There’s No Harold Here: On Henry Bean’s “The Nenoquich”

September 11, 2023   •   By Vincenzo Barney

The Nenoquich

Henry Bean

“WRITERS DIE TWICE,” Martin Amis wrote in 2009. “[O]nce when the body dies, and once when the talent dies.” But in our era of the reboot, the remake, and the literary reissue, it just so happens that some writers can be born twice too. I used to work for the founder of this literary phenomenon, vigilante resurrectionist Edwin Frank of NYRB Classics. By a rare mettle, but also a crucial felicity, Edwin reads at least five estranged and out-of-print books at a go, and he used to entrust me with the ones he didn’t have time for, handing over stacks just too tall to wedge under my arm. I’d write up reports on them and we’d rendezvous in the West Village to discuss their chances for rebirth over a beer and Polish sausage. Before catching the F Train, Edwin would present me with a new bulk and I’d try to pay our bill. What can I say? I was 19.

But when Edwin didn’t choose the novels I debriefed him on, I learned it was because he had something even better up his sleeve. I linger in this subway cart of memory, where the titles of secret masterpieces still sail by with a slight list in the mirrory windows, for one reason: no one’s got anything better up their sleeve than Henry Bean’s born-again debut The Nenoquich, out for resurrection this week by McNally Editions. This debut, or better say rebut, is our first masterpiece this decade—and it was written in 1982.

Now, a reasonable question to have at this stage is, “What is a ‘Nenoquich?’”—and, perhaps, “How do you pronounce it?” We are left to our own tied tongues on the latter, though Bean doesn’t beat around any scorched Californian bushes in the what department. Bean quotes from Frederick A. Peterson’s Ancient Mexico (1959):

The five “useless” days at the end of each 360-day cycle were called nemontemi by the Aztecs […] Sahagun also mentions the nemontemi: “In these five days, which were of evil omen, they said that those born during this time would have bad luck in everything and would be poor and miserable. They were called Nenoquich, which means ‘Worthless person’ or ‘Will never amount to anything.’”

Enter Harold Raab. No Charles Highway or Humbert Humbert maybe, but he does keep a rigorous journal full of sexual succès, the geocentrism of the novel. Living in Berkeley in 1970, the nēmontēmi of the Summer of Love, Harold is approaching the darkness at the end of youth’s bright tunnel. He’s 26, and we all know what might happen to Californians in this era when they turn 27.

Promisingly directionless, engagingly solipsistic, Harold has quit his job to keep his journal, one of those existentialist—sorry, sexistentialist—affairs. Some readers will recognize the slant of the pen’s I from Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea (1938) or J. M. G. Le Clezio’s The Interrogation (1963); as in Nausea, our diarist has plenty to feel queasy about, and like Le Clezio, Bean’s corpus really only amounts to one book: he never wrote another.

But the journal is far from a one-dimensional log of exceptional virility (though it’s that too). It is also rife with Cioranic maxims on premeditated infidelity, a subject Harold spends a lot of time premeditating. “Every relationship is vulnerable from certain angles and in certain lights,” he writes. “You wait, watch, then for a moment it opens and you can enter her life.” Not to mention that its invaluable pointers would make a great gift to the burgeoning asshole in your life. For instance, an asshole might begin a letter to their father on the subject of their dying grandmother like this: “Dear Manny, Am not sure; what are my grief obligations vis-à-vis your mother and her imminent demise?”

Oh, Harold! Sure, he hates himself as much as the next Nenoquich, and, unable to dash off a piece about Divine for Penthouse magazine, he is understandably afraid of artistic failure. But these shortcomings are made up for: Harold is an aficionado’s sociopath, an industrious prick, an unfêted genius of the cuckold. But who wasn’t during the free-love implosion of the early 1970s, where all a young Nenoquich like Harold had to do to get picked up was sit down at a café or cash a check at the bank? Or call a woman he’s never met, from a phone booth:

“Hello, could I speak to Harold, please.”
She had a fine alto voice, full of confidence and trust. The last thing she’d have expected was what was happening. She said, “What number do you want?”
I read it off.
“This is it,” she said, “but there’s no Harold here.”
“Too bad. What about you? Are you there?”
She laughed. “More or less.”
“What are you doing for lunch?”

That was Charlotte, there, more or less for Harold’s taking. You see, our unfulfilled Iago was quietly amounting to nothing when he experienced the artist’s unmistakable frisson. “Well, she’s mad about him, isn’t she? At least in the physical sense,” says a roommate about Charlotte’s marriage. Is the shiver going up your spine too? For it is this clause’s trisyllable that finally gifts our struggling artist his donnée and donna, “[t]he very flesh of the word ‘physical’ (the rough texture of the opening consonants sliding through the narrow vowel to the fricative surface of the S, and from there through the second vowel, narrower still, until the whole word bursts in the calm pool of the final syllable).”

Well, there is no coming back from such a ravishing dip, is there? Every artist knows that the heart turns gangrenous when one denies one’s talent. The muse is coercive and unstoppable, and Harold is incorruptibly rapt. His fate? His plot, in the double-edged meaning of that word?

Imagine someone who, in an excess of fantasy, decides to have an affair with a woman he has never met, whose very existence he discovers only by chance. Obviously he is something of an anachronism. […]

He pictures a brief affair that begins with her feeling whole, solid, full and ends when her life and character lie in ruins. It should last two or three months. He would give up other women for the duration. […] He would force her to have pleasure. She would be lost.

And Harold does do all this, to great villainous success. He steals Charlotte away, destroys her, and she dies. But that’s just the plot.

As for the prose, well. Charlotte enters Harold’s journal with every comma waiting to cup her, every semicolon on duplicitously bent knee; every period a breadcrumb at her feet. A screenwriter lo these many novelistically uncelebrated decades, Bean’s inaugural opening bears only the slightest wobble of the novelist/screenwriter axis—some scene direction, camera cuts, and close-ups—but tilts immediately, unimprovably novelistic, a focal shift that leaves only a curt and bashful lens flare playing in the white section breaks.

Now, if a writer’s job is to construct a glass to lure the reader’s eye, then a prism to refract its light, there are several pretty, primeval colors Bean refracts us into: green mirth, pink petals, and black blasphemies. Pick your poison. As Harold’s “plot” starts coming to hand in a hellbasket, he earnestly implores us, “It is not her fault. This is not her fault. Please do not blame her for this,” and we get an ironic smirk in ancient muscles that contemporary literary fiction seldom bothers to work. When Charlotte runs “a pine needle along the enameled orange of a beetle wing, the color breaking sharply redward toward the tip, as though an almost erotic struggle were occurring at the level of pigment,” we transcendentally swoon. And when Charlotte lies adulterined, hospitalized from an extramarital STD,

inche[s] toward dying, trying to relax involuntary muscles and get them to release things they spasmodically grasped. […]

Her extremities, of course, had long been superfluous. They lay at the edge of the universe. But the center, the seat of disease, was warm and lit with a strange dark light. Her task was to get into the light, into the glowing filament[,]

we, too, lie in a strange dark light with Charlotte: it’s Harold’s inkwell.

“You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style,” warned Humbert Humbert. And you can count on Henry Bean for a murderous prose style, no less emulous. Written in the late 1970s and falsely titled False Match in 1982 by Simon & Schuster, The Nenoquich in all its McNally-restored Nenoquichery bears the silver of the knife, not the screen. And it’s a knife edge so sharp that you miss the incision only to feel it twist in your stomach.

Like Lolita before it, The Nenoquich will be disliked by the moralists, who will see Bean’s head dotting all of Harold’s i’s with a guillotiner’s twinge. Nor will it be liked by the literalists, who may trip clumsily over our shared root word but are not literary. These schools of thought are bound to read The Nenoquich as a sociopathic confessional instead of the ruthlessly brilliant novel it is. And so it is a gift—a literary phenomenon of the first order—that The Nenoquich comes to us intact, skirting the Odyssean challenges of today’s publishing-industrial complex.

While it’s certainly a unique parturition style to debut twice, it may well be the future of publishing. Perhaps by the end of this century, all Great Literature will come to us reissued. There will not be debuts but rebuts, posthumous premieres. Every great will be a Bean or a Kafka, and nobody will know they’re famous, not even for 15 minutes. If so, it will be the work of publishers like McNally Editions and NYRB Classics to outfox the haughty gravediggers, to make Literature smile and sing and haunt us all over again.

“When we say that we love a writer’s work, we are always stretching the truth: what we really mean is that we love about half of it,” wrote Amis, now deep in the same evergreen unknown from which Bean just stepped. If being born twice lends a mythic license to Bean, he is gifted enough to accommodate it. Reading The Nenoquich is like being plugged into unheeded Delphic promise, into unconscionable talent. Bean’s sentences approach the speed of light without any loss of iridescent precision. Bean’s paragraphs—but I could effervesce all day. So let me just say this: I love 100 percent of Henry Bean’s work, oh yes. And I’m not rounding up.


Vincenzo Barney is a New York–based writer.