Review: Living Upstairs by Joseph Hansen


by Renee Manley

From the Publisher

When Hoyt Stubblefield ambles into the cavernous bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard where nineteen-year-old Nathan Reed works, his good looks and wry Texas charm hold the boy spellbound. Within a week, Nathan has packed up his few belongings and moved in with Hoyt – into his upstairs rooms in a rickety old house, and into his bed. And so Nathan embarks on the happiest adventure of his young life, and the most ominous. For Hoyt inhabits not just the world of ideas, books, music, and paintings, which Nathan eagerly shares with him, but a secret world as well, a world of danger Hoyt forbids the young man to enter. Against the vividly evoked background of shabby side-street Hollywood in the 1940s, Joseph Hansen draws on his own real-life memories to people Living Upstairs with a large cast of colorful, outrageous, tragic, and hilarious characters from those far-off times. On a deeper level, this is a love story about lies, dangerous acquaintances, and the betrayal of innocence. Its often sunny hours are shadowed by masks, mirror images, and merged identities, by murky politics and paintings so dark their naked sexuality is almost hidden. Last, and first, it is haunted by an unsolved murder.

Review

Joseph Hansen’s Living Upstairs is a disappointing book despite its intriguing premise (I actually love the setting and the basic storyline). The presentation was, to me, too dry and bland, and of all the characters involved, only Nathan stuck with me. The story’s written in present tense from start to finish, which can put some readers off, but that’s not the problem.

The writing’s devoid of emotion. Hansen’s style is sparse, and I mean sparse. Short and choppy, his sentences tested my patience after a while because they forced a certain distance between me and the characters that I simply couldn’t bridge. It’s the same effect that Hemingway’s writing has on me (which is why I dislike Hemingway so much). The characters are almost interchangeable, and since I couldn’t get myself to care for any of them (save for Nathan), I couldn’t remember who they were whenever they appeared in a scene. Though we have Nathan for the main character, the large cast lends the novel the feel of an ensemble movie, which isn’t bad if it weren’t for the risk the writer runs while attempting what would’ve been fascinating character studies. And they are fascinating if one were to consider the quirks of each man or woman who appears in any given scene. Unfortunately, they come away feeling anemic in varying degrees, again because of the emotional distance created by Hansen’s style and because there are so many subplots being juggled at the same time. Nathan and Hoyt move within Hollywood circles, so everyone’s work is practically the same (writer, talent scout, actor, and a variety of sleazebags), and that makes it even more difficult to distinguish one character from the other.

The erotic elements of the novel are beautifully rendered, however. Hansen touches on them in fleeting, subtle ways, so much so that one’s imagination is stoked enough and then allowed to explore on its own (certainly a far, far cry from the step-by-step sex-scene-writing techniques that seem to pervade many erotic titles nowadays). In this case, Hansen’s staccato literary style works to perfection. And while the characters aren’t as interesting as they can be, the pathos of their respective situations can be sensed and appreciated if only on a very small, very limited scale.

As far as Nathan goes, I liked him because he’s such a sweet, naïve kid, but he does pose a few problems. What can be his greatest flaw is that he’s a bit of a cliché. He’s young, he’s innocent, he’s bumbling his way through the story, and everyone wants to shag him. Whether or not you want to, you’ll always be reminded of how devastatingly beautiful Nathan is because he’s always getting groped, propositioned, kissed, and called Adonis by men and women alike.

A real shame. I read the book description and loved what I saw, but it was a frustrating process for me in the end.

Buy it

2 Responses

  1. Joseph Hansen is one of my favourite authors. I love his Dave Brandstetter series, and I really like his books about Nathan Reed. I think I read somewhere that they’re almost autobiographical, which makes them all the more interesting to me.

    Since you weren’t that keen on “Living Upstairs” you probably haven’t read the pre-quel “Jack of Hearts” or the sequel “The Cutbank Path”. I liked both of them as well, although the latter goes off in a direction that I didn’t really like.

    Unfortunately Joseph Hansen passed away before he could write more books about Nathan – I believe he was planning a series about him.

    Just wanted to offer a different perspective – I think all of Joseph’s books need to be read by more people.

  2. Thanks so much for your comment! Yes, I appreciate hearing from as many readers as possible. I’m actually tickled that you responded here since one of the things I did during the Christmas holidays was reread a couple of old books, and Living Upstairs was one of them. I found myself liking the book more than when I first read it, largely because I’m slowly developing an appreciation for Hansen’s distinctive prose style (and I once again realized how much I adore Nathan).

    Thanks so much for sharing the other titles of his books! I’ll snag myself copies and will be posting reviews here down the road. And, yes, it’s a shame that Mr. Hansen passed away before finishing his series. It would have been great seeing how Nathan developed as a gay man through the 50s and possibly the 60s.

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