of Evan S. Connell’s The Diary Of A Rapist
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/26/06
Evan S. Connell’s The Diary Of A Rapist fails as a novel for two large reasons. First, is the technical reason that its usage of small diary entries limits the point of view of his narrator, the rapist Earl Summerfield, which necessitates his not portraying fully his own predicament because the character simply cannot. By contrast, in Connell’s two masterpieces of prose, Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge, the short sections, written in an omniscient mode, allowed a brushstroke technique that slowly built indelible portraits in poetic touches. But, even were the tale to have been told in a more conventional manner, or in the same style that Connell sketched the Bridges, the work would still fail because Connell is unable to fundamentally grasp the mind of a criminal, or the concept of evil, instead relying on the worst narrative clichés imaginable.
The tale is rather simple: in an unspecified year, presumably the mid-sixties (the book was published in 1966), a miserable twenty-six, then twenty-seven, year old clerk, at a California State Unemployment Bureau in San Francisco, hates his thirty-three year old fat wife Bianca, a schoolteacher and later Vice Principal, and lusts for a younger prettier girl he eventually rapes. He does not meet her until well into the year and instead of portraying a mundane soul with violent outbursts, the archetypal rapist, Connell sketches Summerfield as if he were a schizoid from day one. Worse, the rapist is somehow aware of his schizophrenia, and able to convey it in his diary, which makes it all the less unrealistic a premise. What makes certain criminals truly scary is how truly average they are, not how deranged and bizarre. Yes, Summerfield is a loser, as are many violent criminals, but if you met him in real life you could see his twitching, oddities, and incoherent ramblings a mile away, and run for cover. Connell indulges other clichés: Summerfield hates his job, obsesses over violence, is paranoid of his wife’s snooping, sees himself as morally superior, is envious of others’ successes, fancies himself a great man, a poet, an artist, etc. Having known many criminals, including rapists, this simply is a Hollywood version of a rapist, not a real version. Connell has always been a bit of a maverick in the publishing world, but this book reads like a bad screenplay that was turned down once too often, and got worse and more trite with rewrites, then was tried to be salvaged in novel form. After the rape, of course, Summerfield loses his mind and soul into utter incoherence.
Perhaps in the mid-1960s, right before the horrors of Vietnam were to scar the country, this may have seemed a bold literary ploy, but Summerfield is far too trite a character to be real and instill any true fear in anyone- be it reader or occupant of his universe. And in order to capture his dullness, Connell has excised almost all prose poetry from the work, yet he does not go over the top enough with the violence. Even the rape is handled in psychobabbled mumbo-jumbo, only after a silence the day the first one occurs. The novel that this book is most often compared to, Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 American Psycho, is apt only in that both works fail. Ellis’s book details the true insanity of a total psychotic who fantasizes he’s a serial killer. While extreme in the internal violence, and barren of any real writerly skill, there is a rawness and psychological reality to the tone of that book’s lead character, Patrick Bateman, that Earl Summerfield could and should be infused with. Instead, his male sexuality is neutered, as if presaging the absurd Feminist claim that rape has nothing to do with sex. It does, ladies, that’s why it’s a sex crime, but Summerfield’s ‘diary’ reads like a hodgepodge of Freudian nonsense meant to deny the basis and cause of the character’s criminal nature. Where The Diary Of A Rapist should have an edge on American Psycho- its writer’s superior prose style, it does not, because Connell plays it far too safe, and gives a paint by numbers approach to the mind of Summerfield. He is paranoid, breaks and enters dwellings, and eventually obsesses over a beauty queen named Mara St. John. Here is one of his descriptions of her:
Then that bitch in the bathing suit climbed up on the stage wearing a cardboard crown & carrying a scepter, went parading back and forth to show off her tits. No shame. No modesty. Program said she was a dramatics student at University of California- Mara St. Johns. She looked to me like one of those professional sluts from Hollywood. If she isn’t the symbol of American rottenness, what is?
Now, think about this. Connell’s rapist is desexualized, does not seemingly fantasize nor masturbate, and loathes the rote sex he has with his wife, yet he fixates on a beauty queen, not some mousy girl he works with. Even more laughably Freudian, Summerfield is a transvestite who dresses in his wife’s clothes, when alone, looking in a mirror, and fancying that only exceptional men do such a thing, for they are always more like women, whom he sees as shrews that dominate men. These tidbits argue against the very desexualization of Summerfield Connell posits in other aspects of the tale. This is a schism, the sort that rents the portrait Connell attempts, and makes it all the more unreal. I doubt that there has ever been a true chronicle of a sexual predator, in police files, as desexualized as Connell’s protagonist. In looking up some of the original reviews for the book I came across this trite one from the New York Times: ‘He knows all the colors of darkness and the full sound of the heart’s anguish.’ Well, perhaps in the Bridge novels, but not in this very disappointing book. One might say it’s a good thing that Connell so poorly imbues his subject with realism, for writers are supposed to write what they know best, and Connell’s manifest ignorance of sexual violence can only be seen in a positive personal light. But, it makes for both sententious and tendentious reading. The only positive I can think of for the book is that it shows Connell as a writer who refuses artistic stasis, and always experiments. Still, successful experiments are worthy, while failed ones should not see print.
The first time Summerfield rapes Mara, on the Fourth Of July, it is presaged with his violent fantasies over two of his wife’s young female tutored students- Robin and Twinka, and the actual daily entry is left blank. Ugh! Only over the next few days and weeks and months do we get the hints of what occurred:
She closed around me like a glove, I can’t forget. At least not yet. Wobbling through each day wishing she was my wife- might as well admit it. I blame her for what happened, I feel no sense of guilt. Want her to admire me, still I’m disgusted by what she’s done- thinking of how clumsily she struggled & the mindless stupefaction of her gaze.
This behavior is so unlike rapists who brag of their ‘conquests’ that one suspects Connell has never had a dark sexual urge himself. As months pass, and the year winds down there is nothing but murk, inside Summerfield, and in the body of the narrative. Summerfield’s entries get shorter and more and more predictable- with Jack the Ripper like fantasies as this:
Those shears an inch from her throat, suddenly I felt a wish to marry her- I never dreamed that, God knows! I almost asked the slut. Would have, I think, but was afraid she’d start to laugh. Maybe she wouldn’t laugh at me. I don’t know. It’s too late now, she hates me. Hates all men because of me. I didn’t have any right to do what I did – it was wrong. But of course on the other hand it’s what she deserved. She’s a vile dirty little bitch. I should have ripped open her belly and snapped a picture of the mess – sent it to the Chronicle. Everybody ought to see exactly what she is. Exactly what she is. Everybody ought to see. That’s right.
And if not that, then Biblical brimstone spouting, and possibly another rape near the end of the year. Then, the entries thin out, and we are not sure whether or not Earl has been caught or commits suicide- although the latter seems the more likely, due to the text of earlier entries. The last entry is on Christmas, December 25th:
In the sight of our Lord I must be one of many.
Yet, the idea that any rapist would suicide, be it over guilt or any other reason, is just not plausible in the main, and certainly not for the character that Connell sketches in this book. Even though we know little of Summerfield’s past, the idea of this raging mess of a man suddenly giving up seems more like wishful moralizing by Connell than a genuine character study. All in all, the end only reinforces the phoniness of the whole portrait. Summerfield is neither the impotent unerotic rager that Feminists believe all rapists to be, nor is he the sexual priapic that others posit. He is neither, and thus a cipher of a character, even as Connell tries to portray him as a cipher of a person.
In short, The Diary Of A Rapist is merely a poor imitation of a true exploration of human evil, and, coming from a writer as talented as Connell, a profound disappointment, yet, oddly emblemic of his up and down, hit and miss, career. The basic conceit of the book fails because the references to himself as Earl Summerfield, as well as the many incidents offstage, are too self-consciously detailed and unlike any real diary. The whole novel reeks of artifice, lacking even the accidental poesy a real diary might have, in its relentless and focused drive toward violent hermeticism. There is a fatal schism between evil as it really is and how Connell projects it in the book, especially toward the end, when Connell begins his inevitable and trite ‘descent’ to madness and death, that ultimately dooms the book as a viable work of art, much less a genuine and believable portrait of evil. Thus, when on September 6th, Summerfield writes, ‘The more I’m stripped the more I feel pain,’ it reads not like Summerfield’s own cliché-ridden diary entry, but Connell’s novel’s cliché-ridden prose. That’s his, and the book’s, greatest crime.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Midwest Book Review website.]
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