Book review

Boys and Girls Together (William Goldman)

goldmanThis was another joyously rapid read. Goldman can WRITE, and this was fun to tumble through.

The book revolves around five characters: Aaron the writer, Walt the director, Rudy the beautiful waif, Jenny the actress, and Branch the producer. As these descriptors indicate, they will one day pool their talents. Most of the book’s 700-plus pages paint the background that leads up to that collaboration. You kinda figure they’re all going to meet up one day as you hear and get caught up in their separate stories, ending up in New York.

To me, Boys and Girls Together evoked Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar and Frederic Raphael’s The Glittering Prizes. It’s about coming of age in the fifties and sixties as a person and an artist. It’s about the supreme egoism of youth. It’s about, like Mary McCarthy’s The Group, starting out with brave ideals and finding that you just can’t live up to them, that you’re becoming your mother or father or just another one of the compromised members of your generation. But it’s supremely cynical, much more so than any of the other books I’ve cited. Very often, we are inside the head of one character or another, hearing them honestly appraise their ambitions, their talent, their dreams. And we believe them, in their touching naiveté. Only to go outside them, migrating into the head of another character in their world, to see how totally deluded or insincere they are. The effect is chilling. Perhaps nowhere so much as in the love story of Sid and Esther, a duet of selfishness, vanity, and spite woven through the book, until:

“I forgive!”

“I forgive!”

“Do you love me, Sid?”

“I dunno, I dunno.”

“Me either. But we can’t do anymore. We can’t.”

“No, we can’t.”

“Sid, we’re not animals,” and she was crying too.

“Not us,” he managed as he crawled blindly up on her bed beside her and they wrapped their arms tight around, joining their private griefs, rocking , keening, seeking forgiveness from their ancient gods, twin sinners, Sid and Esther, for a moment together, all bullshit gone.

But that doesn’t last; it never does with Sid and Esther. Every time you think, ah now they’ve caught on, now they understand, now they have grown — they haven’t, they don’t, and they won’t.

Cynical too is the author’s piling on of troubles. Aaron loses his loving parent, his father (his mother loves only her daughter), at the age of three. Not only that, but his father drops dead in front of him. Not only that, but he’s stuck on the top rung of a jungle gym, helpless and afraid and alone. Not only that, but at age five, the family’s money runs out. Not only that, but at age seven, he’s run over by a truck and crippled for life. It’s like the Passover song “Dayenu” — it would have been sufficient — only in reverse. Similarly, Rudy, poor poor poor Rudy — the angelic spawn of the vile and contemptible Sid and Esther, whose individual repulsive natures are, rather than canceled out by each other in marriage, instead compounded and multiplied ten times over — Rudy not only has the worst parents in the world, but the only person in the world who truly loves him dies. Rudy’s troubles do not end there, and every time Rudy tries to end his troubles, they fabulously get worse. At these times, Goldman’s curses on his characters are seemingly never ending.

The book recounts in parallel tales from the forebears, early childhood, adolescence, schooling, and young adulthood of its five main protoganists. Along the way, we are introduced to a multitude of minor characters, many colorful, a few interchangeable, one or two in particular outstanding. Among those last is Turk, Rudy’s beloved grandfather. Turk is like something out of Sholem Aleichem, and the writing here is especially superb and evocative. Turk is teaching young Rudy to read using the labels on the shelves of canned goods in his deli:

The old man was sitting in his wooden chair, eating a sandwich. The boy sat down by the canned soups.

“Chicken noodle,” the old man said a moment later.

“Chicken noodle,” the boy repeated.

“Campbell soups, not only are they tasty, they’re educational.”

“Could I ask you a question?

“Ask me a question.”

“In the meat counter? I wonder what do you call what’s between the salami and the tongue.”

“This, from a Jewish boy? Corned beef. In some communities you can be ostracized for such an inquiry.”

“I wonder, is it any good?”

“Taste for yourself,” and he stood up, slicing a peice of meat.

The boy approached, took the meat and ate it. Then he shook his head.

“What’s the matter?”

“Well, you just can’t tell about corned beef unless there’s bread around it.”

“Wisdom,” the old man said, and he cut some more meat and two slices of dark rye bread.

The scenes with Turk are beautiful; they are real and warm and loving. They almost seem to belong to another book, one not quite so sad and jaded.

Also beautiful is a scene between the one female protoganist, Jenny, and her father. Like the love of Turk for Rudy, Carl’s love of Jenny is presented in a very sensitive and nuanced way. These two men are fiercely protective of their children, but unlike any of the other characters in the book in any of the other myriad love bondings described throughout, they hold onto the ones they love firmly but lightly: their love surrounds and cushions and informs and caresses but does not deny or envelop or overwhelm its object. It accepts. Thus, after Carl has saved the eleven-year-old Jenny from rape, he takes her on a canoe ride to the shores where an enchanted princess lives:

“…’Carl,’ she told me–“

“She called you by your name? Fancy that.”

“Very informal princess,” he said. “Not the least uppity. Anyway, she said, ‘Carl, everybody wants me because I’m a princess. Everybody’s always grabbing for me on account of that. Well, I’m sick of it. I’m going to hide out here and wait for a gentle man. I don’t care how long it take, I’m waiting. Gentle people, they’re harder to find than you think.’ ‘I guess so, Princess,’ I said. ‘I guess maybe you’re right.'”

Which is of course Carl’s urgent message, lightly delivered, for his daughter.

These two characters and their relationships are almost transcendant, and they stand out as the book’s only examples of purity and selflessness. Every other person — except Rudy — is using someone. Even the nice ones, the weak ones, the kind ones, the gentle ones: they’re all using each other, seeing themselves reflected in each other’s eyes. And that way lies destruction. Just see what happens to Rudy, time and again. Just ask Aaron. 

The book is gripping, and Goldman’s cinematic sense and natural dialogue keep it flowing swiftly. The characters are interesting, although there is a little familiarity to everyone in their reliance on snappy dialogue and limited insight. Jenny and Rudy are perhaps the least successful of the main characters, with Jenny seeming to be at least two different women, one decent, one ditzy; and Rudy a cypher to the end.

I have a feeling that this book might be better read as a young person, and the coming-of-age books I cited at the beginning were ones I read when much younger myself. I think its theme might more clearly resonate for those at an age when, as Sondheim says, “everything was possible and nothing made sense.” I am well past that age, but even so deeply appreciative of the book’s interesting structure, daring minor character tangents, believable dialogue, stripped-down and clean writing, and cold-hearted plot. And more than a little sorry that now I’ve finished it.

3 thoughts on “Boys and Girls Together (William Goldman)”

  1. Nice review. Thanks! A little more about Aaron and Branch could be added. Aaron wants to be a writer, but suffers from the tragedies of his childhood. He struggles with his feelings of homosexuality, anger and sadism covering up unresolved grief. His intensity is evidenced by his chain smoking cigarettes. At one point he screams to Branch: “I’M OUT OF CIGARETTES! He and Branch become what we would now call lovers, or even potential partners, until Branch orders Aaron to move out so that Rudy can move in. The novel ends with everyone at the reception after the preview of Aaron’s play, with Rudy tragically dying, and Branch having a breakdown. The one hint of a bright spot is Aaron and Stagpole connecting up, and sailing away on a ship, even though Stagpole is old enough to be Aaron’s father. Interesting that the novel begins, “Aaron wouldn’t come out,” and ends with “Aaron entered into agony.” From Aaron’s almost reluctance to enter the world to his boldness to enter what might be assumed to be a sexual relationship with Stagpole at the end. Endless cigarettes (Aaron with one always in the corner of his mouth, and Stagpole with a very long cigarette in a very long and elegant cigarette holder) no doubt characterize their relationship and its intensity. I hope someone might make a video of “Boys and Girls Together.” I think one may have been planned, but never took shape in the 1970s.

    1. thank you for kind words! a very interesting observation about aaron’s entrance to his exit, and the implicit concept of inversion therein. and you’re right: it’s so visual, you would think someone would film this.

  2. Aaron would surely have an agonizing time in today’s society trying to make smoking history, and the places where one can smoke becoming fewer and fewer. It could be added to the list of “not only thats” that not only that– Aaron became seriously addicted to cigarettes. All in keeping with his unresolved grief, masked by nervousness, sadism, and raging (“cigarette glow(ing) in the dark…cigarette glow(ing) brighter.”)

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