Wild Gypsy of Arbor Hill by Harvey Havel, 2019, Novella, 56,000 words
Recommended if you like: John Steinbeck, Leonard Gardner’s Fat City or William Kennedy
Wild Gypsy of Arbor Hill is a realistic and unsentimental tale about love, longing and loss. It’s also an investigation into how financial insecurity can lead human relationships astray. It is expertly and harrowingly told by Albany author Harvey Havel who has written over a dozen novels on social themes.
Charlie, a young & bright Caucasian male from a wealthy background attends an elite college and becomes smitten with a beautiful college girl named Sophia. At first, this girl ignores Charlie because she is out of his league, but Charlie persists and starts to win her over. Gradually Charlie realizes that Sophia is not quite the girl he thought; he has to face that he has deceived himself of what the girl could have ever offered to his future.
From this point on, Charlie drops out of school, moves to Albany and finds himself struggling to make a living. At a friend’s suggestion, Charlie hires a pretty woman named Gypsy to clean his apartment and ends up forming a strange kind of attachment with her. Was it love? Or just a no-strings business relationship? Charlie recognizes that his fondness for Gypsy is not “normal” (or even healthy), and yet he does everything possible to make it blossom into something better. What kind of sacrifice ought he to make for this Gypsy woman? Was she even worth it? The more Charlie struggles to make this relationship work, the more ethical compromises he ends up making.
Charlie is a flawed character of tragic dimensions — sympathetic but also infuriating. He seems genuinely concerned about the welfare of his friends; at the same time, Charlie has a sensuous and egotistical side that makes him unable to recognize the folly of his dreams. Perhaps Charlie was asking for the impossible!
The novel is just as much about romantic illusions as economic illusions. Charlies is horrified to see how economics thwart romantic desires and how romantic fulfillment practically demands that he abandon his values. There’s a lot of sexual politics here, and the racial dynamics are also interesting. Havel is a Pakistani-American who has often written about the Muslim and African-American experience. Yet in this novel, the protagonist Charlie is white, and his best friend Cash is African-American and Gypsy is mixed-race. These things are not supposed to matter in our color-blind society, but by the end of the novel, it is clear that they do.
This novella consists of 4 extended chapters, like acts in a play. The prose is simple and conversational and occasionally indignant. As bleak as the book was at times, I enjoyed getting to know the (flawed) characters and understanding Charlie’s motivations. The criminal elements in the latter part of the book were depicted in a realistic and almost banal way. The ending left me unsatisfied; I don’t know what kind of outcome would have felt “right,” here, but it was unclear to me whether Charlie had reformed or even changed his cynical world view.
IN SUMMARY: Although not a pretty story, this expertly told tale explores how far a person can take his romantic and economic illusions without bringing ruin.