I don’t even think I can write a recap of The Haunted One; I think I’m just going to do a chronological list of how much I hate each and every character in this book except Joan (run, Joan, run: do not stick around to date the horrible main character) and possibly Jean (the main character’s sister).
(Aside from Joan and Jean we also have Jody and Jane. I’m not making this up. I think the writer was actively trying to make me hate this book.)
To be fair, the book was gripping enough that I didn’t rage-quit it, and it was well written. Unfortunately it was well written in that style that gets called “beautifully written,” which in this case means characters in this book feel a lot of deep emotions very vaguely and for no discernible reason. It’s like if Jonathan Franzen somehow pulled Holden Caulfield into the real world and reproduced with him.
This book is just not for me. It’s a teenage boy book, or a male-MFA-student book.
It starts out as a perfect summer for eighteen-year-old Paul Barrett. A championship swimmer, he lands a plum job as a lifeguard on a beach at a New Jersey resort. It gets even better when he meets the beautiful Jody Miller, a ballet dancer on vacation. In fact, it’s love at first sight….
But all that changes the day he sees Jody, crying out to him for help far out beyond the breakers.
Time is running out. He can’t reach her. Not today, not ever. But Jody can reach him — on the phone, on the street, at the beach.
And Paul is about to become…
The Haunted One
The book opens with Paul getting a phone call from a girl claiming to be Jody Miller, “the girl you let die.”
It’s perfectly obvious from the get-go that this book isn’t about a ghost: it’s about someone getting some sort of revenge on Paul for Jody’s drowning. But that’s a point in its favour, in my opinion anyway. You know going in that the “supernatural” events are going to have a reasonable explanation. Reasonable-ish, I mean.
In chapter two Paul gets a summer job as a lifeguard. He’s hired by Joe Carson:
The man turned and looked squarely at Paul.
“Call me Joe from now on.”
Paul nodded and felt a glow start within him, warm and pleasurable.
“All my men do, and that’s how I want it.”
Carson hired on no women. They never came aboard. Not in all his thirty years as chief. The town board looked the other way and left him alone. (p. 6)
Oh goody, we’ve got some old-school Hemingway-esque sexism to go with our short choppy Hemingway-esque sentences. Joy.
I already hate Joe Carson, even though I tried really hard not to, telling myself that he’s a relic of another era, and probably gruff but kindhearted or what the hell ever. It didn’t work, mainly because he ISN’T gruff but kindhearted: he’s a terrible employer and a judgemental creep. But I digress. So far the hate count is: 1. Joe, for being a sexist dick, and 2. the entire town board, for looking the other way.
Paul lifeguards lifeguardily, and one day saves a sailor. I think this is included so the reader sees Paul as a good guy, but for some reason it just makes me continue hating everybody:
There were the usual routine rescues. Really nothing much there. But once, on a very rough day, he went far out to pull in a drunken fisherman who had fallen out of his boat, and another time he fought a heavy current to rescue a sailor who had never learned to swim but thought that high noon at Cordell beach was the perfect time and place to try.
The sailor came from a small farm in Kansas.
His old mother wrote Paul a letter thanking him for saving her only child’s life. It was a fervent and heartwarming letter. Paul kept it folded in his wallet but never showed it to anyone.
Not even to Joe Carson. (p. 11)
3. the fisherman for fishing from a boat while drunk
4. the sailor for being an idiot
5. the sailor’s mother for giving Paul even more reason to think of himself as noble and heroic and male, because holy crap, it just DRIPS off of him in sticky threads of arrogance, and
6. the writer, for not having enough commitment to his sparse writing style to abstain from writing “usual routine rescues.” That is redundant. The ghost of Hemingway weeps, alone, in a bar.
Paul is working up one end of the beach where there aren’t all that many people, and he’s passing the time by smoking joints sometimes. And bang, there goes Paul straight onto the hate list:
He’s making plans to keep his lifeguard job in the summers while he goes to university, and then go on to the school of architecture at Yale.
Why not Yale?
That’s the top and I’ll get there. I sure will.
And after that?
Paul would smile to himself and then think of his two sisters. One married and living in Chicago, settled into being a homemaker and mother.
The other, Jean, a lawyer in San Francisco.
A lawyer not interested in making money but in helping people who needed help.
Somewhat a loner.
In a way like him.
Not too many friends.
She lived with a fellow but wouldn’t marry him. Jean always did what she wanted to do. That’s why she broke away early and went out to the coast. (p. 13)
Jean is one of the two named characters in this whom I don’t hate, for the record. (I don’t hate the other sister, either, but she doesn’t get a name or any further mention.)
Paul feels a lot of foreboding and whatever, and meanwhile, a girl shows up and sits near his lifeguard station sometimes. There is insta-love, at least on Paul’s part, for absolutely no damned reason:
She would come in the late afternoon and stay on into the evening, until the setting sun stained the western sky with broad bands of bronze. Then she would slowly gather up her things and turn and walk away from the stand, down the silent beach, Paul’s eyes following her until she disappeared from sight.
And at that instant he would feel deserted and alone, as if he had lost something very precious, never to be found again.
But the next day she would be back, seeking the shade of the stand.
And he would feel restored again. (p. 15)
JFC, much more of this drivel and I’ll drown her myself.
She’s a green-eyed blonde-haired ballet dancer, and her name is Jody Miller. She lives in New York, and is obviously older than Paul, since he’s a high school kid. They talk, she’s over-impressed with Paul for liking the ballet, and then we get this:
A soft breeze came up and made her hair stray. He watched her put her hand to her head and stroke the wandering strands into place with a graceful, simple motion.
He had sometimes watched his mother do that with the same graceful gesture.
And he remembered how his mother had once been a beautiful woman and then almost overnight lost it all.
One grey winter morning he looked at her, and she was having an argument with his sister Jean, and the beauty was gone. Vanished. Never to return.
He remembered feeling a great pity for his mother. And a heartbreaking anger.
One should hold on to one’s beauty—tight—and not go about and destroy it before its time.
That is what she had done.
Paul kept looking at Jody and then out to the water. (p. 24)
I hate everything right now. I hate Paul so much I should be allowed to count him twice. I hate Jody for not pushing him into the sea or burying him alive in the sand.
Paul is late leaving his station one night and Joe Carson comes looking for him. It’s the beginning of Paul’s fall from grace in Joe’s eyes, I think.
Paul’s friend Ralph invites him to come out with him and Joan (who Paul dated once before), and Paul agrees, but then Jody invites him out for coffee and he forgets everyone else exists. She likes him.
She’s in her twenties. I don’t know if I hate her for dating a guy who still has a year of high school left, or if I hate her for liking him in the first place. But either way:
Here are least surprising sentences in the history of sentences:
Later on, when he looked back on it, he found that he had done most of the talking. And it was all about himself. She wanted to know everything about him. (p. 33)
She calls him a Greek God. Please stop encouraging him, Jody. Please.
She also tells him that she feels that “something terrible is going to happen to her.” I’m pretty sure it already has, Jody, and it’s called “Paul.”
She leaves him a letter asking him to stop wearing his black sunglasses, and breaking a date because she’s had to go back to the city for some reason. But, the text informs us, he’s already seen her alive for the last time.
Joe Carson says there’s something about Paul’s eyes he doesn’t like, which I think is an oblique way of saying “you look stoned out of your effing gourd, son,” but Paul continues smoking up on the job.
Being stoned, he initially ignores the sound of someone calling for help. When he finally recognizes Jody’s voice and swims out, he’s too late. She’s dead.
Joe Carson finds the stubbed out joint in the sand and knows exactly what happened, and goes from sympathizing with Paul to blaming him. And, well, yes: it is his fault. (Although swimming to Paul’s lifeguarding station from the main beach all alone in the evening “to surprise him” sounds like kind of a dumb thing to do, really.)
School starts up. Paul is melancholy.
They came here and took her away and buried her in some small cemetery in some small Midwestern town and that’s the end of her.
And of me.
How well I know that.
Joe Carson didn’t even say a word to me again. Not a word. Just went down south to the Florida beaches and that’s it.
Wrote me off as a disgrace to the profession and a traitor to his friendship. (p. 52)
I don’t actually mind Joe being angry with Paul for getting stoned on the job. But a grown-ass man should not be having “friendships” with his teenage employees, let alone feeling betrayed when one of them turns out to be a jackass.
Paul’s sister Jean calls and tries to persuade him to come stay with her for a while, and it’s obvious that she’s worried about him, and his mother must be too. Neither of them know what’s wrong, though, which baffles me. If your teenage brother/son was working as a lifeguard and then a young woman drowned, wouldn’t you have heard about it or read it in the newspaper or something?
Jody starts phoning him. I mean, it’s very obviously not Jody, but Paul thinks he’s either being haunted or losing his mind. Paul’s mother takes three phone messages from “Jody” and still has no idea who Jody was or that she’s dead or anything.
Paul phones the hotel, and Jody’s registered there, in the same room she had last time.
Paul visits his friend Ralph, who tries to persuade him to come out with him and Jane and Joan. Paul thinks gloomy thoughts about how isolated we all are from each other.
He has fretful dreams in which Joe Carson condemns him.
Now Paul has started seeing Jody: sitting alone on the top of a Ferris wheel, having coffee in a mall where he’s been dragged along by an adoring Jean.
They went over to the counter, and as they stood waiting for their order to be filled, he put his arm around her shoulder.
She flushed and looked up at him.
“It’s good to be with you, Paul,” she said in a low and tremulous voice.
And he realized how much and how desperately she cared for him.
“Good to be with you, Joan,” he murmured.
He wanted to take his arm away, but he did not want to hurt her.
He let it stay there.
Joan, he said to himself, it’s too late for us. Can’t you see that? Jody has come in and taken my life away with her. (p. 101)
Well, no, Paul, she can’t see that, because you’re only THINKING the part about it being over between you. In the real world outside your head where Joan lives, you’ve just gone on a date with her, put your arm around her, and told her it’s good to be with her. That makes it NOT HER FAULT that she can’t see you’ve moved on because of your tragic death-y teenage love.
I should hate Joan for liking this jackass in the first place, but instead I’ve just redoubled my hatred for Paul.
On their way home Paul confides in Joan about Jody, which is the first step in resolving anything, because Joan is literally the only person in town with a clue to spare.
Meanwhile the haunting has escalated, and “Jody” is urging Paul to kill himself, which he seems to be considering. I mean, he doesn’t USE the word suicide, but he spends a lot of time alone on the beach staring out to sea being intensely vague.
He thinks about his mother:
I know you’ve had your share of disappointments in this life. Dad was and is a disaster to you. And Jean drives you up the wall with her life-style. (p. 119)
Her life-style. Her life-style of being a LAWYER who hasn’t gotten MARRIED is driving you up the wall?
Hate count: 9. Paul’s mother.
Then the all-important ALL MALE scene of forgiveness happens. Because although Jody is the one who died, Paul just knows she’d want him to be happy; and although Joan is sympathetic and cares for Paul, that’s no substitute for having a conversation with his Korean-war-vet, no-son-of-my-own, my-bride-died-young former employer. Women, you see, helplessly fall in love and sometimes helplessly die, but men have DEEP SERIOUS FEELINGS.
Joan having told Joe that Paul is on the verge of a breakdown, Joe seeks him out:
“Paul, I’ve been looking all over for you. You’re on my conscience, son.”
Paul turned away from him and didn’t speak.
“I was very bitter with you. Over what you did,” Joe said.
“You had a right to be,” Paul murmured.
“Maybe I did. But I shouldn’t have made out the harsh report I did on you. The same one I sent to Jody Miller’s sister.” (p. 126)
Yes, that’s right: Jody Miller had a sister. A TWIN SISTER. The next time she shows up to “haunt” Paul he tells her he knows who she is, but she insists Joe was lying to him, because “he hates you as much as I do,” and insists that “a little push and you’ll be over the brink,” which again seems to be about pushing him to commit suicide (rather than literally shoving him over a cliff).
Oh, right: hate count. 10. Jody’s twin sister, who doesn’t get a name.
It’s been irking me off all along that Jody fell in love with Paul, and that Joan is ALSO in love with Paul, but apparently that wasn’t enough for the author, because now we get this:
“Jody told me everything about you. Everything. How much she loved you. And I came to love you just as much as she did.”
Her eyes looked desperately up into his.
“Even more, Paul.”
“Even more,” he whispered.
“Yes.” (pp. 134-135)
I have gone over the rage cliff and landed on the sands of laughing-until-I-cry.
Unnamed Twin Sister pulls a gun on him, but he monologues at her until she loses the will to shoot him. He takes the gun from her and throws it out to sea, and then the author destroys what’s left of my will to live:
He reached his hand out to her and touched her shoulder.
She trembled and he saw how much she still loved him.
He held her close and it was the same as holding Jody, and he closed his eyes with the sweet pain, and when he opened them again she was gone out of his arms and he stood there.
Watching her slowly disappear.
Into the waning night. (p. 136)