Monday, May 27, 2013

Tom Ripley in Drag


Please forgive me for this rather prolix Ripley Review piece of piffle - with its frankly disturbingly gushing fashion - as nothing more than a camp pop Pompidou Centre quickie tour of Paris (comparing it to a blow-up doll). 

Or better yet a West Berlin drag show swan song with Miss Highsmith as Marlene Dietrich singing “Falling in Love Again.”

These passages I quote and play around with could have been lifted directly from Highsmith's own diaries or notebooks. The Boy Who Followed Ripley seemingly having fallen together in a pile of scattered pieces - like some odd William Burroughs cut-up montage.

After reading the novel, I’m left rather simply amazed that The Boy Who Followed Ripley for some reason lacks the urgency of others in the series (although as an aside, I should note that such is my enthusiasm for Ripley that truly only Patricia Highsmith could have written an entire novel consisting of Tom gardening, playing the harpsichord and sauntering around in drag in a risqué Berlin disco.)

It’s almost as if Patricia Highsmith is more relaxed than she’s ever been about her sexuality and lifestyle – compared with The Taste of Salt and her other suspense novels. 

Which is, in effect, what happens for the segment of the book set in West Berlin, where Tom travels with Frank Pierson, the handsome sullen sixteen-year-old American heir to a fortune who has latched on to (and who idolizes) him. 

And doing drag to both save the handsome boy from kidnappers – and perhaps even Ripley saving himself. From who he or she is - with Highsmith’s outré drag act doppelganger act?

According to Andrew Wilson's 2003 biography of Highsmith, Beautiful Shadow, Highsmith travelled to Berlin expressly in order to research her fourth Ripley outing. Much as Truman Capote took Alvin Dewey and his wife after their In Cold Blood novel & film ordeal on a visit once upon a time to a gay drag disco bar in Kansas City. 

Tom Ripley features in this fourth novel again, along with a couple of fresh faces, two Berlin associates of Reeves', Eric and Peter, who regard the legendary, unpredictable, mercurial – and, yes, courageous Ripley with something approaching awe. 

In the end, the sexual aspect of Tom and Frank's relationship is less important than the psychological one. Because at its root the book is a study of a conscienceless man who wonders if he's perhaps found a young kindred spirit: a killer, like himself; not quite on the same scale – just the one murder to Tom's "seven or eight" – but even so, someone he can guide, "steer", maybe even mould. 

That Tom is mistaken provides the tragedy in the tale; for Tom Ripley, the "font of evil" (as he so memorably puts it in Ripley Under Ground), can never truly be anyone's savior – quite the opposite, in fact, as the gauche American couple who decide to stick their noses into the Murchison affair in the final book in the Ripliad, Ripley Under Water, discover to their cost... 

Ripley the disappointed sugar daddy finds that his young Prince Charming has been snatched away, not only by greedy Berlin kidnappers - but by the boy himself who is hell-belt on a some guilt-imposed suicide trip, ho-hum, the usual gay cop-out device I suppose.

Not so much feeling guilty for pushing his millionaire father off a cliff in his wheelchair down into the rocky ocean shoreline – but more along tacky lines having to do with his unrequited love with some dizzy teenage sweetheart more enamored with herself than she is with the boy. 

Subsequently, in order to retrieve Frank, Tom dons full drag, ostensibly as a disguise so he can follow the kidnappers who are holding Frank for ransom. But also, perhaps, to titillate his rich boyfriend (Frank) into a more seductive and perhaps more enduring gay relationship than the one with his so-so sweetheart.

You know like Bruno (Robert Walker) and Guy (Farley Granger) in Strangers On A Train. Or Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) and Ripley (Matt Damon) in The Amazing Mr. Ripley.

Fully made-up, wearing a wig and dressed in a "very pretty" pink, white and transparent gown, Tom takes to the dance floor of a gay club as he waits for the kidnappers, feeling "exhilarated and stronger" - delighting in the freedom his new disguise affords him. Well, maybe she should do this more often, she says to herself!!!

Of course, this isn't the first time Tom has disguised himself: in Ripley Under Ground he assumes the identity of the painter, Derwatt, donning a fake beard and applying makeup, and his rescue of Frank – which he accomplishes still dressed as a woman – recalls some of the giddy, freewheeling insanity of that Cold War Berlin Wall drag novel. 

And there are other nods to Under Ground besides, as well as to Ripley's Game: Ed and Jeff from the Buckmaster Gallery are mentioned, as is Murchison, the art collector whom Tom bludgeoned with a bottle of red; Tom is taking lessons for the harpsichord he bought in Game; and Tom's friend, the fence Reeves Minot, goes upstairs in order to avoid awkward questions. 

Frank clearly arouses in Tom a protective passion that's usually reserved for those times when he's engaged in deadly acts of self-preservation; when Frank admits to Tom that he killed his own father, uncharacteristically Tom grabs Frank by the dick and tries to dissuade him from running away from him. 

Not long after, Frank hides from Tom in the woods behind Belle Ombre as a kind of test; when Frank appears from behind a tree, Tom feels "exquisite relief, like having an aching orgasm." Hardly a closet case, my dears. Miss Highsmith seems to come out of the closet with this novel quite adroitly.

That episode is echoed by another once the action moves to Berlin, where Tom takes Frank on an impulse. Having spent an evening with Frank in a gay drag disco bar (where else?), the next day the two are walking in the woods at the edge of the city when Tom sucks off Frank as if they were a couple of passionate Wandervogel youth making out in the Black Forest. 

Tom is totally shaken by all these turns of events, "thoroughly shattered by the boy's male beauty” in a sense that more accurately gives the gay undercurrent of the relationship some believability.  Tom wants to be for the first time perhaps - a cherished hoodlum sugar daddy to Frank's new found desire for a happy kept boyhood. 

Because of the tormenting, twisted, violent impulses inherent in so many of Highsmith's male-on-male (as it were) novels, the gay dynamics become very prominent here, the subtext of homosexuality that's usually latently present – at least in many of the Ripley novels – suddenly rears its rather pouty, sullen, moody shocking head for all the readers to madly fantasize about. I know I did, honey.

The question of Tom's sexuality (or lack thereof) is a constant background buzz in the Ripliad; in The Talented Mr. Ripley it was evident that he was in love with Dickie Greenleaf (or at least the idea of Dickie), and his marriage to Heloise thereafter is, if not completely sexless, then devoid of any noticeable passion. 

For her part, Highsmith always denied Tom was gay, although latterly she did acknowledge that he might have been suppressing homosexual tendencies. Really, my dear? But in The Boy Who Followed Ripley, she seems to address the queer question more directly than at any other point in the series of Ripley novels. 

Early on, when Antoine Grais, a friend of Heloise's, arrives at Belle Ombre unexpectedly, Tom – who we're explicitly informed is reading Christopher Isherwood's Christopher and His Kind – is caught by surprise. 

Antoine catches a glimpse of Frank, apologizes for disturbing Tom, and then, with "a nasty curiosity", asks if his "friend" is male or female. 

"Guess," Tom replies. 

The teenager tracks Tom down in France having heard of him thanks to a Derwatt painting (actually a Bernard Tufts fake) Frank's father owns (see Ripley Under Ground for the story behind Derwatt/Tufts). 

Tom soon learns that Frank's father, who was confined to a wheelchair, was killed when he fell from a cliff behind the family mansion just before Frank fled America, and that furthermore, Frank believes he was responsible. Did he? Didn’t he?

What Highsmith is setting up here is yet another spin on her familiar theme of two men becoming strangely fascinated by and fixated on one another. 

The problem is that in this instance, it's an implied more aggressive relationship for both parties. What made previous takes on the theme so compelling was, of course, the tension of the manipulative, malicious – and ultimately murderous – nature of at least one of the protagonists, whether it be Bruno in Highsmith's debut, Strangers on a Train (1950), or indeed Tom himself in Talented, Under Ground and Game. 

Here, however, Frank – despite apparently offing his father – is utterly guileless, almost brainless, a typical sixteen-year-old seemingly helpless and adrift with himself. While Tom takes on the guise almost of a Highsmithian mother hen – eventually reworking her own excursions, which she documents in her notebooks, for the novel. 

Who knows what Taste of Salt lesbian analogous love affairs went through Highsmith’s mind – writing late at night, jotting in her notebooks, thinking about her jaunts to West Berlin and her many various love affairs in New York, Texas, Yaddo and elsewhere…

After initially being confused by Berlin after repeated trips, Highsmith had become fascinated by the city, a fascination that's almost tangible in The Boy Who Followed Ripley. 

The Berlin section feels by far the most alive of the book, and that remains the case even more so now with the Berlin Wall coming down and all that youthful pent-up Eastern German butchy skinhead thug repressed sexuality now able to finally come out in the open. 

Perhaps a second Berlin go-through at The Boy Who Followed Ripley after the Cold War and the Wall came down would’ve been apropos at one time or another?

What the rest of the novel lacks though is any real sense of existential danger for Tom. Other than a momentary fear on his part after getting Frank back to his Maine mansion – that the boy would perhaps shove Ripley off the same cliff that he pushed his hapless father off of.

Such existential danger as in The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ripley Under Ground and even, to an extent, Ripley's Game where Tom has to fight for his very survival – which is to say his liberty and his idle, comfortable way of life (in Ripley's Game, his own actions leading directly to an assault on his rural French home, Belle Ombre).

With The Boy Who Followed Ripley (which, in the mutable timeline of the Ripliad, is set roughly six months on from Game), the Berlin escapade aside, Ripley’s preoccupied for the most part with saving Frank from himself. 

But who eventually will save Tom Ripley from himself – one might ask? The Boy Who Followed Ripley by Patricia Highsmith makes herself more visible perhaps in her personification of Ripley than any other of her superb suspense novels.

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