Reach to the Stars, by Calder Willingham

I included Reach to the Stars on my Editor’s Choices when I first created this site, based mostly on a fond memory of reading the book back in the 1980s. I was going through a lot of black (black meaning dark, nihilistic) humour at the time (Burt Blechman, Bruce Jay Friedman), and Willingham’s novel seemed very much an early example of the genre. Willingham shows no compunction about making fun of alcoholics, gays, and the aged in this book.
Cover of 1953 Signet paperback edition of 'Recah to the Stars'
If anything, on second exposure, the book seems rawer than any of the 60s examples of black humor. There is no one remotely likeable. Dick Davenport, Willingham’s protagonist from his 1950 novel, Geraldine Bradshaw and the central figure here, is an asshole with laughable pretensions of writing ability. Mr. Fletcher, the hotel’s assistant manager, is a sexual predator. The manager totters on the edge of sanity. The lead bell-hop is a rapist and thief. The newstand girl is a prostitute. The best-known of the hotel’s resident film stars are, respectively, a nymphomaniac, a closet homosexual, a drunk, and an abusive loud-mouth. And here’s a sample of Willingham’s empathy for the aged:

Mrs. Jameson, Mrs. Wheeler, and Mrs. Werby looked almost as old as Penny, and their state of health was as bad. Mrs. Wheeler and Mrs. Werby often carried walking sticks to help them get around, and Mrs. Jameson always carried one. Mrs. Jameson and Mrs. Wheeler had arthritis and liver trouble, and Mrs. Werby had dizzy spells. Mrs. Jameson also had dizzy spells. All of them had moustaches, especially Mrs. Wheeler, and they all had indigestion, nightmares, skin trouble, and other things.

And nothing good happens to anyone in the book. Willingham’s Hotel Goncourt is a high-priced sanctuary of degradation, excess, and decay in the midst of wartime America and it’s hard to see why anyone would put his life at risk to defend it. In fact, nothing much happens at all.

The life continued as always, but to Davenport it seemed that nothing was happening, or if it was it had no significance. Nothing seemed to have any effect on him; it was a dream , a dream of chaos in technicolor, and the painful flashes of reality that illuminated the scene from time to time were like heat lightning and seemed to make no difference at all. He was indifferent, and shrugged his shoulders and went to sleep standing up at the bell stand.

After several months at the hotel, Davenport takes off again, headed for New York. What do we or he learn from the experience? Not much.

Every few chapters, Willingham tosses in a few pages from a science fiction story: “Nelor the Andallian stared attentively at the telescreen, waiting for the first faint buzz to stop….” Why? Perhaps these are meant to be samples from the stack of SF magazines Davenport’s roommates is constantly reading. Perhaps they are meant to suggest that the world of the Hotel Goncourt is as artificial as that of bug-eyed monsters and space patrolmen. Or perhaps Willingham just put them in as an experiment. Since I’m feeling in a generous mood toward the book, I’ll chalk it up as the last, but I wouldn’t stake my reputation on it.

Throughout his career, Willingham’s fiction tended to split critics and readers into two camps. A few critics and fans, such as Tom Wolfe, considered him a bold, savage satirist and a forerunner of some of the more radical fiction of the 1960s. Newsweek’s reviewer called his 1963 novel, Eternal Fire, one of the finest works of post-war American writing. Others–and their numbers grew over the decade as he published such novels as Providence Island (1969) and The Building of Venus Four (1977)–dismissed him as a hack whose material should stay in the pages of Playboy, where it often appeared. I suspect the truth lies somewhere in between the two views. Certainly no one appears to be clamoring to bring his work back in print.

But I have to say that despite the fact that I found Reach to the Stars a bit more of a mess than I remembered, I nevertheless enjoyed its unrepentent meanness. It’s appropriate that Dick Davenport is, in the end, no better than anyone else at the Hotel Goncourt. It would be an insufferable book if any character had any claim to higher moral ground than the others. Instead, everyone is wallowing in the muck. And since I’m feeling so generous, I might even propose that Reach to the Stars could rank as an American counterpart to the work of Louis-Ferdinand Céline: negative, nihilistic, and gloriously nasty. If you’re going to wallow in the muck, why do it halfway?

Reach to the Stars, by Calder Willingham
New York City: The Vanguard Press, 1951

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