or unwillingness to conform to the dictates of an atavistic gender code that prescribes a uniform standard for normative, acceptable male behavior. Boys don't cry, and Ward feels the world too deeply not too. He was bound to have a rough time of things; to have a hard time making friends, to be pushed around by his family, and to be profiled by shallow literary critics who arrived at the easiest conclusion about him and went no further.

So yeah, Cages was a much more interesting book than I had any reason to expect it to be. It sure doesn't seem like the kind of book that should have fallen so thoroughly through the cracks—and I suspect another kind of cultural binary is responsible: the genre binary. Is Cages young adult fiction or [vanilla] fiction? Neither, really. It's too light and too adolescent to have been taken  seriously by literary critics and tastemakers; but it's also too rife with profanity, too salacious, and has too many boys showing each other their penises and too much masturbation to ever make it onto a summer reading list for eighth-graders—for whom it would have been (and probably still would be) a fine read and a valuable object of discussion.


  1. If the book did the best it could to advertise as edgy and hip, I wonder whether this might have been exactly its problem?
    The audience attracted by the back might have been the one telling all their friends about that shitty 'gay book' they bought, and the ones who might have been more interested in the actual content might have been put off by the back.

    But i guess at that time, you could hardly advertise the book with any stench of queerness.

    1. Hard to say.

      There was a lot of other stuff working against Cages, though: it was published by an imprint that was apparently floundering from the start and was shuttered a few years later, and the book itself was a good (but not GREAT) debut by an author who never published again. If Covert had written a couple more books that got more/better coverage, interest in his back catalogue may have found him more readers.

  2. Man, we read books in 8th grade about all kinds of nasty shit - child abuse, rape, suicide, holocaust - complete with a discussion of the social tools that engineer these things. But any instance of non-heterosexuality was really not brought up. I think times have changed now, what with shifting public views and a new generation of YA writers capable of sanitizing this stuff for a mass audience.

    1. We read The Pearl in eighth grade. My fucking GOD what a brutal trip that was. Trigger warning: any illusions you have about the world being a good place will be mercilessly shattered.