The Flagrant YearsApril 18, 2013
The Flagrant Years is Samuel Hopkins Adams’ novel of the cosmetics industry. I say “of” rather than “about” because while most of it takes place in a Fifth Avenue beauty parlor, mostly it’s about people. You get the impression that if Consuelo Barrett’s job search had led her to a different industry, the novel would have followed her there. It would be a wrong impression, because Adams clearly knew what he meant to write about, but this is exactly the kind of sleight of hand he’s best at — his ridiculously engaging characters are there to mask the lump of information he’s forcing down your throat and it actually works.
So, Consuelo Barrett. My favorite thing about her is that when she first meets Ipsydoodle Smith — who has just offered to make her a movie star — she tells him her name and he thinks she’s joking, because it’s such a perfect movie star name. Actually, that’s not my favorite thing about her. My favorite thing about her is her. Connie Barrett is one of those fictional heroines who is frank and straightforward and subtly classy, which is both a thing I really enjoy and a thing Adams does really, really well.
Connie is in New York looking for a job, and after running into Ipsy Smith at Coney Island and getting his recommendation to Gerstel Corss, an Upper West Side hairdresser, she finds one. She learns how to give all the “treatments” and is soon a fully-fledged “operator.” And when Gerstel Corss’ salon closes after a woman ends up with green hair, she doesn’t have much trouble joining her friend “Bob” Roberts at Primavera, a salon on Fifth Avenue.
Bob is pretty awesome, too — she comes from a totally different world than Connie does, but you never feel like that’s a bad thing. Yeah, she’s in the book because Connie has to have a friend, but she sometimes almost feels like she isn’t. She gets to have an inner life.
The other three main characters are the men: Ipsydoodle Smith, Rowdy Pontefract, and Waller Daniels. No, Rowdy’s name isn’t really Rowdy, but his manner is, when he’s drunk. Yes, Ipsydoodle’s name is really Ipsydoodle, but it’s his middle name. This is so Samuel Hopkins Adams, in that it’s kind of twee and irritating, but it turns out that Adams’ occasional twee and irritating moments work a lot better in a book that’s occasionally kind of dark. Although, to be fair, it’s still Samuel Hopkins Adams. Even a murder can’t make it particularly dark.
Ipsy Smith enters the story at Coney Island, where he flirts with Connie and sets her on her path towards becoming a cosmetologist. By the time they meet again, they’ve become friends. He’s a bit of a mysterious figure — everyone knows and likes him, but it’s rarely clear what he’s up to. Connie meets Rowdy Pontefract outside Gerstel Corss’ salon. He’s a girl-shy overgrown boy with an alcohol problem, but he overcomes his girl-shyness in order to fall in love with Constance.
Then there’s Waller Daniels, one of those vastly wealthy, notoriously ruthless businessmen you find in books. They’re never quite as ruthless as people think they are, but Daniels almost is. He’s also Rowdy Pontefract’s uncle, and once he gets to know Connie, he’s absolutely in favor of her becoming Rowdy’s mistress, or even marrying him. I love any and all scenes between Connie and Ipsydoodle, but I think my favorite relationship in The Flagrant Years is the one that springs up between Connie and Waller Daniels. My fondness for fictional cranky middle-aged men aside, every interaction between them is just…interesting. Really interesting.
Poking around on the internet for information about Samuel Hopkins Adams, I learned that in the ’20s he published some books under the name Warner Fabian, apparently because they were too scandalous to publish under his own name. And sure, fair enough. But having read The Flagrant Years, I’m a lot more curious about how racy the Warner Fabian novels were, because it’s full of casual sexual relationships and even women talking about their sexuality, and I would have thought that if there were books not fit for Adams’ real name, this would have been one of them.
Anyway, if it’s not clear, I liked this a lot. There are times when Adams’s irrepressible charm is a bit too much for me, and having it tempered with a little bit of tragedy and what I assume Adams thinks is realism makes it just about perfect. I don’t know if he could write a sad or realistic book, but I like what happens when he tries.