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Hard to recall now how I first came upon The Price of Salt, the fabulously swoony lesbian love story Patricia Highsmith published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan in 1952. (Highsmith, deep in her own alcoholic closet, would not acknowledge the book publicly until 1984.) I'm guessing it was when I was a graduate student—shy, unfledged, and morbidly conscious of my unnatural leanings—at the University of Minnesota in the late '70s. Lesbian separatism was then in its zany heyday and in the vain hope of fitting in with my radical sisters, I had cut most of my hair off with pinking shears and adopted the standard in-your-face dyke uniform: men's flannel shirt, oversized waffle-stompers, and grubby Army fatigues from Minneapolis Ragstock. Not exactly what you'd call an oil painting.
In those days, when one was not busy excoriating the patriarchy, pining after straight women, or cultivating one's body odor, it was permissible—even among the hard core—to indulge in light reading of a politically acceptable sort. Recommended works of the era included Patience and Sarah, an uplifting Sapphic romance about two 19th-century pioneer ladies who lived in a log cabin, raised livestock, and snuggled up at night together in their own little quilt-covered bed (sigh); Adrienne Rich's recently published Diving Into the Wreck (poetical gleanings from the Great Lesbian Sibyl); and the various maunderings of the terminally otiose May Sarton. Along with Off Our Backs, the SCUM Manifesto, and other incendiary fare, all were to be foundat Amazon Books, our local women's bookstore. (In the postfeminist 1990s, the few remaining members of the Amazon collective—obese, purple-clad, and now as demented as the survivors of the Donner Party—would get embroiled in a domain-name dispute with Jeff Bezos. Guess who won.)
Next to such sentimental stuff, Highsmith's novel was sardonic, unwholesome, and quite dizzyingly sexy—a double scotch after chamomile tea. Highsmith is best known today for her classic thriller Strangers on a Train (subsequently turned into a film by Alfred Hitchcock) and the Tom Ripley novels—stylish international suspense fiction of a decidedly noirish cast. Yet the same dark intelligence is at work in The Price of Salt, a novel in which pulp-fiction plotting, '50s paranoia, and heavy doses of authorial cynicism combined, somehow miraculously, to produce a louche and stunningly erotic McCarthy-era love story. Frankly, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland could not compete.
The Price of Salt was subversive on a host of levels. Granted, at first glance it bore a deceptive resemblance to a lot of conventional lesbian pulp fiction of the late 1940s and 1950s. Cheesy novels about female homosexuality had become a staple of the mass-market paperback trade in the decade or so after World War II, when titles like Warped Women, My Wife the Dyke, Women's Barracks, Gay Girl, Strange Sister, and These Curious Pleasures were sold by the rackful in drug and liquor stores across the United States. Most of these productions were intended for male delectation: The writing was hard-boiled, the soft-core quotient high. (Even so, most lesbians in the postmenopausal set are familiar with them. See Katherine V. Forrest's 2005 Cleis Press anthology Lesbian Pulp Fiction: The Sexually Intrepid World of Lesbian Paperback Novels 1950-1965 for an affectionate tribute to the form.)
The salaciousness coexisted with a fair amount of misogyny and homophobia. Just about all the classic lesbian pulps had the same formulaic plot: Abnormal Older Woman, beautiful and depraved, preys on Innocent Yet Susceptible Young Girl. Titillating scenes involving whips, red fingernail polish, and Frederick's of Hollywood undergarments usually ensued. After a lot of boozing, erect nipples, and wriggling in and out of tight girdles, the IYSYG was inevitably saved from her life of perversion by a Real Man. The RM would awaken "normal feelings" in her just in time to carry her back to the Land of Heterosexuality. The AOW—freakish, unnatural, filthy-minded—typically disappeared or committed suicide. And a good time was had by all!
Highsmith's novel preserved the trashy, sexy feel of the pulps but combined it with a grown-up love story that turned the tables. The heroine, Therese Belivet, is a classic IYSYG: When the novel opens, she is working as a temporary sales clerk at Christmas in the toy department of a large New York department store. She's 19, we learn—lonely, semi-orphaned—and has moved to the city in hopes of becoming a stage designer. Without really intending to, she has managed to acquire a self-absorbed suitor named Richard whose lumpish sexual overtures leave her dismayed. (Highsmith is surely the first major writer to capture from deep inside that mysteriously appalled, don't-want-to feeling many budding lesbians experience while attempting—for form's sake—to make it with a guy. "It made her feel self-conscious and foolish, as if she stood embracing the stem of a tree.")
Things heat up dramatically when an unknown woman in furs—blond, 30ish, and as cool and laconic as Barbara Stanwyck in Walk on the Wild Side—visits the Frankenberg's toy department in search of a doll. For reasons she can't yet understand, Therese is instantly, tumultuously, attracted to her. ("Her eyes were gray, colorless, yet dominant as light or fire, and caught by them, Therese could not look away.") The woman seems to divine Therese's confusion, and, while Therese struggles to maintain a businesslike demeanor, scrutinizes the younger woman curiously. After considerable nervous fumbling, Therese locates a suitable doll and arranges to have it sent to the woman's home in New Jersey. Watchful, half-amused, the dazzling stranger departs with a smile, but not before Therese has memorized her name—Mrs. H.F. Aird—and the address she scrawls on a c.o.d. slip.
Highsmith has to be one of the boldest plotters in the history of the modern novel, a maker of gambits that shouldn't work but nonetheless do. In order to bring woman and girl back together again—this first meeting being portentous but all too brief—she executes a characteristically weird yet gratifying maneuver. Like a sort of sapphic idiot savant, Therese decides to send the woman a Christmas card, but in an odd fit of diffidence leaves it unsigned except for her employee number, 654-A. No matter. As in the giddiest wish-fulfillment dream, the girlish self-abnegation works a charm. Carol—for such is the beautiful Mrs. Aird's first name—calls the store, discovers 654-A is Therese, and fantastically enough, makes a lunch date with her. Before long, bewildered yet as euphoric as a lottery winner, Therese is trekking out to visit Carol at her large house in the country. For the lesbian reader, dare one say, the whole uncanny sequence is almost too intoxicating to endure.
Yet, not surprisingly, a number of trials follow. In the middle of a nasty divorce, Carol is locked in a legal battle with her husband over custody of their 5-year-old daughter. Therese struggles to hide her infatuation even as Carol—teasing, ironic, hard-drinking—flirts with her fairly outrageously. Both Richard-the-dopey-boyfriend (now badgering Therese to marry him) and Harge, Carol's oafish husband, grow suspicious of their intimacy. In the novel's crucial sequence, the two women embark, Thelma-and-Louise-style, on a headlong cross-country car chase pursued by the private detective that Harge has set on their trail. I've often thought that Nabokov must have stolen the cross-country car trip in Lolita (1958)fromHighsmith's novel: Therese and Carol, budding sexual outlaws, travel across the same kitschy, motel-studded, American highway landscape later traversed by Humbert and Lolita. And as in Lolita, the sexual tension grows—almost unbearably—with each night the pair spend in cheap hostels or tourist cabins. When everything finally breaks open—shudderingly, voluptuously, breathtakingly, in a tacky little hotel in Waterloo, Iowa—one feels like calling up 1-800-FLOWERS and sending the fugitives a bouquet.
Fab, of course—but what makes the book an exquisite, gobsmacking, pussy-tingling treat is the fact that Highsmith, closeted or not, never loses her nerve. Yes, the detective catches up with Therese and Carol—he's been wiretapping their conversations and has definitely got the goods. And Carol, in a guilty panic, abandons Therese and returns home. Everyone drinks and mopes for a while. But in the end Highsmith reverts to pure (Sapphic) Shakespearean comedy. By a series of miraculous turns, Harge and Richard are routed, along with various other Real Men the women encounter along the way. Carol not only fails to commit suicide, she soon recovers her Stanwyckian aplomb and moves into a Manhattan apartment, quite unlike other Abnormal Older Women in pulp fiction. Therese, learning that some of her set designs have been accepted by a famous theater director, is suddenly confident enough to quit being an IYSYG and finds herself flirting, knowingly enough, with a beautiful movie actress at a Manhattan cocktail party. All the more satisfactory, then, her final realization: the beautiful movie star is a bore, Carol still the One. ("It would be Carol, in a thousand cities, a thousand houses, in foreign lands where they would go together, in heaven and in hell.") When last seen, Therese has just tracked Carol down in the "Elysée bar," and, dizzy with joy, walks resolutely toward her.