A REVIEW OF THE MORALIST BY ROD DOWNEY
The Moralist, a novel by American writer Rod Downey, was published by Great Mirror Press, Florida in 2001.
Life in Dallas: Novel tackles taboo gay love
The Moralist begins on a very Death-in-Venice note - with its main protagonist in the bathroom smearing on the minoxidol to salvage a thinning scalp. The central love affair that Rod Downey charts in his sprawling novel is a sort that Aschenbach would approve. Downey's Tadzio is spotted not on a beach, but found in a déclassé Dallas neighborhood via a Big-Brother style program for aspiring writers. The relationship that ensues doesn't end in a doom of cholera, even though love between man and boy blooms in a place which for this particular rose is more pestilential than any Adriatic swamp.
The problem of that pestilence is the abiding concern of this idea-heavy book. Reading The Moralist, it's hard to shake the thought that the novel is mostly autobiographical - presumably not in any incriminating details - down to the main character's name, demographic stats, career in public relations, and the fact he's at work writing a book called The Moralist.
Into the roomy portmanteau of his 500-page roman à clef, Downey packs current events, speculations literary and philosophical, his daily make-up regimen, taste in cars and drink, and his considered takes on lovers, colleagues, friends, and acquaintances (disclosure: this reviewer included) - all lightly fictionalized, with names changed and details skewed in the direction of wish-fulfillment. In the novel, The Moralist is published first in Paris and its author gains international acclaim as the new Gide. Before that, drafts of the book earn praise from various characters to whom they are shown. In real life, the book's first edition was published by something called Great Mirror Press. Sometimes it all seems like the work of an avowed narcissist on an exhibitionistic streak.
From a certain post-modern perspective, all this is fair play: if the blurb makes the book, why not make the book the blurb? Indeed, Downey repeats the social-constructivist creed that the essential truth of matters is "what other people think about them."
But in Downey's novelistic Symposium, the philosophical wine is mainly poured from older bottles. Citing Nietzsche, the author avers that "self-love" is the source of all good in the world. With the romantics, he offers that ethical problems disappear in truth's recognition that it is simply beauty. And at one point, in a staged encounter with critic Lionel Trilling, Downey's protagonist extols a writing technique involving a solipsism so profound that even the self disappears.
As Eastern religion filtered down to the West's baby-boomers, its central idea of the world's illusoriness was taken too often not as a call for the discipline of detachment, but as party invitation to the world-as-a-stage, a field wholly open to manipulation. Post-modernism's endlessly self-involved, ironical pose is a result.
Yet beneath his novel's spangly, ill-fitting po-mo gown, Downey has a good yarn to spin. The main character's unfolding relationship with his writer-charge is nicely wrought. And amidst the philosophizing, Downey tosses out provocative gems: the contradictory roles that cultures lay out for the male are "The Big Impossible," like one-hand-clapping, a sort of Buddhist koan. Or that the pederast was preternaturally old when he was young, and his fascination with boys stems not from an impulse to be one again, but for the first time. Or that God, immortal, feels a lust for the death that evades Him, and so the world's unfolding is divine pornography.
Downey contends that boy-love, winked at in most societies, has fared so badly with the institutionalization of the 60s sexual revolution because it's lacked good PR. Really? That's like saying African-Americans could have avoided the century of lynching after the Civil War with better press. In fact, newspapers relished lynchings. Downey's protagonist narrowly avoids one when he goes on a right-wing sex talk show (think Dr. Laura) and gives pederasty probably the best defense possible in sound-bites on prime- time. But even The Moralist doesn't go so far down the road of wish-fulfillment that this act of daring changes the world - even though the TV appearance doesn't turn into the disaster that in real life it probably would.
Downey has a point when he invokes the dangers of self-loathing, of hair-trigger-accusatory "slave morality" (in Nietzsche's parlance). Historically, boy-love has flourished - openly or otherwise - in self-possessed cultures. A vital patrimony, it seems, is seen to benefit from the micro-chemistry of intergenerational intimacy. But pederasty is antithetical to a world where what matters is determined by spin and PR, with values set moment-by-moment on the stock exchange of the mass market. (Not for nothing is the central relationship in The Moralist cemented by the transmission of writerly skill.) A culture in which every tenth-of-a-second quantum of consumer consciousness is for sale is a toxic environment hitherto unseen. Like a lake with too much sewage, where algae that were formerly just one part of a diverse ecosystem suddenly bloom choking out all other life, in this Brave New World, certain primordial human concerns - around children, sex, danger - become the tinder for constant obsession. Thus the algae bloom of sex panic throughout the world's middle class, exploited to sell soap and repression from Brussels to Bangkok.
Like Downey's not altogether convincing philosophizing, this novel's parts are more than their sum. If The Moralist is less fiction than memoir, it remains that Downey has lived through interesting times - going to college in the cusp-of-Stonewall South, cutting his dramatic teeth in Midwest summer stock, dipping into the New York art scene in the reign of Warhol, tuning in and dropping out before donning suit and eye-shadow for work at the PR agency. As the novel darts through them, these worlds - some now gone - are brought to life. Though the writing here can be clunky - ironic for a book that puts that craft center-stage - Downey's dialogue is usually clever and sharp, reflecting maybe the author's past experience penning plays.
The Moralist romps, with a twist, through contemporary homosexuality as it coalesced in the 60s and 70s, and casts an outta-kilter eye on Dallas gay life, and the rhetorical challenge of defending eros across an age difference. Readers curious or connected to these subjects or scenes might enjoy The Moralist.
Reviewed by George Williard in The Guide, November 2004.