Sep 27, 2013

Malcolm: Cold War Hustler and His Clients

An elderly, debauched astrologer encounters a boy named Malcolm sitting on a bench outside a hotel in a nameless city.  He is waiting for his father to return.  He doesn't know how long he has been waiting; maybe weeks, maybe years.  His father has been gone a long time.  Let the symbolism begin.

Malcolm is stunningly beautiful, so everyone he sees desires him.  But he desires no one.  He is innocent, a virgin.

 The astrologer decides to corrupt his soul.

He has Malcolm visit a series of his evil associates and their wives or consorts. Each tries to seduce Malcolm, with sex, friendship, money, or art, but each fails, due to a tragic fault or deception.

1. Estel Blanc, a mortician who is not aware that he is black, or that his consort is a transvestite.
2. Kermit, who is not aware that he is a midget, or that his wife is a prostitute.
3. Girard Girard, who is not aware that he is impossibly old, or that his wife has four lovers.
4. Jerome Brace, who is not aware that he is impossibly young, or that his marriage is unconsummated.

Malcolm has sex with all of the men except Estel, in hints only, in suddenly awakening to a shared bed or feeling their face against his thigh.

#5 is Melba, a famous singer who keeps marrying young boys and discarding them when they grow up. Malcolm has sex with one of her discards, and then marries her.

A few months pass, and Malcolm finally finds his father, but the older man calls him a pederast and runs away.  They have switched roles, and ages; the son has become the father.  Malcolm has lived a lifetime.  And he is dying, of "sexual exhaustion."

James Purdy (left), who was gay himself, published Malcolm in 1959, when gay meant evil, sinister, soul-destroying.  The modern reader doesn't feel the same frisson of dread.  The self-deceiving libertines seem tragic rather than threatening, stymied in their attempts to find love.

And Malcolm seems less an innocent corrupted by his own beauty than a teenage hustler who is playing a long con on his wealthy clients.

 Playwright Edward Albee adapted the novel for the stage in 1966, with Matthew Cowles playing Malcolm. It closed after five performance.