LAUGHING PRUDISHLY; A REVIEW OF MARSTON HEFNER’S “HIGH SCHOOL ROMANCE” by Evan Williams

[This review contains slight spoilers]

Yes, Marston Hefner is a Hefner as in of-Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy Magazine. Now out with CLASH, there are eighteen stories in Marston’s new book, High School Romance. Nine of them involve an obsessive or intense relationship with a father figure, one opening and one closing the collection. These are, on the whole, the stories that read as the most genuine. 

I first read High School Romance on a plane to Florida for spring break. It felt right. Plane reading is weird because if you are reading, then everyone else is reading what you are reading, which is why it is an awkward thing to read the paragraph: 

“I fucked my best most prestigious dog in the world today. Fucking my best dog in the world felt so good. I was at my best when I fucked my dog. No one could hold a candle to my dog when we fucked.”

For Hefner, the awkwardness is the point, and he wields its power well. He has an especially well-developed ability to make his reader squirm while maintaining a calm in the prose itself; at times, it’s so calm that the squirming reader wonders whether they’re just being prudish.

But no, there is a pervasive lewdness in the text, “I fucked my best most prestigious dog” and so forth. By the book’s end, it is more an anaphoric trick than anything else. Much like saying toy boat over and over and over again, the debauchery loses its specific meaning, becoming a more general state of affairs; anything could be lewd, and probably is when viewed from the correct angle. Much as this may produce an initial sense of shame—at least, before one becomes acclimated to it—it’s obviously a gag, and a funny one. In Hefner’s work, there is a reliable relationship between horror and humor; whatever is funny in High School Romance is at first likely horrific. We laugh because it becomes clear that there is no danger present, and, enjoying our newfound power over shame, bask in our ability to laugh at the silly thing we once found vile. 

While Hefner’s humor is sifted through the horror machine, there are moments in the collection when the horror is just horror. Having trained his reader to expect horror to melt into humor, Hefner tricks us into a position of moral conflict; by habit, we begin to laugh when we should be crying. 

An excellent example of this phenomenon, the titular story opens: 

“She is 17.
I am 27.
Her father Mark is my best friend.”

It’s pretty much impossible not to think immediately of Lolita. After all, Nabokov says “there must be a gap of several years, never less than ten” in order for one “to come under the nymphet’s spell.” There is too an echo of Nabokov’s idea that the ‘nymphet’ is, in one way or another, distinct from other children:

“One day I told Mark that I liked his daughter.
‘You know she’s a kid right?’ he asked.
I told him I knew of course but I was lying. I knew kids when I saw them and all of Liz’s friends were kids but when I saw Liz I saw a woman. And it always terrified me to see her next to her friends because they looked like kids.” 

The aspect of High School Romance designed to salvage it seems to be the fact that nothing ever happens between the speaker and Liz. I wondered while reading whether the whole thing was actually a miscalculated ploy to bring the speaker closer to Mark, the child’s father, and I think a case could be made for this reading in the story’s first half. But there’s a moment when the speaker is having dinner with Liz’s family—Mark, and her mother Laura—that reshaped my interpretation.

“…these clear walls came on both sides of Liz and I…Liz went off to Coachella that weekend and I emailed her.

‘Did you see those walls that came up between us when we had dinner? I’m certain I saw them but was wondering if you did too?’”

Liz never answers his email, but Liz’s mom does. She asks that the speaker not contact Liz again. It makes the speaker out into something of a thwarted Humbert Humbert. It’s clear he would have had a relationship with Liz if he could have, but since he can’t, he won’t. We’re supposed to feel bad for the speaker, who drops self-deprecating or self-shaming lines throughout so as to make clear his lack of self-confidence or maybe even loathsome feelings for himself (e.g., “I’m vulgar but I’m not hilarious”). 

Hefner’s narrators are frequently bested, lonely, and often self-effacing. In one story, the speaker’s love falls instead for Elon Musk while they are on the moon together. In another, the speaker confesses, “The difference between loneliness and being alone has always been negligible to me.” When moments of failure in attempted love come, Hefner’s project encourages its reader to empathize with the loser, even (and perhaps especially) when our better judgment says that the loser should have lost for reasons ethical, or just plain sensible. 

This story typifies one of my few frustrations with Hefner’s collection: insofar as it grapples with the reputation of his father, it is only by implication. I want to be fair: Marston is not his father. That said, it seems inconceivable to write a book of love stories as a Hefner without grappling, in some way, with the legacy of that name and the baggage it carries. To write a story in which a 27-year-old man pursues a 17-year-old girl while leaving ambiguous one’s emotions toward a paternal legacy built on the objectification and predation of young women is an abdication of responsibility. 

Hefner comes close to this sort of reckoning in the collection’s bookend stories, both of which foreground a father figure. They are my favorite pieces in the book, sorrowful, reflective, and gesturing toward a panic-inducing degree of relational complexity. Together, they constitute something of an autobiographical arc between two moments with father figures sketched in a Hugh-Hefner-like shape. 

In the first, The Moon is a Tapestry, a Nightmare, Hefner’s speaker falls into his father’s lap crying over the loss of his love to Elon Musk on the moon:

“so i went to earth alone. i went home and i cried in my father’s lap…i gripped his corduroys and cried. because it was cathartic. it felt good because it wasn’t my fault. i looked at his lap and saw my tears. i said i love you papa. i said im glad youre always here. and he pat my head. he invited me to stay at his house for as long as i wanted. so i did. i wanted to feel at home. and i did.”

With an eye toward the collection’s order, I find this passage fabulously interesting. Placing the speaker in the father’s house, where he can feel at home, allows for a reading that places every subsequent story under that same roof, and, by extension, under that same paternal influence. Read this way, every vile thing that follows is linked to the father; if the first story sets the scene for a collection, then papa’s house is the scene of High School Romance

I’ll return to this idea after a brief consideration of the collection’s closing, and, I think, most compelling piece, A Family History

“My father took his women his young women outside, he did not take us his children my brother and I to the sports games…My father…He was a man, he never wanted anything that gave to others…My father his children his children wondered how to make their father proud of them…My father did not make me cold, did not shark me the way the wind hit inside of me…I am not my father…One more thing, I let the feelings inside me.”

When I read this piece, my heart stopped. I looked at the people on the plane next to me as if to say, Are you reading this? Hefner’s book is over-the-top, at times gimmicky (in ways that I enjoyed—e.g. the screaming story Im Done Delillo), and it dodges the looming question for as long as it can. High School Romance is a book that comes with its own ready-made and whopping elephant in the room, and I wish it had been addressed much, much sooner.  

I’m left wondering what Hefner means in his closing lines: “I am not my father…I let the feelings inside me.” It is hard to know if Hefner is attributing blame for the collection’s catalog of awkward moments, offenses, and extravagances to his father, to his home, or if he is laying claim to them himself. It is hard to say whether High School Romance is a crying confession made into a father’s corduroy pants, or a son accepting his flaws as his own and feeling the full heft of culpability; or, both.

 


Evan Williams is a Chicago-based writer thinking about surrealism and the Anthropocene. His work appears in DIAGRAM, Pleiades, and the Bennington Review, among others. He is the author of “Claustrophobia, Surprise!” (HAD Chaps, 2022), the Reviews Editor at X-R-A-Y Lit, and one-third the editorial brain behind the temporary journal of prose poetry, Obliterat.

Art by Crow Jonah Norlander

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