Happy Birthday, Don’t Die: On Terry Andrews’ The Story of Harold

It came on the scene fifty years ago, spring 1974: The Story of Harold by Terry Andrews. The novel’s jacket copy invited readers to “a Dantesque excursion through a garden of tortured and unfulfilled relationships.” In the New York Times that year Richard Brickner described it as “an exceptional novel which its exceptional author is unable to kill.” None other than Edward Gorey did the paperback’s cover. It was re-issued in the early 80s. And then—and how strange, because it is one of the most alive books I’ve ever read– it mostly faded away.

Happy birthday, Harold.

In your honor, fifty beats:

  1. Terry Andrews, the author, is the pen name of George Selden, itself the pen name of George S. Thompson. Selden was a children’s book writer—maybe you remember A Cricket in Times Square?
  2. The narrator of The Story of Harold, also named Terry Andrews, is also a children’s writer, famous for a book called The Story of Harold.
  3. The book is in diary form, and many entries detail his orgies, sadistic sex, Turkish bath encounters, etc. (In a previous century, another children’s author, Hans Christian Andersen, apparently kept a detailed masturbation diary.)
  4. Though it’s hard not to mention the sex first—Terry even tells us in the opening pages, “We will have a lot of sex”—it’s also a misleading– glib, even prudish?—way to begin. There is so much sex, and yet…
  5. I could start differently and say it’s a New York City book. The street scenes reflect Terry’s desolation back to him. It’s set in 1968, pre-Stonewall, pre-AIDS, when the Greenwich Village waterfront was crumbling into the river. When conversations took place in vast caverns of pre-satellite silence.
  6. It’s also wrong to use a vertical form to write about this webbed, horizon-spreading book, but here we are—I’ve already broken up my more horizontally-inclined draft because wholeness also does not suit this incomplete story—so let me list some of its major characters, starting with Barney, a seven-year-old superfan of the children's book The Story of Harold. Terry, ostensibly as a favor to Barney’s mom (“I can’t imagine why you’re being so nice”) plays an unorthodoxly father role with Barney (“because it hurts me, you silly bitch”). 
  7. There’s also his lover Anne, whom Terry squires to the opera—he has real affection for her, but no passion: “I’m only there as a torpid witnes—to my own absence.”
  8. There’s also his S&M partner Danny, the Boston guy he meets while cruising the Bowery who asks Terry to kill him by setting him on fire.
  9. Plus another lover, Jim—and his wife and six kids. At two points Terry tells Jim he loves him, and Jim’s responses—I won’t quote them here in the hopes that those particular daggers pierce you as they do Terry—are two of the three lowest points in the book.
  10. “Friendship may be democratic, but love is totalitarian.” Because Jim doesn’t share his degree of feeling, Terry needs to serve this love in the only other way possible (hurting Jim is ruled out): killing himself.
  11. Or at least Terry thinks Jim is the reason he needs to die. We, his readers, feel the intense pain of his love, but we also get to see how the doppelganger trope at work here undermines the idea that all his misery is Jim-based. Jim is twinned with Anne. Barney is sort of twinned with Danny. And Harold and The Rat, Terry’s fictional characters, are his own doubles. There’s also some tripleting: Jim-Barney-Anne is Father-Ghost-Holy Spirit is a character called The Three Legged Nothing, is also “the Absurd Three-Legged Impossible God.”
  12. The diary begins on October 1 when Terry writes, “Again last night, for a little while, I was able not to be alive.” I fell in love with this book right at that first line, too early and against my will—I had other, already proven, serious books to read.
  13. I was going through something. I needed books (“The bliss that derives from oblivion is not a simple thing”) about desire, and masochism (on the topic of which I also read The Story of O, which was airbrushed, airless). Harold whipped me in the right way. Desire is monomaniacal—usually. This book spreads the mania around, and laughs at it.
  14. Blessed are the physical masochists, “the ones who can take it all out on their asses. They get a few hours of pleasure-pain, and then for as long as half a day, they can sit on the tingle, remembering.” With Terry, with many of us, it’s “the spirit that’s got to be whipped.”
  15. So you see, this book is about sex in the way that Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers is about pimps and murder…absolutely yes and no. When we say “This book is about ___,” we’re merely pointing to the objects or acts it contains. We say the about because the is often, especially with a great book, exists beyond report.
  16. But I can (can I? been trying for months) say the book’s impact on me has something to do with what I read directly before picking it up: Annie Ernaux’s Getting Lost, the collection of unedited diary entries of her affair with a low-level Russian diplomat. She’s walking around buying sexy shirts, losing her brilliant mind inside its own creation: her desire. It was such an enervating read I couldn’t muster the energy to throw it across the room. Her story is a hunger artist’s.
  17. If Getting Lost is Bartleby and the dead letter office (it is), then Harold is Moby Dick. Though unlike Moby Dick, which is the closest reading experience I've had to it—ecstatic—both are overblown, weird, funny, fatalistic, obsessive, charmingly voiced—Harold isn’t taught in classics courses, and I wasn’t reading it (though I’m not above this) to impress a guy.
  18. In this internet age, how cool, and unnerving, to close a book and not be able to immediately go and Google several professional reviews against which to measure one’s own instincts! (Nevermind the new releases with their blurbs blah-blahing them into greatness).
  19. That narrative charm: I imagine a man from a Breck shampoo ad, reared on Frank O’Hara poems and Kantian aesthetics (particularly the idea that beauty is a public feeling, because we never forget that Terry is talking to us)…the book seems to run on nothing more than desperate, smart, self-flagellating fumes, mixing erudition and culture with jauntiness and the freneticism of acute mental crisis. “People have no idea how blithe a suicide can be!” 
  20. Back to the kid. The presence of a child risks sentimentality, and Terry Andrews the character and Terry Andrews the writer are both already at risk of sentimentality. Is Barney Terry’s id…? But Terry already has more than enough proxies here, plus this book is blissfully uninterested in psychoanalyzing.
  21. The stories that Terry tells Barney are thinly veiled autobiography. So then is Terry the character a thinly veiled version of George Selden? Of George S. Thompson? (Or maybe I was wrong, and this book, as autofiction, is uninterested in everything except psychoanalysis?)
  22. As the child in a book by and about a children’s author, is Barney the linchpin for the reader’s fictive sense? For us to appreciate the fictional imagination at work, do we have to believe that we are also perceiving its edges bleeding into autobiography? I think yes: we have to see this novel as mostly a true story to better see its sleight of hand.
  23. And, though I maintain that “autofiction” has existed as long as the novel has, and though The Story of Harold came out a few years before anyone started using the term, it has become one of my favorite and (because Terry Andrews the author is also fictional) most mise-en-abyme examples of the “genre.”
  24. The only interview I can find with “Andrews:”: 1979, in The Advocate, with a writer named Karl Keller. Taken by what he calls the book’s “totally convincing ‘self-portrait,’” Keller tracks down its author and asks, “Are you hiding behind your pseudonym from the charge of being a literary child molester?” The reply:

My way of writing is autobiographical, in a sense, in that I set aside a long period of time and actually became the narrator or main character… I spent a whole year, in fact, ‘being’ Terry Andrews: S/M homosexual, experimental bisexual, confused trisexual– whatever– obsessed with death and drugged on life at the same time.

   25. Keller presses him, “Then you are Terry Andrews?” The reply:

“I was… A lot of the scenes in the book were true. The characters were real for me then… But I’m an entirely different person now, writing as a different person with a different kind of life going now.”

   26. Andrews/Selden did not publish any other adult book—not under either of those names, anyway.
   27. One of the stories that Terry tells Barney is “Harold and The Scream.” A scream is trapped inside a man and to release it, Harold has to burn him with a cigarette while singing a song. But when the scream escapes—“circling above their heads on the pier, in the growing darkness, going owowowowowow !—like those horrible new police sirens. And also—it was getting bigger”—Harold must use his magic to turn the scream into snow:

Away to the north the Empire State Building rose up like a tower of trembling lights. And there was abruptly this sound in the air: the scream stopped and it was as if the whole island of Manhattan had turned into some huge kind of harp. And all the avenues were the strings running up and down… And the air shuddered with the splendor of it. And finally, as Harold looked upward, the radiant black was filled with falling snow...everyone in New York looked upward and felt the snow, which had been a scream, settle softly on his face.

   28. Nowhere in this book does Terry ever decide to live.
   29. But somewhere in his manic farewell tour of his city and of his loves, he writes himself into a corner and realizes that he cannot die voluntarily either. I’ve skipped so much, but, in embracing, even reveling in, its suicide plan, the diary basically becomes its own best argument against it.
   30. At the end, there is no judgment, no “You must change your life,” no “Right action” utilitarianist epiphany.
   31. If someone here told me to write a book on morality, it would have a hundred pages and ninety-nine would be blank. On the last page I should write: “I recognize only one duty, and that is to love.” And, as far as everything else is concerned, I say no. I say no with all my strength.—That’s Camus.
   32. I’m saying some nice stuff, but I was angry when I finished this book the first time. Andrews chickened out. The only way out of this book was to kill Terry, and he couldn’t do it. In fact, I was doubly mad—he cheated his character out of his destiny, AND he maybe sealed his own fate as a writer: obscurity. My thinking went, if he had only killed Terry, maybe this book would have been taken more seriously.
   33. But then I found the Karl Keller interview and realized that Andrews/Selden did something worse (better), and in the bravest way possible—quietly.

He killed Terry Andrews the writer instead.

   34. I looked up Karl Keller. Apparently he led somewhat of a secret life too until the mid-70s. His was one of the early AIDS deaths. And he was an Emily Dickinson scholar whose favorite poem was 269:

Wild nights! Wild nights!

Were I with thee,
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile the winds
To a heart in port,
Done with the compass,
Done with the chart.

Rowing in Eden!
Ah! the sea!
Might I but moor
To-night in thee!

   35. I don’t think that was too much of a tangent.
   36. Adam Phillips in Side Effects asks us to consider how we would read a novel if we knew it did not have an ending. I am of the opinion that most novels don’t deserve this consideration (it’s my love of the form that leads me to hate!). But I went back and read Harold as if there were no ending. Doing so felt (inevitably?) like a kind of sex…

Anne vanished for a while, while I was inside her… They all vanish, the people I love—Jim does, when I’m fucking or fisting him—and leave me alone… They go into the past, or into the future, or out of time altogether. They go where real creation is, true evolution, if it exists… and they leave me in an endless conscious present.

   37.  When I read it without hope or expectation of an end, Harold becomes an endless conscious present. Maybe it always was that? And desire becomes not an “unquenched/quenched/destroyed” cycle but (just) pain, constant painful pain.
   38.  Some of us want to be everything to the people we love. And the shocking thing about Haroldis not that it contains what the Library Journal in 1974 called “the most versatile sexual repertoire to be recorded in some time,” but that it is the story of giving up proprietary love.
   39. …the story of love and care of a child outside the parameters of marriage or family or biology.
   40. …the story of love’s loose ends… Yes, I’m aware of two categories of non-proprietary loves that we allow for in 2024—ethical non-monogamy (& the incessant convos it demands) and married men on Tinder – but Harold is a different story… of love and sex and care with no claims of ownership and no guarantees of safety– only of pain. As someone who has followed romantic love to a so-called ending– marriage– twice, and who has therefore twice lived the truth of Elizabeth Hardwick’s pronouncement on the impossibility of curing aloneness (“You’re never really a married person”) perhaps the book’s non-ending shouldn’t be so hard for me to sit with.
   41. Terry tells us, his readers, that at the end, he will set us free. But because he, via the diary, rethinks the whole idea of escape, on the last page he reneges. The book’s final lines:

And as for me, my living friends– all you
Will have to live my life, so I can too.

   42. Here is where I want to give a shout-out to those “friends” who have kept Harold alive. There’s Edmund White, the only professional critic to do so, in The Guardian and New York Times calling it his “favorite book no one has heard of.” There’s also Scott W. on Blogger, Mark Monday on Goodreads, and a few people on Amazon, including someone named DN, who in 2020 wrote, “I read The Story of Harold some forty years ago and was utterly blown away. I began a very poignant correspondence with the author…[i]t’s a masterpiece and I always told Terry Andrews so. He was hardly basking in adulation.”
   43. And my favorite Amazon review:

Years ago, when this book first came on the market, I read it and became immediately enthralled. At the time, I was working in the publishing business. While I gushed my enthusiasm to any and everyone who listened, an acquaintence offered to match me up with the author I so clearly admired. The author's apparent real name was also shared with me, and I began reading those children's stories, which were every bit as haunting as that told of Harold's.

Then one day, I got a phone call. "Bruce? This is Harold. I hear you like to read," and I certainly did. A date to meet was proffered but I was speechless. Not clear on how to deal with suddenly being on stage in this new kind of play within a play, I failed to follow up on that offered date. My loss.

   44. I love to think of (who—Terry? George?) assuming the persona of a dapper three-foot tall worrywart from a children’s book that doesn’t exist to call up a guy named Bruce. “I hear you like to read”!! Is that the best come-on line ever? Or is it an author desperate to talk to a reader? And Bruce, wonderfully, sees it as “a new kind of play within a play.” (His wording reminds me of something Edmund White says about the book: “But it is a fearless performance.”) And yes, Bruce fumbles that opportunity, but his part in the story doesn’t end there. He surfaces again in a 2021 piece in The Iowa Review, “The Story of the Story of Harold,” by Steven Pfau, which begins with a letter from Steven’s uncle, named Bruce:

11 Feb 2017

Dear Steven—

I’m fascinated that you might write about The Story of Harold’s author…

Years ago, I told some friend about my interest in Harold. The friend claimed to know the author…Well…Some time later I received a call at work. “I understand you’re a reader,” caller said. “Who’s this?” “I wrote The Story of Harold.” I was stunned! Gave him my number so we could talk more easily. Never called. End of story.

Was discussing Harold with another friend who worked in publishing. Seems his office had unsold copies of Harold. He sent me a box of paperback copies. Probably 12. Over the years I distributed copies to friends. (Will says I gave it to him before he moved in with me—probably over 25 years ago.) I think I was using it as a kind of Rorschach test!

Incidentally, Will was more recently able to find a copy on Amazon—and he found some info about the author on the internet. Until then I had thought the author might be Sendak…Wrong!

Real love, Bruce

   45. Pfau connects himself to Barney, and Bruce to Terry. And he goes into Selden’s archives. It turns out the Pfau works at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, the publisher that holds the rights to Selden’s kids’ books, and he tries to get the book to Jonathan Galassi for reissue:

My colleague later told me Galassi had come down against Harold, “because he felt the world it depicted was a dead one, irrelevant to the present moment, more than any offense.” …I couldn’t think of anything else to say in defense of Harold, nor could I name a single friend of my age to whom I would unequivocally recommend the book, whose many pleasures are often spoiled by the narrator’s dated humor, casual misogyny and racism, and unapologetic snobbery.

   46.  True: Terry’s cheery celebration-of-all-peoples attitude is simply, cheerily, racist. But I guess I don’t agree that this is a reason to let any book die. I’d rather reflect on how Andrews, so smart in so many ways, could still have been dumb enough to employ dominant racist clichés. Andrews’ extreme blindspots don’t deserve justification. And Harold does not require recontextualization. (Anyway, I wouldn’t be the person to do it in the way the NYRB imprint seems to prefer, which is to say I’m neither a gay or bisexual man, nor a New Yorker.)
   47. Is The Story of Harold a “great” book? Sometimes it comes across as overwritten– though isn’t the overwriting built into the voice (Terry: “the process of my own insane love is to shout its stupid fucking head off”)? Sometimes I feel like this writer can’t handle all the pieces of his story, but also, isn’t spotting the masking tape also part of the intense delight?
   48. There are so few copies of Harold online, none affordable, and the chances of a public library having it were nearly nil, but my city, Providence, is often the land of funky 70s leftovers, and there it was in hardcover, its red spine bleached nearly white from four decades of dustlight.
   49. The way that Ishmael marvels to see Stubb eating whale blubber—“That mortal man should feed upon the creature that feeds his lamp, and, like Stubb, eat him by his own light”—Do I want to say something here about the way critics eat books by their own light? Or the way that the reader consumes Terry Andrews the writer by living through Terry Andrews the character?
   50. Halfway through the book I had a thought, “Wait, is Harold actually his penis?” You could read this novel thinking you’re clever enough to see that the children’s book character Harold, the little do-gooding magic guy, is really a stand-in for Terry’s penis. But Terry straight-up tells us that on page 19. It’s just that I had started taking the whole book so seriously. I forgot for a second that frivolity is no less truthful.

Darcie Dennigan’s book-length poem Commander! is forthcoming from Canarium in 2025. She has a PDF of Harold to share with interested parties. For Annulet, she serves as a Critic-at-Large.