Death and Dread in Highsmith’s The Cry of the Owl

I don’t know the exact date it happened, but sometime in the past twenty years Patricia Highsmith went from being called a great writer to being called a lesbian writer. It’s too bad that her biography has come down to useless contemporary labeling, but if you care to reclaim Highsmith’s greatness, read her novels and ignore the fluff. I’ve just finished her The Cry of the Owl, one of her best non-Ripley books, and can’t stop thinking about it.

Robert Forester is a middle-aged engineer in Pennsylvania recently removed from New York, where his marriage to the batty Nickie went south. Robert is depressed awaiting the divorce to finalize, so he spends his free time moping about the creepy PA suburbs until he chances upon a pretty girl in a window of a somewhat remote home. The girl, Jenny, turns out to be an impressionable twenty-something, newly graduated from college and working as a bank teller, and engaged to the meatheaded Greg, what one in the late 1950s might call a square.

Jenny catches Robert peeping at her house, and two become friends. Robert explains his sadness over his broken marriage and new life, and that lately he’s been haunted by a specter of death. This middle-aged angst matches up with Jenny’s youthful ignorance, and a dread match is made. Jenny falls for Robert, breaks off her engagement to Greg, and a series of frightening yet believable encounters take place.

Highsmith’s writing is tops, as are her descriptions of the characters, each of whom get a few chapters told from their own perspective. Robert, debating one evening whether or not to visit Jenny’s yard to stare at her, is “aware that part of his brain was arguing like a suddenly eloquent orator who had jumped to his feet after being silent a long while.” Each main character gets many moments of revelation like this, all of it rewarding and none of it dull.

The Cry of the Owl is not a 4/4-timed simpleton genre novel, but rather a great unfolding narrative on dread and casual brutality, a story of how people affect others whether they know it or not. And it isn’t a downer despite the bleak tone. The humor emerges in the interactions between characters; between the blustery dumb Greg who yearns to fight with Robert but can’t, because Robert is cool and removed and won’t engage him; or within Jenny and her own puttering about in a state of gloom, which we recognize as prolonged teen angst, mixed in with strange admiration for an older talented man.

Highsmith’s strengths are her writing–she seems a natural writer, even if no such thing exists–and her ability to let her characters get wound tightly with their own fears, real or imagined, and then let them stew until conflicts become inevitable. I write “inevetable” but I do not mean “common” or “routine”; I had know idea where scenes and arguments were headed in The Cry of the Owl, and was constantly surprised.

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