Groggy from Stolen Phenobarbs


From the Archive

James Leo Herlihy.


In recent years, I’ve taken to buying the oldest issues of The Paris Review, despite the fact that the entire run is now available digitally right here on the website. There’s a certain joy in paging through the actual paper, the names within both familiar and unfamiliar, the styles waxing and waning with the years, sometimes bringing to them a level of obscurity that feels utterly lost. But other times, there might come a name I don’t recognize, and with it a story or poem that draws me toward something essential, something I didn’t know I needed.

For me, James Leo Herlihy was just such a surprise. I still don’t really know how to say his last name without sounding like an idiot, and this alone may have provided reason enough for me to read the first piece of his I encountered in a crumbling physical copy of The Paris Review’s ninth issue, Summer 1955, and titled, perhaps fittingly (or not), “A Summer for the Dead.” 

The story is, at heart, about friendship of a sort, of oddly reclusive Wesley Stuart, tenant in a Pasadena rooming house during one long, overheated (in more ways than one) summer, and his friendship with Earl Walker, a blind tenant who seems, at first, to wholly invade Wesley’s life. But the story, like all great stories, is more than this. In its pages are worlds within worlds, a kind of mania of vision, a burning heat and an almost transcendental bubbling over of desire that eventually explodes into violence.

It’s an odd story, but perhaps not so odd as the story The Paris Review had published in its fourth issue, Winter 1953 (printed on such cheap paper that opening its pages now invited the binding to immediately run to powder in my hands). That story, “The Sleep of Baby Filbertson,” would title Herlihy’s 1959 debut fiction collection, and like “A Summer for the Dead,” it presents characters in a kind of constant extremis of desire. This time it is Rudy Filbertson and his mother Daisy, both addicted to phenobarbitals and locked in a kind of death dance that paints the mother-son relationship with brushes similar to those used for marriage in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Fun and games indeed. (Herlihy, also an actor and playwright, later appeared in productions of Albee’s The Zoo Story in Boston and Paris.)

That Herlihy was a relatively well-known and well-regarded literary figure at one point is undeniable, although that success came later than the two pieces that ran in the Review. Still, he was name enough to appear on the cover, and during a period when the magazine was busily making a name for itself. Herlihy’s real success was to come later via the siren song of Hollywood, the great machine that made films of his novels All Fall Down in 1962, and, most importantly in terms of Herlihy’s fame, Midnight Cowboy in 1969, a film that was X-rated upon release but still managed to win big at the Academy Awards that year, garnering the Oscar for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

There is an undercurrent of sexuality in Herlihy’s work, or perhaps overcurrent, since it often seems to flow right across the surface of the text with its scent of sexual funk and frustrated pheromones. It appears in both of the stories here, as well as in his plays and novels and it is, I might add, a tragic overcurrent. That Herlihy was, at least publicly, very much in the closet about his own homosexuality is a tragedy that I hope we have, as a country, worked hard to overcome and avoid for the generations to follow. Another tragedy, although one more selfish on my part, is that he stopped publishing fiction soon after the release of Midnight Cowboy, his last published work being the novel The Season of the Witch, in 1971. And here’s yet another: Herlihy committed suicide at the age of sixty-six in 1993. His work—five plays, three novels, and two collections of stories—remain. Two of those stories are here at The Paris Review. Enjoy their terror, their sweating sexuality, and their phenobarbital haze.


Christian Kiefer’s most recent book is One Day Soon Time Will Have No Place Left to Hide.