There’s potential resonance for older East End readers in Anne Bernays’ short, well-written novel, The Man on the Third Floor (The Permanent Press). Set in the ’50s, the story, according to publishers Judy and Marty Shepard, turns on the situation of the actor Tony Perkins “who moved his male lover into the home he shared with his wife.” But coincidentally, the story also reflects the public coming out last year of Jonathan Galassi, a married editor and publisher at Farrar Strauss & Giroux. The Shepards say that Bernays, the author of award-winning fiction and nonfiction, and a longtime writing teacher, did not know about Galassi when she wrote the book. She set the story in the literary world because this is what she
A major voice in the founding of PEN/New England, Bernays is the wife of Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Justin Kaplan, with whom she has co-authored books. Indeed, some of the most absorbing parts of The Man on the Third Floor have to do with the literary world of the mid 20th century, a time when great publishing houses took on talented authors discovered by smart and determined editors. Publishing then, as Bernays’ narrator says, was “a refuge for assorted oddballs—alcoholics, oversexed men and women, and the effetes who kept their sexual preferences hidden,” hardly the condition of publishing today, which has largely moved online. The early ’50s were also when the powerful House Un-American Activities Committee, obsessing on all things Communist, destroyed lives. As a side issue, the suicide of one such intellectual informs Bernays’ story and adds to the sense that the tale hovers close to authentic biography.
The book begins and ends with the memoir-like disclosure by Walter Samson, a well-off, assimilated Jew who is editor at a major New York publishing firm: “After news of the unusual goings-on in my house finally escaped, like a gas leak from a faulty stove, some of my so-called liberal New York City friends characterized my life using words that shocked even me: ‘deplorable,’ ‘disgusting,’ ‘unnatural,’ ‘selfish,’ ‘hedonistic,’ ‘bizarre.’” He then adds that that didn’t actually happen but that he was met “with looks of incredulity fueled by moral judgment, averted eyes, hems and haws and, in some cases, total silence.” The discrepancy reflects his ambivalence about coming out and the fact that psychologists then listed such “deviant behavior in their diagnostic bibles under ‘sickness.’”
A memorable early scene describes Walter’s Jewish heritage, precocity and bedding at sleep away camp by a counselor, but in spite of this episode and a general sense that he was different from most other boys, disappointing his macho-minded father, Walter describes himself as “heterosexual.” He went to Harvard, served in the army and married an outspoken bohemian woman given to liberal causes with whom he had two adored children. In short, Walter had a comfortable life and lifestyle, even if it lacked passion. Then one day, a stranger from a carpet company arrives in his office to take measurements and, well, the heart wants what the heart wants. The attraction is immediate and electric. Walter hires young Barry Rogers as a chauffeur (even before he has a car) and installs him on the third floor of his Upper East Side brownstone. The narrative turns on Walter’s pleasure in his newfound situation, but the reader knows from that opening paragraph that disclosure is inevitable. The love triangle works for a while, with quickie meetings and satisfaction all around—or so Walter thinks.
The reader, intrigued by how the truth will out, wishes in vain, though, for a scene as to how the outing occurs. The story also tends to veer at times into didacticism, as at the end when Walter says “It amused me, in a sick sort of way that so many people seemed to think homosexuality was catching: don’t let us work for the government, don’t let us into the armed forces, don’t let us drill your teeth, and don’t, whatever you do, let us teach math to your seventh-grader.” Though thin on plot complication and character development, the novel will prove good reading.