Sunday 27 February 2011

The Price of Salt

            Some of you might be thinking, “Umm, about 50 cents, unless you’re talking about road salt, which is a few bucks.” Others might be wondering, “Why is a website about guys named Richard discussing one of the earliest lesbian pulp fiction novels?”
            Well, I have answer for you: salt is about 20p (I happen to be in the UK at the moment), more if you want it iodized. As to the novel, I saw on Wikipedia that one of the protagonists begins the novel with a boyfriend named Richard. I thought that this would be a perfect chance to read some fun, frivolous literature and explore one of my favorite phenomenons of fiction: the easy way of conveying that a male character is a dick. And, honestly, what’s easier than just naming the guy Dick? It’s right there, completely obvious. It’s a giant sign saying “stay away from me, ladies, I am an ass.” For two of my favorite examples, see Richard in Crocodile Dundee and Pre-med Dick from Van Wilder. As sad as it would make me, if I ever found myself in a fictional universe, I would steer clear of all guys named Dick until I had reliable information the name was not also a spot-on label. [Note: I do realize that not all fictional Richards/Dicks are dicks, but many are.]
            Anyway, this has given me an idea. Since this blog is devoted to all things Richard, I figure that includes fictional Richards as well. Therefore, whenever I read a book with a Dick in it, I will evaluate said Dick for this fine blog, using the no-nonsense scale of: Dick or No Dick.
            In general, my first foray did not uphold my theory. The Price of Salt is about a young woman named Therese who falls in love with Carol, an older woman going through a divorce. The two are clearly in love, hanging out a bunch, before deciding to take a road trip West. Carol’s soon-to-be-ex-husband, Harge, figures out Carol is on a trip with her girlfriend and hires a detective to obtain enough incriminating evidence that he can have sole custody of Rindy, the daughter of Carol and Harge. Needless to say, the detective gets more than enough material (wink, wink – though, seriously, it’s way tame!), and Carol is forced to choose between her child and her love. At first Carol seems to choose her daughter, forcing Therese to undergo an extremely rapid growing-up period (I mean, we’re talking a couple weeks here at most). Back in New York, though, the women reunite and Carol reveals she hasn’t really chosen her daughter and asks Therese to move in with her. Still feeling betrayed, Therese declines, only to go back to Carol eight pages later. Although the book’s ending doesn’t spell it out for you, Carol and Therese (now equals since Therese has grown up more) will probably end up living together very happily.
            Therese is dating a young man named Richard when the novel begins. I read the book in two sittings, and I got two very different views of Richard. In the first portion of the book, he seemed very nice. He’s an aspiring painter, although he’s not that good and Therese tells him he’ll end up working for his father’s company soon (which does before the book is over, I guess signaling his descent into typical 1950s conformity). Early in the book, his main faults (to Therese) seem to be his failure to regularly clean his nails and his soft hands (like a girl’s the book says!). Although the two have been dating for about ten months and Richard wants to marry her, the two have only tried to have sex about four times, and each time it was eight different kinds of horrible (foreshadowing?). But Richard was always sweet and understanding about it, and when Therese tells him she doesn’t want to sleep with him, he gives a tolerant, understanding laugh, says he loves her, and goes home! That’s pretty cool. Therese also reveals she likes Richard because “‘he treats me like a person instead of just a girl he can go so far with or not’” (75). Props for human decency, I suppose. And when Therese first broaches the subject of same-sex love with him, Richard doesn’t immediately shut her down. She asks him if he has ever been in love with a boy and he thinks about it for five seconds before saying no! (Maybe he had to think about it because he spent two years in the Navy). He doesn’t think Therese would fall in love with a girl because there’s nothing in her background (1950s psychology talking there). And Therese does deny that she has fallen in love with a girl, although she is totally lying.
            In the first section, that is clearly Richard’s major fault – he is freakin’ oblivious. His girlfriend is ditching him for a woman, asking him questions about homosexuality, and admits she doesn’t love him (but she does like him), but he still professes his love for her. I guess it’s sweet that he loves her so much and wants to commit, but sometimes you just have to cut and run. This would be one of those times. Even when Therese’s “crush” is becoming more obvious, Richard still tells her he loves her (but points out that Therese should really get over this business because it’s not natural). Whatever, dude, whatever.
            The other interesting thing is that Richard’s family (the Semcos) are of Russian extraction. They even speak Russian sometimes, and Richard is portrayed as knowing how to speak (at least some of) the language. His father owns his own business (a petty bourgeois capitalist), but I wonder if there’s any message contained there. Is it better to be a lesbian than to marry a pinko-Russian Commie?
            In the second part, he doesn’t appear because the main character is on a road trip. She receives a few letters from him, which at first seem rather pathetic. He is very affectionate and seems intent on winning her back. I found myself thinking, “Dude, take a hint, she’s gay!” Of course, maybe he could be forgiven somewhat because Therese keeps sending his mother presents; in fact, when Therese is sending chocolates to people, she sends Mrs. Semco the largest box. Granted the gift came to his mother and not to him, but it could be a little confusing. After no communication from Therese, Richard finally takes a hint and writes a not-very-nice letter. He tells Therese he no longer loves her (which maybe is not that rude, as she clearly doesn’t love him!), but adds that her relationship with Carol disgusts him, terming it both pathological and infantile. He also claims he will tell everyone why they are no longer together, which sounds a bit like sour grapes on his part. So, yeah, that was a dick move, but maybe I couldn’t expect much better. Never having been a man living in the fifties, I have no idea how I would react to the woman I loved dumping me for another woman. I guess maybe I shouldn’t hate on Richard too much for not writing “It’s cool that you’re a lesbian. Let’s be friends! Best of luck with Carol!” because it was the fifties. On second thought... no. Dick move.
            Richard doesn’t come up much more after that, but when he does he gets a bit more negative press. On his way to a new job in California, Dannie (a guy Therese met through Richard) visits her. They talk about her and Carol some, and Dannie mentions that Richard feels jilted, his ego is suffering (duh!), but that he (Dannie) is much cooler than Richard and thinks people’s lives are their own. Burn, Richard! I would be inclined to give Dannie more credit, though, if he didn’t also think Therese would grow out of this phase. When Therese tells Dannie she probably won’t see another woman, he smiles, telling her “‘That’s what matters. Or rather, that’s what makes it not matter’” (258), adding that since she’s young, she’ll change and forget. What, she’ll just forget the first person she ever really loved? Not likely! And while Dannie does get props for being willing to have a relationship with Therese even though she’s damaged goods, he still thinks she’ll come to her senses and end up with a nice guy – him. He tells her to write to him in three months; presumably three months is all it will take to get the lesbian out of her system. Dannie obviously handles Therese (having been) in a lesbian relationship better than Richard, but would Dannie be so magnanimous were their positions reversed? The world will never know because Therese decides she will not pursue a relationship with Dannie (along with the obvious reason: these people aren’t real!). The book ends with Therese leaving a party to go to Carol, and Carol is happy to see her. In my mind, they are happy together forever.
            So the final verdict: no dick. While a large part of me is still pissed that Richard was disgusted by Therese’s lesbian behavior, I suppose I have to accept that most men probably wouldn’t be thrilled to have their girlfriend dump them for another woman, especially in the 1950s when homosexuality was still considered a psychiatric disorder. So like a weather report, Richard is fair to partly cloudy – fair to occasionally dickish.
            Although I had expected Richard to be a dick, he wasn’t really (except on occasion). Although my theory has taken a hit (maybe it applies mostly to movies?), I am glad he wasn’t a total ass. That would have sent a bad message, something such as “women become lesbians because men are jerks.” That is patently untrue, and I’m glad not even a hint of that could be found in this novel.

Morgan, Claire [pseudonym for Patricia Highsmith]. The Price of Salt. New York: Coward-
McCann, Inc, 1952.

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