The Best Part of Breaking Up: In 1953, Alfred Hayes Published One of the Greatest Books Ever About the End of a Relationship

Alfred Hayes. (Photo by Nina Leen//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Alfred Hayes. (Photo by Nina Leen//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Alfred Hayes’s long-out-of-print novel In Love (NYRB Classics, 130 pp., $14) was first published in 1953, but it contains only a few temporal markers that offer the sense of a concrete setting. The USS Missouri—“The Big Mo,” where the Japanese surrendered in 1945, its appearance here hinting at a series of repressed traumas in postwar America—has just set out for Korea. A gaudy Atlantic City hotel has automatic lights in its bathrooms, a novelty of which the bellhop is particularly proud. The United Nations building, “a sign of progress” and a mere skeletal outline in the book, was already “the really outstanding architectural horror of the day.” The building was completed in 1952, but since 2011 it has remained under more horrible construction, another sign of New York’s perpetual “progress.”

So we are clearly somewhere around 1950, but there are many details that feel familiar in Mr. Hayes’s remarkable book about the end of a relationship. During a heat wave, “you could almost hear the stretched human nerve snap. The city had become, once more, impossible.” Elsewhere, “the subway expresses came and departed, all without any knowledge of” the people in the buildings above.

In Love, which has just been reissued, opens with a nameless man, approaching 40, offering to tell the story of his dissolved relationship to the pretty girl seated at the bar next to him. This provides the book with its narrative frame and offers a realistic urgency that this is happening, though as a device it is not exactly believable, and is quickly forgotten. (When a middle-aged guy at a bar says to you, “What have I done … to be so unhappy, and yet not to be convinced that this unhappiness, which invests me like an atmosphere, is quite real or justified?” it’s probably time to find a different bar.)

From there, Mr. Hayes, a mostly forgotten author of novels and Hollywood screenplays (he’s best known for penning the lyrics to the folk standard “Joe Hill”), maps out one of the greatest, bleakest breakup stories ever told. The narrator loves a woman whose name is also not given, though she is far from anonymous, as evidenced by countless trivial details we learn quickly about her. “She was five feet, four and a half inches, without her shoes on, or for that matter her stockings either” and she didn’t know how to drive but “she knew a dozen words in French” and was born in Oak Park during a snowstorm. She was married at 18 and divorced soon after. The result of the failed union was a 5-year-old daughter, conspicuously absent from these pages. She has a perhaps irrational fear of a “prowler” breaking into her apartment and having his way with her. She keeps a tear-gas gun on the coffee table just in case.

The unraveling of their relationship begins one night when the woman is out with friends at a cabaret club. An older man, Howard, offers her a thousand dollars to sleep with him. She scoffs at the idea, but then, after dreaming of the death of her daughter, she contacts him, willing to take him up on his proposal. They go out dancing, and Howard tells a story of his former wife laughing at his sexual inadequacy on the night of their marriage. The woman starts to pity him, “and I couldn’t [sleep with him], she said. Not any more. Because I could only do it while I hated him. While I didn’t think of him as a man. Or as anything.” The woman and Howard start seeing one another. The woman breaks up with the narrator by having a mutual friend take him out to dinner at a fly-infested Italian restaurant. “Everything seemed abruptly sharper than before,” Mr. Hayes writes, “and duller, as though something had been in those few minutes drained out from the world to which I was accustomed.” The narrator then shows up at the woman’s apartment, attempts to seduce her, sees the bite marks on her neck from the older, wealthier Howard and considers beating her, “a little.” Before he can act, she fires her tear-gas gun at him.

The conclusion may lack dignity, but the beauty of Mr. Hayes’s sentences recreates the often-inexplicable agony that goes with a dying relationship. The tangled sheets on the man’s bed start to resemble “nooses.” “I was capable of dissolving at the least kind word,” he says, “and self-pity, in inexhaustible doses, lay close to my outraged surface.” Anyone who’s ever crossed the street to avoid an ex is familiar with the following sentiment:

And was this, we say, later, when it’s over, really us? But it’s impossible! How could that fool, that impossible actor, ever have been us? How could we have been that posturing clown? Who put that false laughter into our mouths? Who drew those insincere tears from our eyes? Who taught us all that artifice of suffering? We have been hiding all the time; the events, that once were so real, happened to other people, who resemble us, imitators using our name, registering in hotels we stayed at, declaiming verses we kept in private scrapbooks; but not us, surely not us, we wince thinking that it could ever have possibly been us.

That paragraph also describes the experience of reading In Love, with its “people, who resemble us.” The trauma of a bad breakup is, like a bad movie, somehow apart from reality.

This nihilism, the utter disavowal of the past, persists in Mr. Hayes’s writing. Throughout, the author attempts to demonstrate the worthlessness of it all. This is a nearly biblical novel, a parable of sorts, which moves along with such exigency that it seems as if the book’s lack of quotation marks is a result of the author simply not having time to scribble them in. The action that transpires can be boiled down to one timeless principle: people hurting one another and moving on and not learning anything. The couple briefly reconciles for a doomed trip to the Jersey Shore. Everything is closed, and they end up in Atlantic City, the most specific and evocative place in the book, which resembles something out of Dante, “feeling all wrong … with its shabby dirty-sand look.” They share this exchange:

It’s a nice view, I said.

Yes.

Know what?

She turned slightly.

What?

I love view, I said.

This comes across as cute at first, but it stings once it settles in. Spoken aloud, “I love you” is so arbitrary a phrase, Mr. Hayes suggests, that it can be rendered essentially meaningless—not to mention grammatically inaccurate—and still sound exactly the same as it always does.

mmiller@observer.com