reviewed by Alexander Stathes
In this age of selfies, tweets, posts, and profiles, where the private details of a person’s life, and private moments that are suddenly, and sometimes without consent, made public, it is easy to forget that there was a time when private really was private. A time when people, and especially young people, could close a door to a room, and select who would share space and experience with them.
There is a powerful sense, throughout Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall, that the reader has been invited into those rooms, and is allowed to see the formation of people. Yes, these people are mostly young, and certainly privileged to have the space and time to explore while graduate students at Yale in the early 1980’s, but even in this rarified space, the issues that they confront, and the discoveries that they make, are personal, and messy, and vulnerable. These characters occasionally make fools of themselves in these rooms, and occasionally are self-absorbed and over-indulgent in the way that only young, intelligent, privileged people can be, but throughout the piece, Magruder never makes the reader feel like an interloper, or an unwelcome guest. Yes, there are moments of voyeurism, particularly since sexuality, sexual identity, and lust are fertile fields of exploration for all of the characters, but somehow, even in the most revealing and explicit of moments, Magruder manages to stop short of puerile titillation or exploitation. We sit in these young people’s bedrooms, or stand in the dark corners of dance clubs, and we watch them become who they think they want to be. Behind those doors, in those corners, and with those selected confidants, a person can explore who they are , what they want, and what they think. There is a sense, in James Magruder’s novel, that we have been invited into a room that we would not have expected to be in at the beginning of the night to see the forming of these characters, to hear them say what they think, and then think again, or to see them discover who they are or what they want.
As one reads the novel, there is also the sense of layered peril along with the jubilation and enthusiasm. There are the obvious and expected fights and betrayals that always occur in stories of young love, but it is the history of the work that strikes deepest, bringing a deep sense of dramatic irony to the book as a whole. The setting of the piece, New Haven, Connecticut at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, hangs over it like a cloud. Silas Huth, one of two central characters in the novel, and the one for whom I developed the greatest fondness, has come to Yale looking forward to fully exploring his homosexuality now that, in his mind, he has escaped the morass of middle America that had previously hemmed him in. There is such an innocence and joy to his conquests, and he delights so thoroughly in the machinations and perturbations of his love life, that as a visitor to his world, a visitor from 2016, one wants to reach into the book and tell him to take care, to be cautious, and to guard himself. With each interlude, and each conquest, the reader fears that Silas might be a victim in the terrible tragedy of HIV in the 1980’s, where a diagnosis was almost always a death sentence, and America looked on while a whole generation of bright, passionate, amazing young people were struck down.
If the reader is an invited guest into these private spaces, the plague of HIV is a night stalker, a murderer slipping into bedrooms and dancehalls and toilet stalls and striking down young people for being young, and doing what young people do. In this way, Magruder illustrates a surprising, and rarely explored consequence of this terrible disease. At just the time when our characters should be able to feel invulnerable, at the point in their lives where they should be taking risks and cataloguing experiences, the disease has the effect of requiring the young to become old. Abandon, and joy, and physicality become a potential death sentence, and the reader waits with dread to see who will be claimed, and who will, as if by a miracle, survive.
Another character for whom the reader fears is Randall Flinn, a bookish and devout young man who comes to New Haven looking to prepare for a monastic life, a life of study, prayer, and praise. Although he tries his best to cloister himself, and to create his own cell in Helen Hadley’s Hall, Randall is quickly identified as a source of fun for Silas. Struggling with questions of his own sexuality and its relation to his faith, Randall suffers many blushings at the hands of Silas, and for a portion of the text, the reader is unsure whether these two will become friends, enemies, or lovers. But with a deft skill and well-weighted sense of dramatic timing, Magruder reveals to the reader that these young men, on the face of it so different and incompatible, are on the same quest. Additionally, Magruder shows us that these quests, even though they are taking place at a temporal, geographic, and circumstantial remove from the reader, are shared by all young people. Silas and Randall, and all of the other characters of the novel, are trying to figure out who they are. We have been invited to quest with them.