Patrick E. Horrigan, in his new book Pennsylvania Station, weaves together two, carefully articulated, grand themes, one of which would have been enough to tackle, more than enough, for your average novelist.
The first is a political reconstruction of a perennial theme, perennial enough to have found its way into The Canterbury Tales, that of the May/December romance, in which, for example in Chaucer, we find an old man marrying a young wife. In Horrigan, there is a gay variation: a middle-aged architect, Frederick Bailey, takes under his wing the younger, un-established, “sketchy” Curt. This change in key from Chaucer’s heterosexual to a homosexual romance is not itself what is at issue in the reconstruction
The drama of May/December affairs often turns upon the growing incompatibility of the partners as the stodgy ways of the older person contrast to those of the younger individual, who craves more excitement and shifts his or her sympathies to people in a more adolescent crowd. In Pennsylvania Station, by contrast, the rising tension between the two stems from each’s different opinion of and involvement in the early days of the gay rights movement. Beginning in 1962, we find Frederick, a closeted, prim intellectual, who, until then confining his activism to very restrained picketing in a battle to stop the demolition of Pennsylvania Station. As a friend tells him, this Charles McKim structure, “is total architecture. Not just Greek columns, here, Baths of Caracalla there, with a little bit of Brandenburg Gate thrown in for fun … It makes a single, coherent statement,” and so needs to be preserved. Curt,by contrast, is more combat ready. In fact, in the first time we see him after the inaugural meeting with Frederick, he is getting himself thrown in jail for refusing to cover his bathing trunks with a towel on the Riis Park boardwalk! Odd rule? But, as Kurt explains, “men had to cover their briefs with a towel … He knew the ordinance was aimed at gay men and no one else. Riis Park was notorious for homos, the cops and locals knew that, and so they set rules to make it hard as possible for ‘undesirables.’”
Once their love affairs is well underway, before you know it, Curt is dragging Frederick off to a Mattachine Society meeting where he is slightly embarrassed by seeing someone at the gathering who didn’t know he was gay while, Curt, on the other hand, is warmly applauding a young lesbian friend, Bev, who is denouncing the society’s talking shop atmosphere. Bev says, “I’m fed up with readings and discussions on the subject of homosexuality. We have to move away from the respectability of debate and into the arena of social activism. … We should be out there picketing on behalf of homosexuals’ rights.”
As their relationship matures, there is a balanced development. Frederick, forced by Curt to attend more to the injustice of the treatment of gays, grows, becoming more awake to social issues, and more acknowledging of his own sexual identity. Meanwhile, Curt, after moving in with Frederick, has a more stable living situation and a more anchored partner, which helps him to better channel his manic energy and to become more carefully assertive, developing a targeted, not free-for-all, anger at the gay plight. They both bend, enriching their personalities and viewpoints; they bend and then they break. And this eventual collapse of their connection reveals another aspect of Horrigan’s politicization of the theme. As the book moves from ’62 to ’65, Curt not only dives into the stream of gay rights agitation, the stream itself is overflowing its banks as the struggle draws in more beleaguered gays who refuse to keep their heads down any longer. Kurt’s growing outspokenness in this fight is more than Frederick can take. I underline that this is only one factor in their relationship’s dissolution. It is joined by psychological and family-lined hindrances. And I double-underline the fact that many novelists, in describing a breakup, would be satisfied to detail only these latter two facets, ignoring history altogether. For Horrigan, romance waxes and wanes in an unpredictable but real link with the historical conjuncture.
That’s one strand of the book. The second is an ongoing reflection on urban architecture and how it reflects on a city’s life. This aesthetic theme ties the book to Horrigan’s last novel, Portraits at an Exhibition. As the title of that book implies, it is set in a gallery. In a boldly experimental style, the narrative switches between the thoughts of varied modern-day characters looking at the walls and the thoughts of those involved in the original making of the paintings (presenting historical recreations going as far back as Velasquez). In Pennsylvania Station, another art is scrutinized and the book uses a less historically free-wheeling approach. The deliberate, nuanced comments on architecture are those of Frederick and his compeers. For instance, in Washington Square, Frederick notes to himself, “looking at the still-intact row houses on the other side of the avenue along the park, he realized … there had been an attempt at something different here, once upon a time. There are so few examples of coherent city planning in New York we’ve forgotten we even want it anymore.” As suggested earlier, Frederick’s observations also have strong political implications. We don’t just see him squinting up at tall buildings, but becoming engaged in the (losing) fight to preserve Penn Station.
From what I’ve said here, you might gather the book is incredibly dense in content; but, true as that thought is, the novel bears this burden lightly, progressing through a multitude of fully realized scenes: from a Bailey family get-together in Reading to a breakfast in a Venice café to a neighbor hassling Frederick about his new “roommate” Curt. These two themes are delicately interwoven into might be characterized as a book of high points, carried off with Horrigan’s characteristic cultivated eye, close reading of human emotion and literary brio.