First Line: Aaron Benham sits at his desk hearing the wrong voices.
Before reading The Hair of Harold Roux, I’d never heard of Thomas Williams. Even though he won the National Book Award in 1975 (shared with Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers), somehow both Williams and his work managed to escape my notice, even with an MA in English and Creative Writing. And that’s a shame. Because this book is all about creation. And invention. And discovery. And storytelling. It should, in fact, be required reading for anyone in a Creative Writing program.
On the surface, Williams’ The Hair of Harold Roux is simply a novel about an author writing a novel. But deep down in the guts of Williams’ creation it’s so much more complex than that. Aaron Benham is a college professor on sabbatical struggling to write a novel entitled The Hair of Harold Roux. Benham is also struggling with personal crises. He seems to have lost sight of his place in his own family, in his university, and in the life of his best friend and colleague. Benham’s struggle to regain some sort of stability is told not in a narrative Williams focuses on Benham, but rather in the narrative that Benham focuses on the protagonist of the novel-within-the-novel. In fact, the majority of the story is not Williams’ story of Benham, but Benham’s story of Allard Benson.
Allard Benson, a motorcycle riding college student in post-WWII New England who wants to be a writer, is quite obviously a slightly “fictionalized” version of Benham (who is, himself, a fictional creation of Williams). The title character, Harold Roux, is Benson’s roommate and a veteran of WWII. Harold, too, is writing a novel. But rather than writing about the world the way it is, Harold writes about a more fantastic version of Benham’s world. Eventually, Harold’s creative focus turns to Lilliputown, a miniaturized railway and city, for the novel-within-a-novel’s violent climax. Yes, a creation within a creation within a creation.
Confused yet? It takes Williams just about a third of the novel to solidify these four primary processes of creation, and it’s a slow, sometimes confusing journey – not because it’s poorly done, but because Williams uses these processes not as some cheap trick of dueling or parallel storylines, but as crucial elements of character development. One step at a time, he leads both his characters and the reader on journeys of self-discovery and invention as all of his characters struggle to find their places within their respective creations.
On a personal level, I found the passages focused on motorcycles to be particularly well done. Both Benham and Benson ride – Benham a Honda and Benson an Indian Pony Scout similar to this one I found pictured on Motorbase:
The motorcycles become an increasingly important metaphor that both Williams and Benham use in their respective novels. Benham, in particular, focuses much of the character development of Allard Benson on his relationship with his Indian Pony:
The emptiness of the woods is always close on a motorcycle, because if you slow or stop you are alone and naked, already in the dark and part of it. Not like in a car, which is a room. Only your speed and the wavery hole your headlight cuts ahead of you gives some slight edge of independence from the night. It’s risky; the trees seem to reach toward you as you pass. (227)
In the end, Williams’ novel is a deep treatise on the necessity of creation and invention. Even though its beginning is slow, it’s also a deliberate, brick-by-brick construction of multiple creative foundations. Once established, those separate foundations merge into a single creative invention that moves with a kind of compelling grace that is both refreshing and rare. Take your time with this book and you will not be disappointed.