Prisoners of the Page: On Myron Brinig’s “The Flutter of an Eyelid”

June 5, 2021   •   By Woody Haut

The Flutter of an Eyelid

Myron Brinig

IT MUST HAVE BEEN over 20 years ago that I first became obsessed with the seldom-spotted existence of Myron Brinig’s Southern California–based 1933 novel The Flutter of an Eyelid. It had been mentioned in two related but very different books I’d been reading, Mike Davis’s Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster and Kevin Starr’s Material Dreams: Southern California Through the 1920s. Had I been paying more attention, I would have remembered a similar shout-out in Carey McWilliams’s seminal 1946 Southern California: An Island on the Land. It wasn’t just the novel’s evocative title that grabbed me, but the descriptions of its setting and devastating finale, as well as the controversy surrounding it in its own time. Back then I thought I knew a bit about California fiction from the 1930s, but here was a book I’d never seen, much less read. And for good reason. In spite of, or maybe because of, its merits, Brinig’s novel had then been languishing in obscurity for over half a century. Fortunately, thanks to this elegant edition from Tough Poets Press, with complementary illustrations by the renowned Lynd Ward, Flutter has, after some 90 years, finally risen to captivate anew.

Given their respective agendas, Davis and Starr emphasized different aspects of Brinig’s novel. As a leftist cultural critic, Davis applies, as one might expect, a political lens, referring to Flutter as a “savage satirical novel that end[s] in mock apocalypse,” a precursor to — and arguably more original than — Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, which was published six years later. Meanwhile Starr, the former state librarian and eminent California historian, presents Brinig’s novel simply as one of the more interesting, eccentric, and scandalous works in a litany of neglected works from that era. In fact, Starr appears to be more impressed by the audacity of the novel than by its literary qualities, much less its prognostications regarding geographical retribution for the populations’ excesses and sins.

Davis’s special interest lies in Southern California catastrophe literature, a subgenre that, at the time of Flutter’s publication, had yet to become as fashionable as it would in subsequent years. He claims that from 1931 to 1940 Los Angeles had been decimated in literature on at least seven occasions. With its literal and figurative fault lines, California, and L.A. in particular, seemed destined, even in the 1930s, to meet an untimely end — an end that would, for various retributionists, be its just comeuppance for decadence, economic inequalities, real estate speculation, cults, quackery, and the obsession with celebrity.

Davis make a further claim — namely, that Brinig was one of the first novelists to suggest a destructive correspondence between evangelicalism and not only bohemia, but the various cults of which Californians have always been so fond. That said, Starr, though largely apolitical, had the nous to place Flutter amid a handful of other relatively unacknowledged 1930s classics, such as You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up by Richard Hallas (pseudonym of Eric Knight), The Long Haul by A. I. Bezzerides, Count Ten by Hans Otto Storm, or the better known They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy. Of those novels, it’s You Play the Black to which Flutter might best be compared. In many ways, Flutter reads like a cross between Hallas’s dark novel and an array of other, more diverse works, from Evelyn Waugh’s to James Branch Cabell’s, with perhaps a soupçon of Wyndham Lewis, whose The Apes of God is accented by a similar cattiness. At the same time, Brinig’s novel is so original that it is quite capable of holding its own in such company.

Born in Minneapolis in 1896, Brinig grew up in Butte, Montana, where his Jewish Romanian father ran a dry goods store catering to local miners and their families. Brinig would attend NYU, followed by a spell working for Darryl Zanuck’s studios in Fort Lee. By the time Flutter appeared, he had already published five novels. This one appears to have been the result of a short, but uncomfortable, stay in Los Angeles at the beginning of the 1930s. At the time, Brinig was by all accounts on a fast track to literary notoriety — one that, in the year of Flutter’s publication, took him to New Mexico, where he was feted by that doyenne of Taos, Mabel Dodge Luhan. She was so impressed by Brinig, who she thought might become an American D. H. Lawrence, that she suggested he help write her memoirs. Brinig claimed the rough draft of Luhan’s life was “one of the most damning arraignments of modern white society in literature.” After he placed his stamp on her story, the two had a falling-out, echoing what one suspects had taken place in Southern California a couple years earlier. Luhan achieved her revenge in a 1935 short story, “Derision Is Easy,” in which she portrayed Brinig as a voyeur seeking to penetrate the inner lives of others to use in his fiction. In turn, Brinig would offer a portrait of Luhan in his 1941 novel All of Their Lives, a no-holds-barred account that included the Luhan-like character’s fictional death by lightning. Brinig clearly had a fondness for such endings, with nature meting out revenge on some deserving person or population; there was also his 1937 novel The Sisters, which ends with the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

None of his other novels, however, is as strange as Flutter. His earlier books had mostly been set in Butte. The protagonist of Singerman (1929) was based on Brinig’s immigrant father; Wide Open Town (1931) depicted disputes and disasters in the local mining community, including the lynching of a character based on Wobbly organizer Frank Little (recalling Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, published three years earlier); and This Man Is My Brother (1932), also set in Montana, bravely portrayed the lives of two gay siblings. At the time, some were comparing Brinig to Thomas Wolfe, but anyone familiar with more recent novels of the West might, when reading Wide Open Town, be put in mind of Oakley Hall’s classic Warlock (1958). Yet so different is Flutter from Wide Open Town and the other novels that came before that one might be excused for thinking it belonged to some other author.

Flutter reads like an off-kilter permutation of the commonplace story about a young innocent wandering wide-eyed through Lotus Land. However, protagonist Caslon Roanoke is not a complete greenhorn; he is a “gray writer of gray novels” from Boston. Seeking to travel west for health reasons, he is offered a place to stay in Alta Vista — which Davis takes to be a fictionalized Palos Verdes, while Starr believes to be based on Laguna Beach — by theatrical agent and local resident Dwight Preston. Caslon barely knows Preston, but he’s more than willing to take advantage of his hospitality. It isn’t long before Caslon is won over to California’s ways, seduced by the sun, the people, and all that separates the free-living, manifestly destined West from the antiquated refinement of the East. But mostly he’s entranced by the fluttering eyelids of the beautiful Sylvia — it’s the eyelids, not the eyes, that are “important, beautiful, elegant, full of secrets.”

A femme fatale estranged from her wastrel artist of a husband, Sylvia delights in declaring her unobtainability, which, of course, only makes those who cross her path, whatever their gender, desire her all the more. When Caslon asks her what she does, Sylvia offhandedly replies, “I give and receive pain.” Which suits Caslon fine, at least for the moment. After all, he has no idea what she means, nor does he know that, according to Brinig, “the flutter of an eyelid may plunge an entire population to its death.” Yet an overall sense of doom does hover in the air. When not in Sylvia’s presence, Caslon can be found hobnobbing with the various bohos, including Mrs. Forgate, a middle-aged divorcée who is said to have poisoned three husbands and always keeps a copy of Proust at her side, as well as her young companion, the garage worker Antonio, who is himself involved in an intense, but strangely chaste, relationship with Hubert Daché, the local poet-in-residence.

So far, so eccentric. However, these days Flutter is known, if it’s known at all, less for its off-the-wall narrative than for its scandalous backstory. The controversy revolved around Brinig’s portrayal of Sol Mosier, a Jewish antiques dealer and Whitman- and Sandburg-influenced poet who turns out to be a thinly disguised version of legendary L.A. book dealer and poet Jake Zeitlin. Sol is described as a “tall, slightly caved-in young man whose distinguishing features were a curious nose and heavy, brown, shaggy brows that crawled in their tiny fine hairs across the tops of his eyes.” He’s also something of a self-hating Jew: “I was Judaism, compressed and clan-bound. I grew to hate it all”; “[He] wanted to be free, free of Judaism that stuck to him like glue, free of materialism, of responsibilities, free to dream.” He is as manic as he is perverse. Willing to go the extra mile to satisfy his spiritual and physical hunger, he eventually hits the road, tramping through the Southwest until, needing sustenance, he’s forced to do manual labor — which, apparently because of his background, he’s unfit to perform.

So unflattering — not least to Zeitlin — is the portrayal that in some quarters it was thought to be antisemitic. Starr agrees, writing, “Even by the most forgiving of standards Brinig’s caricature of Zeitlin edges into anti-Semitism. At best it was an insulting betrayal of the man who had introduced Brinig into the circle.” And since Starr is writing about the public version of the novel, replete with the changes Zeitlin, having threatened a lawsuit, demanded, one wonders what the unexpurgated version might have been like. Davis, on the other hand, downplays any possible antisemitism, suggesting that in portraying a self-hating Jew, distasteful tropes are likely to be unavoidable. For that matter, one could also point to Brinig’s tendency, when it comes to race, gender, and sexual orientation, to rely on a variety of stereotypes — even though his characters invariably display a complexity beyond the roles assigned to them. But, of course, it’s all too easy to find such faults in a novel published almost 90 years ago. And it should be remembered that Brinig, both Jewish and gay, consistently addressed homosexuality with more honesty than most in an era when the topic was often avoided altogether.

Over 40 years after the novel’s appearance, Zeitlin still hadn’t shaken off Brinig’s portrayal, at least according to a 1977 interview:

He made me into a very ugly character. It was, I thought, very unkind; and it was, more than that, a betrayal of an effort to be a friend to him when he was lonely and needed friends. The publishers made the mistake of sending me a set of the galleys before it came out, whereupon I immediately notified the publishers that this set of galleys, if they published the book in that form, constituted libel, [and] that I was going to take action. […] The book was not much of a book. There needn’t have been any fuss about it because it didn’t sell. Nobody took any interest in it. None of us were prominent to make good news stories. The book died on the book counters and was forgotten.

Zeitlin was right. The book did die an early death. But one wonders if there might have been other reasons besides the charge of antisemitism that led to the book’s demise. Could an element of territorial self-interest, if not latent boosterism, or, for that matter, homophobia also have contributed to the novel’s infamous reception?

It wasn’t just Zeitlin that Brinig was satirizing, but his entire circle of poets, painters, intellectuals, muses, and culture vultures. Most of them, as far Brinig was concerned, were guilty, at the very least, of bad faith, elitist notions about art and culture, and an unwarranted sense of entitlement. These Laguna Beach habitués and Palos Verdes swimming club members included the likes of photographer Edward Weston, author Louis Adamic, impresario Merle Armitage (whose lecture “The Aristocracy of Art,” published in Zeitlin’s magazine Opinion, offered a perspective that Flutter mercilessly lampoons), Hollywood Athletic Club swimmer Lee Jarvis, and Tone Price, whom Zeitlin would refer to only as a lesbian whom he held in high regard and who had followed him to Los Angeles from Texas. Price seems to be represented in Flutter by the cross-dressing Jack, a romantic avant-grade composer, who is also entranced by Sylvia. And there was in their midst, according to Zeitlin, “a very beautiful young woman whose name I can’t remember right now,” who, for all one knows, might well have been the inspiration for the fluttering Sylvia herself.

One person on the periphery of Zeitlin’s circle who managed to escape Brinig’s vitriolic pen was the aforementioned journalist and activist Carey McWilliams. Contrary to Zeitlin’s assessment, McWilliams considered Flutter to be an important work. In Southern California, he quotes from the novel’s finale as an indication of how geo-economic discrepancies might contribute to the region’s destruction — payback for its too-rapid growth and pathologies: “Los Angeles tobogganed with almost one continuous movement into the water, the shoreline going first, following by the inland communities … the small pink and white, blue and orange houses of the shore were blown like colored sands into the tempest.”

McWilliams goes on to compare Flutter’s depiction of the culture with that in two other L.A. novels, John Fante’s classic Ask the Dust and Frank Fenton’s lesser-known A Place in the Sun. In fact, Fenton was another L.A. writer to whom Brinig was well disposed — if his dedicating Flutter to the man is anything to go by. What all these novels have in common is an awareness of the dark intricacies of the city, state, and coastline, filtered through the fresh eyes of a recent arrival. It could even have been that Flutter, with its short-lived notoriety, directly influenced Fenton, Fante, Hallas, and West.

Noting the implicit politics of Brinig’s novel, McWilliams quotes another passage that tempts fate with grotesque stereotypes: “Los Angeles is a middle-aged obese woman from somewhere in the Middle-West, lying naked in the sun. As she sips from a glass of buttermilk and bites off chunks of a hamburger sandwich, she reads Tagore to the music of Carrie Jacobs-Bond.” At the same time, the atmosphere surrounding Flutter’s community is nothing if not rarefied. Willfully ignorant of anything outside their realm, they prefer days of languor in Alta Vista, punctuated by the occasional clatter of a Silver Lake dinner party where talk of art, poetry, and spiritual matters comes with lashings of gossip and verbal posturing. Unlike You Play the Black and The Day of the Locust, Flutter doesn’t strive to take in the world at large, though some of its characters attempt to do so — not only Sol, but also Lad Greengable, an athletic “blonde giant with a Greek face” (and possible a stand-in for swimming champ Lee Jarvis), who, to avoid Sylvia’s further flutterings, ventures to New Orleans, New York, and Europe, before returning to the fold. And there’s Antonio who, after Hubert’s demise, becomes entranced by a young Spanish musician. When invited to the Spaniard’s home, he discovers it belongs to the musician’s grandmother, whose family has lived in it, smack in the middle of old Los Angeles, for generations. Yet to Antonio it seems like a place and a culture as foreign as it is lost in time.

With barely a proletarian, lumpen or otherwise, in sight, there isn’t much to indicate — perhaps intentionally — that Flutter takes place in the midst of a national depression. Likewise, there’s barely any sign of the hoi polloi, other than the yokels who attend the Ten Million Dollar Heavenly Temple, overseen by Angela Flower. A caricature of Aimee Semple McPherson, Ms. Flower is clearly the unlikeliest member of this group of Alta Vista end-of-the-pier aesthetes. However, it’s only among their ilk that she can be herself, free to seek Jesus in a whiskey bottle, or snag a young ship attendant whom she can promote as the Son of God in a well-publicized Second Coming — an event that, thanks again to Sylvia’s fluttering eyelids, doesn’t end well. That part is reminiscent of a humorous item by Charles B. Hazelhurst in the March/April 1930 issue of Zeitlin’s Opinion, in which Jesus comes to Los Angeles and is swiftly arrested for holding a public meeting without a permit, blocking traffic, not being properly clothed, using a false name, and vagrancy. Brinig could well have come across the piece during his stay in the Southland.

A failed Second Coming isn’t the only indication that things are about to go wrong for Flower and her bohemian entourage, illustrating the relationship, underscored by Davis, between cults and catastrophes. That events soon spin out of control can be attributed to the novel Caslon is compulsively writing. Originally intending merely to portray his eccentric acquaintances and their activities, Caslon eventually realizes he’s no longer reporting but creating. And some of his associates sense they are anything but free agents. As Antonio says, “There is somebody else concerned in all this, someone who is pushing us relentlessly. We are mere pawns under his fingers. We are prisoners of the page, and yet we continue to live like desperate flies whose legs are entangled in the glue of a poisonous sheet.”

All Caslon can do is return to his typewriter:

At times, to be sure, Caslon was somewhat behind the actual event, an at other times he had the extraordinary experience of living through a scene that he had already set down on paper. Truth, thought Caslon, is not stranger than fiction. It is fiction and requires only an interpreter and an instrument.

As the novel rushes headlong toward a conclusion predicted by an assortment of doomsayers and religious maniacs, all of whom he has apparently conjured up in the writing of his tale, Caslon is unable to finish. Envisaging the worst, he retreats to the East, unsure if his manuscript even exists or was just a figment of his over-worked imagination.

Published in the same year as the Long Beach earthquake of 1933 — a case of life imitating art imitating life — Flutter seemed fated to be buried in the rubble. As the years passed, not even Brinig’s advocates were willing to acknowledge its worth, or, in some cases, its very existence. For instance, in his seven-page introduction to Sweetgrass’s 1992 edition of Wide Open Town, Earl Ganz fails to mention Flutter, even though he spends a good portion of those pages bemoaning Brinig’s obscurity and absence from studies like Walter B. Rideout’s The Radical Novel in the United States, 1900–1954. In his New York Times obituary for Brinig in 1991, Peter B. Flint also neglects to mention Flutter. And as of this writing, Brinig’s scant Wikipedia page omits Flutter too. Ganz does mention Flutter on the Internet Archive GLBTQ website, but only in passing. Central to his article is the assertion that Brinig was the first Jewish American writer to create believable homosexual characters. Even more ironic, then, that Flutter should continue to be marginalized, since it’s a novel that unapologetically includes gay and non-binary characters, while reveling in passages that can only be described as homoerotic.

Perhaps another factor contributing to Flutter being overlooked is that it is so unlike Brinig’s other novels, or, for that matter, any other novel. In many ways, Flutter reads like the work of a young writer who has yet to tone down his style, so as to be able to compose those well-thought-out, realistic novels that Caslon is said to have written. But Brinig, who would publish some 20 novels over the next 50 years, wasn’t all that young: he was 37 when Flutter was published. In reality, the book’s eccentricities are part of its charm and originality, while its naïveté, intentional or not, saves it from charges of pretentiousness. Passages that move between the purple and the poetic, or delve into sheer absurdity — e.g., “Her silence was as complete and irrevocable as the single thrust of a sharp blade that amputates the head” — enrich the social satire and skewer puerile romanticism, before heading into much darker waters. As Caslon says of the novel he’s writing, it “should be a fluid thing, without fixed situations or denouements, words raining down from the skies, words like the pollen of flowers that is carried on the breath or breeze.”

It’s hard not to admire a book so eccentric, which can astonish as well as provoke, in which the author and protagonist are so fever-driven that the reader at times can’t distinguish one from the other. Yet the novel’s theme is a serious one, and timely — it concerns what happens when the privileged play fast and loose with the resources at their disposal. Its sobering message could have been voiced by any number of thinkers, from McWilliams to Davis:

Neither was there any permanence here, any roots. Houses were literally builded on sand, and if not sand, their foundations were insecurely laid in clay. Men and women were in constant movement, drifting and whirling through the air like toy balloons. The early Spanish settlers had erected their homes on firm foundations, seeking out a harder, rockier soil. The Americans who followed them thought only of today, and built anywhere and everywhere […] Only the fantastic could thrive here.

Hearing about the fate of his former idyll, Caslon might be mournful, but he’s strangely satisfied. The West has paid the price for Manifest Destiny. The coastline has been destroyed, burned to the ground, or buried deep below the ocean’s surface. His manuscript has disappeared, replaced by a piece of coral containing the mere echo of life. In the end, Flutter is also about revenge. Revenge on Zeitlin and his circle, and on California as a place and a political entity. It’s not surprising that, with its homoeroticism, its refusal to conform to a particular style or genre, and its willingness to court controversy, Flutter would have disappeared for so many years, only to be resuscitated at a time when its ending seems likelier than ever. As Caslon maintains, there is a worm that eats into the heart and “crawls across the page from left to right, leaving a trail of truth behind.” The Flutter of an Eyelid might well be one of the strangest, most delightful, most politically prescient novels you will read this or any other year.

¤

Woody Haut is the author of Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold WarNeon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction; and Heartbreak and Vine: the Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood, all published by Serpent’s Tail.