Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Blue Dreams

Blue Dreams, by William Hanley
April, 1972 Dell Books

I first read about William Hanley's bestselling novel Blue Dreams via The Sensuous Man, another bestselling Dell book of the early '70s, one written by the anonymous "M" which informed guys on how to pick up and please women (it's a book I really need to review on here one of these days); The Sensuous Man contained an ad for Blue Dreams, insinuating that it was along the same lines. And it is, even though it's fiction -- and in a way, Blue Dreams shows the chaos and sorrow that might ensue if one were to completely follow the philosophy of books like The Sensuous Man. It also perfectly captures the sexadelic, swinging late 1960s. And it's funny to boot!

Walter Hartman is a 38 year-old television executive who lives in New York City. He's been married for several years to a stunning woman (Walter's own description) named Miriam; they have a ten year-old daughter and live in a nice apartment in the city. Walter still burns with the desires of a teenager; he wants to get Miriam involved in the Sexual Revolution currently afoot, but Miriam is disinterested...she says their sex life is just fine as it is, thank you very much. In fact she can't understand why Walter acts like he's still a horny teenager. But Walter is a man obsessed.

To wit, the novel opens with Walter buying an erotic paperback for Miriam, one of those Sensuous Man-type of books so fashionable at the time. It's Christmas, 1968, and Walter wants to further surprise Miriam with another Xmas gift: a massive, canted mirror which he wants to hang over their bed, one which will allow them to watch themselves do all sorts of sordid things. Miriam knows Walter wants this mirror but she's deadset against it. So the stage is set for an Xmas morning confrontation when Faith arrives, Miriam's equally-stunning sister, an up-and-coming movie starlet who has her own problems: namely, an over-the-hill actor just elected to congress named George Brady. Brady is another man obsessed; with Faith, who is the only woman in decades to spurn Brady's sexual advances.

The first 200 or so pages of Blue Dreams are given over to the dynamic between the above characters; too much time, in fact, is wasted on the Faith-Brady battle. But the perservering reader will be rewarded. Amid all of the drama there's lots of good stuff: Walter is a confirmed Golden Age Hollywood movie fan (like myself), and looks forward to watching them on late-night TV. (Here we get an interesting peek into the past, as we see that It's A Wonderful Life has not yet reached the Christmas Classic standing it has today; when seeing it listed in the TV Guide, Walter opts against watching it, even though he hasn't seen it "in several years.") And Walter is an enjoyable guide through these opening chapters; he's a likeable sort with a sharp wit and a gift for puns.

Around page 200 the novel picks up. In a big way. And from there it just gets better and better. As mentioned, Walter's sister-in-law Faith is visiting for the holidays, and Walter gradually realizes that he harbors some quite lustful thoughts for her. And what's strange is...Faith seems to reciprocate. Once she makes her intentions clear Walter backpedals; hundreds of pages he's spent obsessing over the New Sex era, over these mini-skirted women who sleep around without care, so different from the puritan women he grew up with, and now when he's faced with an actual opportunity he gets cold feet. But fate intervenes and he gets another chance, and Faith leads Walter by the short hairs straight into the Sexual Revolution.

Incredible, exquisitely-written graphic sex ensues. A lot of it. "The sex scenes are explicit enough to give the reader a blue dream or two," wrote Publisher's Weekly, and they weren't kidding. For, unlike generic sex-filled books like Flowers and Flesh, the characters in Blue Dreams are real enough to matter; the sex scenes mean something, in other words. And Faith is one hell of a character, a perfectly-realized seductress that any man would pray to meet. As their affair escalates Faith keeps upping the ante, from introducing Walter to marijuana to having him inhale amyl nitrate as he orgasms. There's also a memorable sequence involving a lime wedge. It's all pretty insane, given the preceeding 200 pages of unfulfilled wishes, but Hanley is a gifted writer and he knows what he is doing. This unraveling of reality, these living "blue dreams," begin to gradually take over Walter's life.

For, once he's taken the first step into infidelity, it's as if Walter has become a walking babe-magnet. He sleeps with a handful of women in a matter of days, each of whom approach him and make advances. From a troubled TV actress to a pot-smoking American Indian friend of Faith's (White man lick with forked tongue, muses Walter), even the desperate housewife who lives in the apartment above his own, Walter has them all -- and more. And soon even his wife Miriam is involved; for some reason she is now open to hanging that mirror above their bed. Not only that, but she takes to dope with abandon, toking it all the time, and she's up for any sexual kink Walter might suggest, even the bit with the amyl nitrate.

Walter's life spirals into further surreality. All of his longings fulfilled, he has nowhere to go but more extreme depths. Soon he's attending orgies, where in a masterful sequence he has sex with two women at once, thereby taking "his rightful place on the throne of the country of blue dreams." After some prodding he even gets Miriam to go along, telling her that he's been to a few orgies already -- by now Miriam is such a pothead that she cares about little, and she takes this news of Walter's adultery with surprising ease. But then, Miriam has her own confessions to make on that regard.

As the pages elapse you realize that Walter is not headed for a happy end. For once all of your fantasies become real, there's nowhere left to go. But he does achieve a sort of fairytale sendoff on the last page, one that brings a smile to both his and the reader's face.

William Hanley is a definite craftsman. This was his first novel but he was a successful playwright and screenwriter before moving into prose, and his skill with dialog and character is evident. The novel is in third person and, thank the gods, there isn't one single instance of POV-hopping. I guess my only complaint would be that we are so much inside Walter's head that he clouds the action at times, particularly in those first 200 pages -- we get his thoughts on pretty much every line of dialog uttered by the other characters. But then, for instances like that we'll have another pun, or another of Walter's off-the-wall book ideas (my favorite being Every Tom's Dick and Harry's: A Study in Nymphomania).

Surprise, surprise: Blue Dreams has completely been forgotten. Trawl the web and you won't find any reviews for it; at least I didn't. It's saddening (and maddening), but it's typical. In today's watered-down world, something like Blue Dreams has no place. A modern-day reader would take a look at the cast of characters and condemn them all as degenerates. It's funny, though. Porn is more widespread than ever -- a simple click of a button and you can go to sites that feature things that would shock even the characters in this novel. And yet for all that, there's this bicameral nature to our modern reality, where in popular entertainment fidelity is the name of the game and it's all about True Love and etc.

Anyway. For an explicit peek into the long-gone world of the Sexual Revolution, those pre-AIDS days when casual sex was something new and exciting -- the world escaping from the puritan shackles which even now are closing back in upon us -- then you are directed posthaste to William Hanley's forgotten masterpiece Blue Dreams.


Jason L said...

Fantastic review, Joe. Little did they imagine 40 years ago where their Sexual Revolution would end up.

Cullen Gallagher said...

Interesting, forgotten book you've dug up. Thanks for sharing.

After you saw the ad, how did you find the actual book? Online?

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks to you both for your comments!

Cullen -- I got "The Sensuous Male" about a year ago and found "Blue Dreams" from a variety of booksellers on Abebooks.com, but for whatever reason never got around to ordering it. But a few weeks ago I lucked out and found the book at a massive used bookstore.

What's funny is, "Blue Dreams" has an ad for "The Sensuous Male!" That was one savvy Marketing department at Dell...

Mustang Rescue of Georgia said...

I was searching the net for information on this book as I can vaguely recall reading it back in the early '70's. I purchased it from one of those book clubs where you could get a boat load of books for $1 if you signed up for a year's worth of books. I couldn't recall much about it until I read your post which refreshed my memory. I do remember it dragging on for quite awhile before getting to the meat of it. Thank you for posting this.

Carmencita Mason said...

Hi-I looked up this book today while I was writing a chapter from my memoir, as it was the novel's review when it first came out (probably the NYTimes Book Review)that drove me to buy and read it. Then my husband and I opened a cafe on City Island in the Bronx, NY and I got to name it. We called it The Blue Dreams Cafe, perfect for our waterside deck site with its magnificent view of the blinking Manhattan skyline. All thanks to this novel and now, thanks to your memory revitalizing review. I'm off to buy a copy wherever it waits for me.