In Another Kind of Battle: Rereading Henry Bromell

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Henry Bromell




In Another Kind of Battle: Rereading Henry Bromell by Angelica Baker

September 22nd, 2013 reset - +

 THERE’S A CHILLING MOMENT, midway through the first season of Showtime’s hit thriller Homeland, in which Sergeant Nicholas Brody tells an effortless lie during a polygraph test. Watching it happen, we already know it’s a lie. But the needle barely jumps. Two years after it first aired, the sequence serves as a reminder that Homeland, at its best, can be a brilliant and unnerving show. When Brody took that polygraph at the close of the show’s sixth episode, “The Good Soldier,” we still didn’t know whether he was friend or foe. It was just as plausible that CIA agent Carrie Mathison was an unhinged persecutor as it was that Brody was the duplicitous pawn of a nefarious terrorist. That mystery, crafted from our inability to gauge the loyalties of the protagonist (or was he the villain?), was the show’s most compelling element.

Perhaps that uncertainty had to end when it did. For me, “The Good Soldier” marked a point of departure for Homeland, after which it became less a game of cat and mouse than a bombastic array of plot twists and violent ambushes. Perhaps it was inevitable that such a high-wire act must adapt, if the show was to outlast its original premise. The audience, by now, has been subjected to so many manipulations of our relationship with Brody that it’s easy to feel like poor Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, looking on in bewilderment as Faye Dunaway moans, “She’s my sister, she’s my daughter…”

Consider, for instance, that polygraph test. Brody, furious at his wife’s infidelity, has sex with Mathison in the back of a car. He arrives at Langley the next morning for the test, part of an investigation into a suspect’s suicide, and passes with flying colors. Mathison, listening in and convinced of his guilt, demands that he also be asked whether he’s ever been unfaithful to his wife. He allows himself the hint of a smirk, leans in to the camera, and says, “No.” Leering not only at Mathison but also at the audience, those gape-mouthed spectators who know that his obscured motivations are the key to the show’s appeal, Brody tells the lie without breaking a sweat.

The episode was written by Henry Bromell, a fiction writer who began working in television in the early 1990s, writing for Northern ExposureHomicide: Life on the Street, and many other shows before becoming a writer and executive producer for Homeland. His scripts for Homeland are not always equal to “The Good Soldier”; he’s also responsible for the subplot in which Brody’s daughter Dana and the vice president’s son are involved in a hit-and-run, which mars the otherwise excellent second-season episode “Q&A.” But Bromell’s fingerprints are all over the show’s best moments, like evidence left by some overzealous surveillance team. The very things that fascinate us about Sergeant Brody (aside from a marvelous performance by Damian Lewis, who seems tailor-made for the role and for whom the show’s creators must be thankful each day) are the questions that became a cherished hobbyhorse for Bromell throughout his career, never more so than in his final novel, Little America. What makes someone a good man? Which loyalties — familial, professional, national — matter most? If a lie permits you to fulfill your duty as a husband, as a father, as an American, then may it be forgiven?

In the second season’s finale last winter, Homeland seemed poised to recast itself, to return to its knotty, cerebral roots. Perhaps those questions might again rise to the surface. If and when they do, it will be without Henry Bromell’s involvement. He died, suddenly, in March of this year.

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I read Bromell for the first time when I was 16 years old, studying The Great Gatsby in my 11th grade English class. “Here,” my mother said, pulling the book from the family shelf. “This one’s full of Gatsby references.” I confess that, while I’d spoken highly of his work in the ensuing years, I recalled little of the book, the achingly titled 1979 story collection I Know Your Heart, Marco Polo, by the time Homeland debuted in 2011.

But when Bromell’s name flashed on the screen during the opening credits of the pilot episode — and those opening credits are something, the grainy black-and-white images of New Yorkers rushing through the streets of lower Manhattan on September 11, Claire Danes’s wavering panic, the saxophone riff that sends paranoia skittering up the spine — the association made a kind of sense.

One of the only things I remembered about Marco Polo was that some of the stories were set in Jordan. Or was it Beirut? And the main character’s father was a CIA agent. Or was he a diplomat? I could recall most clearly one scene in which the three teenage sons of the Richardson family show up at their parents’ cocktail party in some Middle Eastern locale. “Your sons are high,” says their father’s friend and colleague. The two men glance over at the boys, who giggle.

The four stories that make up I Know Your Heart, Marco Polo, all of which first appeared in The New Yorker, follow two generations of the Richardson family. Patriarch Sam works for the US government in some vague capacity in the late 1960s. His sons, particularly the eldest, Scobie, find themselves marooned in adulthood during the anomie of the 1970s. In the collection’s first story, “Partial Magic,” Scobie reflects on an adolescent girlfriend whose family he once visited in Paris. “I love you,” she tells him. “I always have. But you live on the moon, Scobie.”

“No,” he tells her. “I’m here.” When we meet him next, though, Scobie is a bearded college senior pining for a new girlfriend, Susan, during a tense summer spent with his parents in Tehran. It is 1969, the Fourth of July. Sam and Laura Richardson are celebrating their 27th wedding anniversary, and Sam has just been unfaithful for the first time:

Maybe his sons would end up on the moon. It did not seem possible, yet it might happen. An impossible possibility. He hated that kind of paradox, but it was one of the things, part of the age, he had learned to appease with benign neglect.

Later, taking in the fireworks alongside both his wife and his mistress, Sam wonders about the astronauts of his age, “floating in silence above the distant green earth. Terrifying, or peaceful?”

This is the question, for Bromell’s men, and it rears its head again and again. Marco Polo’s 1974 predecessor, The Slightest Distance, chronicles the foibles and frustrations of the Richardsons in eight stories that introduce us not only to Scobie and his brothers, whom we meet first as toddlers and last as college graduates, but also to ancillary family members like Sam’s brother Ken and Susan’s pious New Hampshire parents. Whereas Marco Polo hones in on a handful of specific events in Scobie’s life, The Slightest Distance is a portrait of a family. The stories are quieter, more remote than those in Marco Polo, but their concerns are so consistent, their subjects so recognizable, that the two books can be read as one. When we meet the long-married Laura and Sam in Tehran or the yet-unwed Scobie and Susan on Crete, fear of the perilous adult world lurks at the edge of every disenchanted fragment of conversation. Sam, reeling from his inexplicable infidelity, is desperate to know himself better; later, as a young father himself, Scobie will question what it is that ties him to his wife, interrogating his every errant thought or impulse.

I couldn’t help but think of the final lines of Ann Beattie’s “The Burning House,” another tale of floundering grown-ups, in which a philandering husband tells his anxious wife:

Men think they’re Spider-Man and Buck Rogers and Superman. You know what we all feel inside that you don’t feel? That we’re going to the stars. I’m looking down on all of this from space. I’m already gone.

And so, in a way, are Bromell’s men. Do they long to be on the moon, floating above the women who try so hard to anchor them, or is it the other way around? Is it perhaps the women who gaze down on the distant green earth, watching their husbands struggle to free themselves from the earthbound ties of childhood and its false security? None of these people seem to know, but each longs for that false security, for the unquestioned warmth of a parent leaning down to kiss a child good night. This is the desire that pulses throughout the stories, to recapture the unspoken holiness of winter evenings when Scobie and his brothers, Matthew and Quentin, were small. For all their emotional meanderings, which Bromell charts with unblinking honesty but not without sympathy, the Richardsons are most desperate to return to that particular nostalgia which takes root even before a cherished moment is complete.

In the beautiful story that closes The Slightest Distance, “Old Friends,” the family gathers together in Venice for their first joint Christmas in eight years. Sam finds himself longing for the Long Island Christmases of the past, for the times he brought his sons to his own childhood home:

He remembered arriving late at night, the country roads slick with ice, pulling into his parents’ driveway and parking the car under the tree that his mother always decorated with blue lights…Returning home is always the same. Memories push in from the walls; the smells rise up like ghosts; everything you touch — the plates, the photograph albums, the books — is haunted by your own childhood. But the boys had loved it, and that was the part Sam missed. They had been ecstatic with the mystery of the snow and the trees and the bay gleaming out beyond the lawn.

In another story, Matthew teases Scobie, “Your idea of ecstasy is what most people call melancholia.”

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Little America was published less than six months before September 11. As such, its preoccupations are eerily prophetic — the arrogance of US foreign policy in the Middle East, the destructive myopia caused by our national obsession with the Soviets, the cost of the conflict between personal morality and institutional loyalty, or patriotism. Much of the intricate plot tracks the Muslim Brotherhood’s role in the Arab world in 1958, yet another reason that the book feels fresh even today.

What rests at the heart of the novel, though, is not public tragedy but personal sacrifice. It’s a story about a son, Terry Hooper, desperate to understand his father, Mack. And to consider Bromell’s fiction from start to finish, from the sparse and evocative stories of the early books to the stylish thriller that is Little America, is to see a writer returning, time and again, to the same fraught relationships and tremulous domestic undercurrents. In other words: cherchez le père.  

(I will leave aside Bromell’s 1983 urban nightmare The Follower, not because it’s uninteresting — it isn’t — but because it’s so calculated. It’s an effort at socially responsible fiction, even at times a lecture, but its concerns are not with the vagaries of human relationships; it lacks a certain fascination, common to Bromell’s other work, with the myriad small deceptions and disenchantments that chip away at even the strongest familial or marital ties.)

It is perhaps here that we must mention that Bromell’s father, like Mack Hooper, worked as a covert CIA intelligence officer in the embassies of Middle Eastern capitals. Like Terry, Bromell spent his childhood ensconced in American communities in Baghdad and Tehran, unaware of his father’s true profession until he was 14. The Hooper family bears more than a passing resemblance to the Richardson family — although Terry Hooper is an only child, which eliminates the warm humor derived from the easy jocularity of the three Richardson boys. The impulse to align Bromell’s chosen subjects with his own background is often a strong one, just as it’s all too tempting to equate Scobie, whose parents frequently bemoan his unshaven, long-haired appearance, with the scruffy man pictured in Bromell’s author photos. But whatever your stance on seeking the author’s biography in his or her fiction — some abhor it, while some find it inevitable — it seems safe to say that Bromell fixated on the Richardsons/Hoopers, archetypal Americans of the 1950s made exotic and even bizarre by the choices of their patriarchs, in part so that he might relitigate the secrecy and lies of his own rootless childhood. How can you tell when a professional liar is telling the truth? And what if that liar, that “spook,” is your father?

The first episode of Northern Exposure Bromell wrote focuses on Ed Chigliak, a half-native Alaskan who was abandoned as a baby and now longs to know the father he never met. In Bromell’s first episode of Homicide: Life on the Street, detective Kay Howard (played by Melissa Leo) returns home to the Chesapeake Bay to visit her father, who claims not to understand her chosen profession. Before she leaves, he comes to the threshold of her childhood bedroom and tells her, “Just because I don’t talk about feelings doesn’t mean I don’t have them. I’m very proud of you.”

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Little America is an overstuffed novel, bursting at the seams with political intrigue, psychological cat and mouse, and historical curiosity. Terry Hooper is a professor at a mediocre junior college in Los Angeles in the late 1990s. A father and husband himself, he is suddenly driven, for reasons that remain somewhat unclear, to begin “spying” on his father. Mack Hooper, one-time CIA spook extraordinaire, lives a puttering existence alone in Boston, subsisting on peanut butter and Campbell’s soup. In one drawer he keeps the Intelligence Medal he was awarded in 1959 in honor of his “valiant service,” the medal that until he retired was stored, a necessary secret, in a safe at CIA headquarters. “Officially, you see,” Terry reminds us, “he did not exist.” Though wary, Mack grants his son an interview for a book on the Cold War’s culture of espionage. “What the hell is that?” Mack asks him. “Us,” Terry replies.

Above all, the book is a mystery. Terry wants to know what happened in Kurash, a fictional Middle Eastern kingdom, in 1958. The Hoopers spent one eventful year there, a year that saw both Mack’s promotion to station chief and his cultivation of a close friendship with the playboy king. On New Year’s Eve, the king was assassinated. Those are the facts, Terry believes. And then there is the note he finds hidden in his father’s apartment, forty years after Kurash, dated to 1958 and tucked into a paperback copy of Travels in Arabia Deserta: “O love, you could not know or do know the way I feel thinking of you as I stare out this window at the gravel driveway, the high garden wall, the palm trees and flat-roofed houses of the city…”

How, Terry wants to know, do these dots connect? Which represent the truth, and which the subterfuge of the CIA, and which his father’s own self-serving manipulation? Where, even, are the dots?

“Very good, Terry,” a key player tells him when he’s unearthed one of his father’s many secrets. “Very, very good. Son of Spy. It’s in the blood.”

As he grows consumed by his obsession, he revisits the figures of his childhood to trace the fault lines that led to what happened in Kurash. There is Chipper Gourlie, another “son of spy,” who has turned to crack cocaine rather than diligent investigation to exorcise his demons; Chipper’s mother, who is dying of cancer, and his father, who retreats to the television set post-dinner to sit in a stupor, blissful and insensate; Renee, the recovering alcoholic who once served as Mack’s secretary, shredding documents and fingering the service .45 in her desk drawer. They field Terry’s questions, both aiding and obfuscating, ghosts who have spent decades haunting themselves. And Terry comes to understand that there is a promise, even a certain relief, in a life spent unscrambling the outside world:

Being able to feel [...] that everything in life holds some significance, that even such a simple task as walking into People’s Drug Store holds the suggestion of meaning. Reality is a mosaic of clues to be deciphered and interpreted. That’s not just a frizzy-haired lady behind the counter, that’s a plant, a tail, watching you. Speak openly and the microphone concealed within the sugar jar will record everything you say. It’s exhilarating, the pure positive charge of paranoia [...] while the rest of us sank further and further into a miasma of rootlessness all through the fifties and sixties, my father and his cohorts were living in a world bursting with signification. Everything made sense, at least hypothetically. Line up the clues, get your fragments in order, and there it is — a story, unearthed, revealed, by you. The Truth. What’s Really Going On.

That’s sharp and lovely — true Bromell fans will perhaps detect shades of Carrie Mathison’s color-coded bulletin board, produced from classified documents while she’s in the throes of a manic episode — and there are indeed many points at which unspoken trauma seems to echo in the incantatory rhythms of Bromell’s language and its repetition. He’d clearly read Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer, another tale of devious American behavior in the third world, and learned his lessons well. The best parts of Little America feel like a more robust, even grandiose, version of Didion’s hypnotic prose, but her elliptical influence is certainly felt: “I have several questions regarding what happened, exactly, in that year, 1958, in that place, Kurash.” Or, “I do not know if Hamlet killed Polonius, I only know that Polonius died.” In other passages, though, Mack’s dialogue can feel like historical exposition placed between quotes. Perhaps too much space, in a novel that isn’t short, is devoted to the native Kurashians, who find themselves little more than pawns on the US chessboard, as well as to the real-life Dulles brothers, who stalk through novelty shops and dark Washington bars plotting with casual cruelty the fates of Arab countries they’ve made little effort to understand. These ancillary characters can at times distract us from the portrait of the family that is, in its most effective moments, the heart of Little America.

This would be understandable if Bromell were after a more conventional thriller, if he evinced a Crichton-esque preference for plot. But the reader is left with the curious sense that this is not, in fact, the case. Even as the double-crosses pile up and the political murk accumulates, the novel is never stronger than when it offers poignant snapshots of Terry’s fun-house childhood, of the eccentricities that these children of the fledgling CIA endured and, in some cases, barely survived. “You grow up fast in Little America,” he writes, “or not at all.” Jean Hooper’s genteel bewilderment as wife-of-spy produces memorable throwaway moments, as when she attempts to explain shepherd’s pie to the Hoopers’ house boy Eid, “his eyes dull with something like panic as he tried to comprehend the concept of such a thing.” Or when Terry intrudes upon his parents huddled together in the downstairs bathroom, the shower thundering at full blast, to elude bugs presumed to be present in the house:

Worry, the steam from the bathroom that had become the fog that had invaded our house, clung to everything, furniture, banister, and lamps, in weird tatters, half-present, half-real, half-seen, like torn banners in another kind of battle raging in the world I could not tolerate.

This is evocative not only for sons of spies but for any child who has navigated a home of unhappy grown-ups. Each time Bromell chronicles the sounds and smells and lipstick shades and personal indiscretions of the CIA marriages, or departs from the intrigue at hand to offer an elegy for a childhood never truly decoded, it’s hard to shake the feeling that therein lies the novel that interests him most.

And where does this leave Terry Hooper, our escort into this world of subterfuge? Much is made of the bond between Mack and the King of Kurash; their relationship is the most impenetrable secret of all. Did Terry’s father kill the king? Evidence is inconclusive. Was his father a good man? Even Terry’s mother, Jean, it seems, cannot be sure. Did his father care deeply about the king, in that year, 1958, in that place, Kurash? The answer seems to be an unequivocal yes. “This really is a kind of love story,” Terry tells us. But that love story, in the end, leaves room in the novel for only one true son. Terry is ultimately effaced from the book itself, prodding his recalcitrant parents for clues but leaving his own motives unclear to us. His own son, his own marriage? His resentment of his mother, of his father, of any part of what went on in Kurash? All remain unanswered.

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That their demons remain unexamined is certainly not a criticism to be leveled at the Richardson men. Mack Hooper may also be seen as “floating above the distant green earth,” remote from his family, but he has launched himself into space, his ear cocked to a call of duty far beyond the domestic sphere. But Scobie and Sam are all too aware that no concrete reasons exist for their untethered, amorphous fears. “What,” Sam wonders, “kept it all together? What magic was it that kept this house, the family, from springing apart, disappearing?”

The Richardsons, over the decades, are petrified of looking directly at themselves, of uncovering some wretchedness that lies beneath the carefully curated lives they’ve acquired. As a young husband, Scobie insists that marijuana makes him lose control of “whatever it is that convinces me I’m only one person” — this seems a deliberate echo of Fitzgerald’s assertion in The Love of the Last Tycoon: “Writers [...] if they’re any good, they’re a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person.” Like his father before him, Scobie ponders with trepidation the emptiness undergirding his tidy life, emptiness that implies that his identity as a man, as a father, is not going to be draped across his shoulders like a mantle. That it may, in fact, always feel like a masquerade.

In an early review Joyce Carol Oates bemoaned the “improbable platitudes” that “drift skyward on nearly every page, like balloon captions in cartoons.” She nevertheless marked the book as “highly promising,” and indeed, I Know Your Heart, Marco Polo offers myriad moments of grace and rueful humor, as well as an unapologetic tenderness for Scobie. A friend’s father who spotted my paperback copy of Little America told me with excitement that Bromell had been his professor at Amherst in the late 1970s, where their creative writing class met in the same building that housed Johnson Chapel. One morning, he recalled, when the class discovered that choir robes were stored in the closet, they each donned one and were sitting quietly at their desks by the time Bromell walked in. He looked around, without skipping a beat, and asked them, “Okay, where’s mine?” That’s Scobie, I thought. That sounds like Scobie.

Scobie and Bromell may not have been one and the same, but you can’t help but smile when Scobie cracks a joke, no matter the blithe callousness he displays toward his loved ones. Like their protagonist, the stories in I Know Your Heart, Marco Polo and The Slightest Distance may be rough in places, but the writing resonates, on every page, with the paralysis of regret that only builds as we grow older, as we visit our faults on those we love the most. The books captured a wandering anxiety of a generation so well that they feel like artifacts drawn from a time capsule. And yet Scobie’s longing, surely, is familiar to all generations: “Why,” he wonders, “did he always feel he was doing something he had already done in another, more accurate life?”

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Many times as I reread Bromell’s work, I wished that he were still around, that the tantalizing prospect of the further travails of Scobie Richardson might become reality. Little America was Bromell’s last work of literary fiction; in later years, he turned to television for good. “Be grateful he’s moonlighting in fiction again,” David Kipen wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle when the novel was published. “Bromell’s a double agent too gifted for either side to lose.” Perhaps fiction would have lost him no matter what; perhaps, given the wild success of Homeland, it’s too much to ask that he would have found time to return to the short story form. Little America may well have always been his last word on “son of spy,” the last time he held this particular prism up to the light and examined the myriad forms of truth that might be refracted. But it’s far too tempting to wonder what might have been. As he aged, Bromell’s view of the men of his own past Little Americas evolved; what seemed slick and even held a whisper of the exotic in the early fiction grew darker, more damaged, in Little America. Terry eschews the sweeping dismissals that Scobie hurls at his father, and yet there is something of the raw confusion of abandonment in Terry’s insistence that Mack tell the truth. Sam Richardson tells Scobie that people of his generation had never asked themselves why they were doing something; they had just done it, and if they didn’t like it they had done something else. “Some people of your generation asked themselves why,” Scobie replies. That sharp retort, by the time Bromell writes Little America, has become a repressed cry of anguish.

Bromell’s editor told him that he was the only writer she knew who had been made better by the experience of writing for TV. By that metric, Little America should be his strongest published work, and Homeland should be his towering achievement. Myself, I’d take Scobie Richardson over Carrie Mathison any day. As for Little America, if there’s an argument to be made for the book’s status in the diverse output of Bromell’s career — if anything there might persuade us to set aside Dana’s hit-and-run tomfoolery — then surely it resides in passages like this one:

I knew that I was looking at the end of something. Not just Mrs. Gourlie’s life, but all of their lives, that specific midcentury American upper-middle-class Wasp East Coast thing, the mercantile remnant of the Puritans, I guess, the ruling class tossed up by the Civil War and westward expansion, a whole litany of crimes now lost within the comforts of civilization, harmless as a lullaby [...] their role in our national theater had all ended with their dark and unfortunate masterpiece, the Vietnam War. They were first dislodged, then replaced [...] when we die, they’ll vanish forever, the nominal grown-ups of Little America, their life-affirming cocktail hour, the smell of their boathouses opened each summer after a winter of hibernation, their songs spinning on heavy plastic black thirty-threes, songs of leisurely, expansive moonlight and seaside terraces [...] it will all die with us. Like the hieratic scratching on the stones of el-Khirmeil my mother gazed upon in Kurash, in 1958, we will become enigmas. Like little Kurash itself, invisible kingdom, we will disappear from all maps of the known world.

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Angelica Baker is an MFA candidate in Fiction at Columbia University. [more]

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