(Outpost19 Books, 2015)
Todd Haynes’s Carol and the current surge of interest in Patricia Highsmith and her work make it the perfect moment for the recent publication of David Winner’s new novel, Tyler’s Last, a savage, affectionate homage which takes satiric aim at both Tom Ripley of The Talented Mr. Ripley and the difficult woman who created him. This is surely no task for the timid. Both character and author come with complex, detailed mythologies and passionate cults of admirers.
Fortunately, Winner sidesteps the potentially dreary task of generating a story wholly consistent with the minutiae of his source material by leaving Ripley and Highsmith out of it altogether. This is the story of Tyler and Eve. Of course, there’s no mistaking whom these two are modeled upon. Tyler, the casually murderous bon vivant, the titular subject of a series of bestselling psychological thrillers. Eve, the famous expat novelist, rancorous, narcissistic, alcoholic, and more than slightly unhinged in her bitter old age. Winner has switched up their backstories and circumstances a bit, too, giving himself the full freedom to construct his own madcap plot while maintaining plenty of parallels to Highsmith’s books and life.
In his first novel, The Cannibal of Guadalajara, Winner demonstrated a subtle faculty for wringing genuine emotion out of implausibly absurd circumstances, and this talent is very much on display in Tyler’s Last, all the more impressive in a book conceived as both tribute and parody. But the best comedies are grounded in pathos; without real stakes and real pain, comedy loses its bite and the laughs fall flat. That’s not the case here. Winner’s careful attention to the fragile interior worlds of Eve and Tyler—the bitter disgrace of age and fading talent, the impotent fury of sexual rejection—endows them with a humanity unusual in broad comedic satire. That, in itself, may be the truest homage to the late, great talented Ms. Highsmith.
I talked to Winner about his novel.
Tyler Gore (Rail): How did you get the idea for a book about dual swan songs of a dying thriller writer and her favorite protagonist?
David Winner: About a decade or so ago, Patricia Highsmith grabbed me like a vise. I read the Ripley novels of course, but it was her tales of middle-class American life that got me. Mediocre men with diminished moral capacities would commit darker and darker atrocities. The sly slip between minor malfeasance and murder happenes generally around page 110. The novels are not particularly well written, but the dull desperation behind workaday American lives can pierce. One tedious woman gets dumped by her husband and watches her adult son sink further and further into depravity. A spindly husband accepts his wife’s lovers until he starts casually knocking them off. It was this dull and amoral American ’50s that Tom Ripley escaped from not long before the action of The Talented Mr. Ripley.
When I got the sense (from Andrew Wilson’s biography) that Highsmith was unpleasant, obsessive, and proverbially alcoholic, a character was born in my mind. The suggestion that she may have preferred the company of men despite her sexual proclivities gave me the idea of an indivisible connection between a lesbian writer of thrillers and her favorite sociopathic hero. The character of Eve, my spin on Highsmith, only messes with girls because she can’t find any real-life Ripleys. Ripley remains very much himself in the last Highsmith book about him, but I wondered how he would age and weaken, how his complex, contradictory sexuality could be brought more into the open, how he could survive the indignities of 21st-century digital culture. If I gave him a Facebook page, would you accept his friend request? So somehow all this launched a novel about Eve and her favorite character, Tyler, limping through their last adventure while symbiotically tied.
Rail: How do you choose settings?
Winner: My last novel had scenes in Latin America but revolved around New York. This one goes from Spain to Rotterdam to Senegal, but really begins during Tyler’s terrible childhood in Flushing and Howard Beach, which echoes his creator’s difficult Virginia one. It is Tyler’s desire to get the hell out of Queens that launches his career as a criminal expatriate. Ishiguro said his first novel created a “Japan of the imagination”—a phrase that sticks with me. I’ve visited most locales in which I place characters, and I like to think that a little bit of their essence appears in my fictions. Wherever I visit, I feel a bit like an interloper, an eavesdropper, aware of my otherness, of the artificiality of any insight I may have about the place, but I feel much clearer about my characters’ impressions of the worlds surrounding them. I don’t know how accurately I rendered Saint Louis in Senegal, but I absolutely know how Tyler would have reacted to the place—the frayed reminders of its French colonial past charming him utterly, its native African culture making no sense to him at all. I’ve never visited Rotterdam where Eve meets her young lover, but I can see it all so clearly: a seamy port, revamped factories turned into galleries, mosques and spice venders in an Arabic enclave. I know this place well enough to give walking tours, but it’s not Rotterdam. Details are not necessarily neglected, though. A bottle of Schnapps figures prominently, and when Dutch friends told me that would be odd in the Netherlands, I provided the Schnapps drinker with a summer residency in Vienna. Seeing the world through the prejudiced viewpoints of Eve and Tyler gave me a chance to consciously distort its landscapes. La Herradura in Spain, where the novel begins, is actually quite nice however little they could abide it.
Rail: What genre would you consider this to be? What interested you in meta-fiction?
Winner: A friend’s piercing memoir about the murder of his father got exiled to the lurid True Crimes section of bookstores. It was funny to start messing for the first time with a fiction that could conceivably be called a thriller. Lately I’ve noticed how desperate people are to use that label. All but the most peaceful family entertainments can get placed in that category. I want the tense and occasionally violent experiences of Tyler and Eve to grab hold of the reader like in a proper thriller but also to open the door to a multi-layered psychological and literary experiment.
The challenge I created for myself was to try to write convincing, compelling meta-fiction. Generally, when we are forced to contend with a story within a story, we disengage from characters and scenarios because they become at a double remove, far from any emotional reality. I tried to make what happens to Tyler powerful and tense, and I wanted the conceit that it’s actually being concocted by another character to enrich it dramatically rather than reduce it.
There is an arch, comic element of the relationship between the author and her character, but I also wantedt here to be a bona fides emotional connection. Eve’s tragedy is that her only true love is for someone she’s created. And Tyler’s sociopathic nature, what allows him to do terrible things, is an absence of conscience that comes in part from being born not by God or nature but in someone else’s imagination.
Rail: Is this a comic novel?
Winner: Some readers may find it funny. Other may not. Much of the humor is basically an old-fashioned generation gap joke. Eve would have been born in the ’20s and Tyler in the ’30s, and they both live in a cultural bubble, having very little sense of 21st-century ideas, jargon, technology, and so on. Words like “partner” for lover bemuse and annoy them while they struggle to navigate their newly digital universe. It’s a new version of an old routine, characters out of place and out of context. Think Abbott and Costello in the Navy, or the Wild West, or when they met Frankenstein.
Rail: Offensive words like “dyke” and outdated ones like “negro” emerge quite often from the minds of the two central characters. What was your intention there?
Winner: The novel tries to expose the casual bigotry of the recent past. Highsmith was a flaming racist. Less obviously insulting but patronizing attitudes towards any sort of “other” were almost ubiquitous in so many genres up until quite recently. Obviously, we all know that, and I’m not expecting people to start storming out of North by Northwest because of a two minute walk-in by an African-American character playing a porter or toss the Dorothy Sayers book you’re reading into the Atlantic because Peter Wimsey appears a tad classist, but I do think that white middle-class American readers and viewers are too comfortable with that stuff. Tyler’s Last tries to put it all out there. Tyler’s wife and her French girlfriend unabashedly take off on a “colonial nostalgia tour” of Africa. By outing my characters’ belief systems, I hope to have readers pay a little more attention to that sort of prejudice and condescension.
Rail: I think we can assume that your novel is not strictly autobiographical, or you should probably be in jail, but what are the connections between yourself and your life to this material?
Winner: I’ve always had the idea that fiction that can easily be connected to a writer’s life is easier for readers to swallow than fiction that seems as if it comes from left field. Recently, I’ve heard the term “relatable” meant positively about a story. You relate to something if it’s familiar. If it’s unfamiliar, it’s presumed you might lose interest. This guy Donald Murray, a rhetoric and composition guru of the ’70s, declared “all writing [. . .] is autobiographical,” which is a misnomer on a literal level but true, of course, more metaphorically.
My mother lacked Eve’s evil but died from Eve’s infirmity, Parkinson’s, and I have an equally visceral connection to Tyler. His desire to make order out of a disorderly world comes right from what I find myself to be like in middle age. I can’t conceive of how I was in my twenties, showing up in towns around the world without any idea where I planned to say, at bus stations without knowing when buses left. I don’t mean risk-taking travel adventures, just a certain spontaneity that I’ve lost. Tyler, like me, wants to live a simple and methodical life but certainly gets nothing like that, as his neatly contained (if criminal) universe has crumbled just before the beginning of the novel.
I recently turned fifty, and this is also a book about aging, a mortality that starts to encroach a bit more when you’ve made it past your first half century. Finally, there is question of lost love, obsessive love, an illness from which the author and her character suffer. That doesn’t come from any obvious place in my personal experience, but clearly it’s on my mind.
Rail: What are you working on now?
Winner: A novel called Enemy Combatant starring a character more based on me than any character before, just more screwed up and a whole lot braver. Making it work is about getting readers to suspend of disbelief. The me who isn’t quite me runs into evidence of CIA secret prisons during the Bush era. They were apparently in Macedonia and Poland, but I think they fit better in Georgia and Armenia, countries that I’ve visited in the Christian Middle East. My even crazier friend and I somehow manage to help a prisoner escape. I’m making light of it (and it is partially comedic), but, of course, it’s also deadly serious, as it’s about one of our darkest times as a nation. A long essay will be appearing in the Kenyon Review about love letters from the ’30s that I discovered in my late great aunt’s apartment. She was a figure in the classical music world working closely with Toscanini, helping to bring Callas to New York, but I had no idea that in the decade before her marriage to my uncle, Dario Soria, an Italian Jew, she had so many lovers of different kinds. Her most intense affair was with John Franklin Carter, who the Times accused in 1932 of trying to bring “Hitlerism” to America.