A Thin Bright Line
Lucy Jane Bledsoe
(University of Wisconsin)
Sixty years ago, those who lived - - - or tried to live - - - a gay life in America had a rough time. The common words were "faggot," "queer," "fruit," "fruitcake," "poof," "nellie," "pervert." The penalty for being open about "the love that dared not speak its name" was scorn, aversion, and, for any suspected of "inversion," being spied on, hounded, arrested, imprisoned.
In a column in the New York Times, Frank Rich told of the other fates of those in the 1940s and 50s guilty of that "detestable crime:" insulin shock treatment, electro-shock convulsive therapy and for men in seven states - - - castration.
Police departments prided themselves on their late-night invasions of homes of single men suspected of being "poofs." After breaking down the door, finding two in the same bed (or finding only one bed "mussed up,") there was arrest, with the charge of "obscene behavior." The facts of the arrest would be listed the next day in the local newspapers, complete with names, addresses, and occupations.
Even as late as the 1960s, in the District of Columbia, parties in private homes of suspected "deviants" could be raided, men taken down to the station and booked. The supposedly liberal Washington Post would, the next day, list complete names, addresses and jobs of all arrested.
In the "Chicken Hut," a dismal gay bar I visited at the time, it was rumored once that Liberace was coming to town. There was to be a party, and friends urged us not to attend since rumors were rife that it would be raided. It would be a feather in the cap of the D. C. police department to capture Liberace in flagrante. (The party was indeed raided, but Liberace was too clever to be there; details of attendees and their jobs were duly posted in the Post the next day.)
Since those who worked for the government were said to be liable for blackmail, most would be fired at once without cause or appeal.
§ § §
A Thin Bright Line tells the story of Lucybelle Bledsoe, who lived at the time in New York with her actress lover, Phyliss. Lucy has studied physics, is known for her precision, her ability to work and handle the arcane language of freezology, her fondness for detail . . . and for living alone.
The scientist who was soon to be later named the father of the Geophysical Year, sought her out in the city, and meets with her. He offers her a job with the Army Corps of Engineers' SPIRE program (Snow, Ice, and Permafrost Research Establishment). Henri Bader, the head of ice-core study meets her in New York, trying to draft her to work with him at the new headquarters of SPIRE in Chicago.
When he and Lucy meet for the first time, he sits her down, says, "This is a classified position . . . Highest level, actually. We've already done a security check on you. We know everything."
"Meaning what?" She hated the way her voice broke, and she cleared her throat loudly to correct the appearance of uneasiness. She slid her hands under her thighs so he wouldn't see the tremor.
"Meaning McCarthy would not approve." That roar of a laugh again and then the same abrupt halt to it.
Had they actually followed her? Someone must have. How could they know that about her?
"Yeah," Bader grinned. "That."Lucy finds out quickly that "He wasn't laughing at her. He was laughing at the absurdity of them, whoever they were. The offer was real, but since the scientific study would be cover for building an enormous military base in Greenland, all concerned needed clearance. Bader says, "You're smart as a whip . . . You have the exact skills we need. There really would be no sacrifice on your part. Just stay out of the bars. Don't get arrested."
Lucy is shocked, alarmed . . . but tempted. Science is her game, and she is good at it. Hell, she is good at whatever she wants to do (except, obviously, keeping her most closely guarded secret).
She is intrigued . . . but who is this guy saying, in effect, "we know all about you but keep your nose clean and you will have a job with good pay and lifetime security."
§ § §
A Thin Bright Line is a fine novel of the old school. Powerful plot. Well-wrought characters. Careful pacing. Bader, for instance, comes across as a true science nut who detests secrecy and the ridiculous rules of our life of those times. During the course of the book, Lucy (and the reader) come to treasure him, trying to slip things past his military bosses. He also dresses, as Henny Youngman used to say of one of his friends, "like an unmade bed."
The plotting of this is direct, each section with its steadily moving date-line - - - but what is powerful, especially for those of us who lived through the times, is the embittering cast placed on us by the obscene anti-gay sentiments of those days. One of Lucy's pals in Chicago, Beverly, got run out of the military because of her sexual preferences. Once Lucy manages to convince her that she's one of the gang, Beverly tells her story, of the day she was commanded to come to a hearing before the military.
They started out with benign question about my name and date of birth, things like that. Finally they got around to asking the question. They wanted me to comment. Beverly's demeanor softened. She held her folded hands in her lap and her mouth quivered as if she might cry. Perched on the edge of that hard upright chair, she looked defenseless, like bird on an exposed tree limb. They launched into asking about certain bars, whether I'd ever been, and continued pretending to have photos.
Lucy asks, "Who turned you out?"
"That's the hardest part of the story . . . "
"A former friend."
"A former beau." Dorothy said. "Who to this day has a well-paid, high level job at the State Department."
§ § §
I don't think that one who hasn't lived through it can imagine the fear that ran our lives. We were uncertain, as it was, with our choice to go all out. But with the danger represented by Senator Joe McCarthy - - - despite the fact that two of his most detestable compadres (David Schine and Roy Cohn) were shacking up together - - - the government was hard at work exposing all suspected gays and Communists, both, it was suggested, unpatriotic in our own ways.
The air in Washington was poison. Friends would turn on friends as, indeed, one of Lucy's lesbian friends here feeds constant updates on all of Lucy's doings to the FBI.
The betrayal loomed so large, was so suffocating, that in that first moment she couldn't even see it . . .
"I was trying to protect you," Dorothy said. "That's how it started anyway. But I'm a librarian. I love research! So I admit, it became a game too ..."
"You pretended to be my friend."
"I was your friend. That's exactly what I'm trying to tell you. Even when they stopped paying me, I tried to help."
"Hardly much. That was the least of it. I mean, sure, I took the money, why not? But that's not why I did it."
"Who paid you?"
Dorothy laughed. "Oh, you know, they don't really tell you what they are. But the extra income was nice. I had my mother to take care of, you might recall. The best part thought was that I could help you at the same time."
"You took money to inform on my activities?"
"That's funny. You make it sound like a spy novel."
Dorothy ratted on her to help her. By this time, the reader has engaged completely with Lucybelle - - - her straightforwardness, her innate kindness, her ability. And, being at the time, a minority of minorities: a woman with a scientific bent trying to make it in a man's fiefdom - - - with part of her core being one that flies in the face of all of America's twisted morality schemes. We want her to win.
"In fact, they stopped paying me after awhile. But I kept on going. Because of how much I cared about you," says Dorothy. And we are in the middle of it, where a gross act of disloyalty can be spun to make it sound saintly. I think that there can be no better way to show how topsy-turvy all got to be in the McCarthy years than this "I did it for your own good" business.
Lucy is - - - by our lights - - - more of our time than her own. And she has heroes, some of ours too: the writers Willa Cather and Gertrude Stein, the novelist Elizabeth Bishop, the scientist Rachel Carson, the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, even quoting one of our favorites,
Life in itself
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.
§ § §
On top of it all, we have here a novel right out of the 1950s. Lucybelle and her many friends smoke endlessly, drink martinis or bourbon on the rocks, dress in skirt with blouse of muted colors, and talk endlessly about relationships, interlaced with analysis:
"There's no such thing as a healthy relationship for us."Everything rings so true here, and I had that feeling I often get when I've done reading a good novel. I'd lived the character's lives, and to leave them at the end of 400 or 500 pages comes to be like losing old friends.
"That can't be true. What about Beverly and Ruthie? They love each other."
Dorothy made a face. "Spare me. There's no room for slippage there. They feel so, I don't know, tight."
"Ball and chain."
"Exactly. No, it just isn't possible. If you can't live openly, the relationship gets poisoned. You're right to live a life of the mind. To write your novel. That's the way to handle who we are. Find a way to sublimate the feelings."
Especially in this, which is as much about gay life so long ago, so true - - - but also with elements of a well-constructed mystery. So much hiding, so much secrecy. So much is unsaid, but a thin line, with great dialogue, the back-and-forth that makes the line vibrate just so.
"I didn't know you were being analyzed," Lucybelle teased.
"Ha. I would go for it if I thought I could afford the treatment."
"You sound like you hate being a lesbian."
Dorothy shuddered. "I hate that word."
It did sound rather slimy, like a species of slug.--- Pamela Wylie