Monday, September 6, 2021

The Bigamist

The Bigamist, by William Hegner
October, 1977  Pocket Books

With sales “over 1,000,000,” William Hegner turns out another paperback potboiler, one which memorably features a disco-era lothario on the (uncredited) cover. Another notable element is that Hegner this time actually writes a novel, or at least what passes for one with him; there’s no real beginning, middle, or end, but at least it isn’t just a sequence of sleazy sex scenes, a la The Ski Lodgers or Stars Cast No Shadows

Indeed, the sexual material in The Bigamist is less explicit than Hegner’s previous books. But unfortunately we don’t here have a trashy masterpiece like The Worshipped And The Damned. Instead, this one’s more of a slow-moving character study, with the caveat that the character being studied is your typical self-involved Hegnerian antihero. Barry Solon is aligned with past Hegner protagonists in that he’s a narcissistic egotist involved with the entertainment industry; he’s the creator and writer of the successful soap opera Love And Let Love. However the title of the book is a bit misleading; while Barry does indeed come to have two wives during the course of the novel, the reason why is inexplicably not much dwelt upon, and this aspect of his life is kept hidden from other characters. 

The novel opens with Barry in a rather cushy setup; he lives in a Manhattan apartment Monday through Friday, furiously pounding out a daily quota of pages for the soap. Friday evenings he drives to Cape May on the coast, where he lives with his wife of twelve years, Merry, as well as their two young daughters. The two lives do not meet: his soap opera colleagues suspect “Merry” doesn’t exist and is merely an excuse Barry uses to avoid going to parties on the weekend, and the locals in Cape May suspect that Merry’s husband is just a myth. With this sort of a setup it’s only expected that Barry will stray from time to time, and we see him in action with a busty actress early in the book, an act for which Barry later chastizes himself. 

One thing I’ve learned from Hegner is not to expect to learn much about the world in which the novel is set. So don’t go into The Bigamist thinking you’ll get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of soap opera production in the 1970s. The actual amount of stuff we get in this regard is a few meetings Barry attends with the producer and director, and a half-page appearance by the soap’s lead actress. Otherwise the novel, like most every other Hegner offering, occurs in a vacuum, one solely populated by the protagonist’s ego. It’s as if nothing else can exist outside of Barry and his viewpoints; in this regard he has the vibe of a modern Twitter addict, stranded within his own bubble. We also don’t get an idea of when the novel occurs; it seems to me that most of the Hegner novels I’ve read have been set in eras earlier than the publication date, and that’s possible here, with a brief mention that Love And Let Love got its start in “the earliest days of television.” But then later on hippies are mentioned, so as usual it’s hard to say, and probably just another example of the “vacuum effect” of Hegner’s self-involved characters. 

But it’s too bad we don’t learn more about the soap Barry writes, as it sounds wild as hell, with plots about “voyeurism, exhibitionism, and masturbation,” not to mention a subplot in which the main female character engages in a brief bisexual fling! It’s through one of these subplots that Barry runs afoul of a notoriously bitchy TV critic, who takes umbrage at a storyline involving homosexuality. As Barry’s producer notes, the critic himself is likely gay, thus got offended; the show’s director, Rotterman, gets first-hand indication of this when he’s at a Manhattan bar one night and spots the critic, Matrix (presumably a relative of John Matrix), surrounded by a couple male clingers-on. Rotterman, progressively drunk, finds himself annoyed with the open display of gayness: “If [Rotterman] was a political liberal, then he was a social conservative.” I thought this line was very interesting, as it reminded me of the findings of a recent survey

Rotterman has a drunken run-in with Matrix, who ends up slapping the director, and this leads to Matrix having a long-boil hatred for Love And Let Love as well as anyone involved with it. But folks William Hegner is not one for paying off on plot points; believe it or not, but Barry and Matrix never meet, and for the most part Matrix will come and go in the narrative via his increasingly-bitchy appraisals of any soap opera Barry’s involved with. At any rate, Barry finds his tenure on the show coming to an end due to behind-the-scenes politics; the top sponsor suspects “the well might run dry” and requests that a new writer be brought to keep the show moving while Barry’s on vacation. This will lead to what is really the only running conflict in the novel. 

Oh and Barry doesn’t go on vacation with his wife Merry, either. Surely the most abused character in the novel, Merry is a loving wife who misses her husband and treats him with kid gloves when he’s home. But despite this he treats her like dirt; there’s a part where she has a painting on exhibit and is very excited to go to the gallery opening with Barry, but he’s a total prick – he refuses to talk to anyone, immediately goes to the bar, and promptly leaves when someone has the audacity to approach him. And this happens quite early in the book, meaning that it’s pretty hard for the reader to drum up much enthusiasm for this particular protagonist. But anyway, Barry first goes to Key West, where he engages a pair of hookers; Hegner actually leaves this off-page, which is hard to believe from the guy who wrote The Ski Lodgers. Maybe he was trying for self-restraint this time, sort of like how Clive Barker pointedly reigned in on the description in Cabal after the description-dense Weave World

Barry returns to New York to find the show’s been “augmented” with a new writer, a young grad student named Martin Lombard who has studied melodrama writing and such. He also turns out to be the nephew of the main sponsor. Barry can see the writing on the wall, so takes off for yet another solo vacation, this time to Cape Cod. Here he meets a young local named Eden Summers, who also happens to be a painter like his wife Merry, but is more of a hippie type. The two hit it off quickly, but again Hegner leaves the boinkery details vague. Then, without any warning, Hegner jumps forward six years, and Barry and Eden are now married and have two children, and meanwhile Barry’s still married to Merry, his daughters with her now in their teens. 

What possessed Barry to marry Eden? To have kids with her? Hegner is not interested in answering these questions. Nor is Barry himself; the latest set of kids is just as immaterial to him as the previous set, with the only difference being that Eden often badgers Barry for never being around them. But our cad of a “hero” trades off between wives; he sticks to the usual Monday to Friday work week in New York, then will head to either Cape at whim: Cape Cod for Eden or Cape May for Merry. And when he does go to either home, he usually encloses himself in his study and works on the “GAN,” aka the Great American Novel he has spent years writing. Ultimately even this is little explored; the book is published, at novel’s end, but all we learn about it is that it’s very long “family saga.” 

Also, Barry’s now involved with a new soap opera, this one another of his own creation, but one that runs in a late-night slot so is free to be even more daring than his previous one had been. However Hegner is even more vague about this show than he was about Love And Let Love, and indeed as the novel progresses Hegner basically rewrites the first half of the novel: once again the show’s top sponsor turns out to be the same as the one on the previous soap, and once again Martin Lombard is brought in as a new writer by request of the sponsor! All a carbon copy of the scenario we read in the first half of the book. 

In fact, Hegner’s so disinterested in his own book that he goofs; as mentioned, early in the book Barry takes off from Merry’s art exhibit because some local guy dares to talk to him. Later in the novel, Martin Lombard mentions that he’s happened to meet this guy, Barry’s neighbor at the Cape. Barry, concerned that someone’s about to discover his double life, recalls meeting this neighbor “last winter.” But folks the scene in question occurred six years earlier, not “last winter;” Hegner has apparently forgotten the flash-forward he placed in the middle of the novel. But anyway the supposed threat here is that Martin Lombard, who suddenly is presented as a skirt-chasing drunkard, might be on Barry’s trail, deducing that he has two wives. But the threat really is only “supposed,” because Barry Solon is such a prick that you couldn’t care less if he is uncovered. 

Actually, Hegner is so disinterested in the novel that he gives it one of the most half-assed endings I’ve ever encountered. Skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know what happens. Okay, so as mentioned Hegner establishes the possibility that Lombard might know Barry’s secret. Barry shuttles around between the Capes, disregarding Lombard’s assertation – gleaned from studying Barry’s scripts – that Barry has a split personality. The last we see of Barry he’s heading back into New York, his thoughts focused on how to get out of this mess. And folks, next chapter opens…and Barry’s dead!! The rest of the novel is told in backstory, with Barry having collapsed on a Manhattan street and dying immediately of a “massive brain hemorrhage.” Hegner leaves all of the juicy stuff off-page…I mean it’s discovered post-mortem about Barry’s dual lives, but there’s no part where the wives meet, or the kids meet, or anything! We just learn that both families are at the funeral, with Merry crushed and Eden disinterested. Oh and meanwhile Barry’s GAN is maligned as “formless and immature,” but turns out to be a huge hit when it’s finally published – with a TV series to be adapted from it and written by Martin Lombard. 

And with this The Bigamist comes to a close. While it was nice to see Hegner write an actual novel for once, the problem I had was that the novel kind of sucked. Even Hegner’s talent for bitchy dialog was mostly absent; too much of the novel was filtered through Barry’s impressions. Anyway Hegner only published one more PBO after this one, The Creator, after which he stopped publishing for twenty years, to return with 1999’s Razzle Dazzle.

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