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Allen Bratton's 'Henry Henry' gives the Shakespearan character a modern twist

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Hal Lancaster is the son of a rich, entitled man named Henry, cousin of the late and flamboyant Richard, Duke of Lancaster. And Hal has had romantic encounters - though romantic may not be quite the word - with an aging actor named Jack Falstaff. Then others with a lover named Henry Percy (ph), as he cruises through London's undersides in 2014, just before Brexit - boozing, bleeding, snorting, disgorging and cringing. And we want to caution listeners our conversation will include a discussion of sexual abuse. "Henry Henry" is Allen Bratton's highly-anticipated debut novel. He joins us now from Washington, D.C. Thanks so much for being with us.

ALLEN BRATTON: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: Why did you - on the surface, at least - decide to use Shakespeare's Henry to tell a more contemporary story?

BRATTON: Yes, I think that it's one of the most compelling things to imagine what these Shakespeare characters and what these medieval, historical figures might make of life - how they might live in contemporary London, which is so different but still carries within it that core of history.

SIMON: How does carrying that lineage affect Hal? What kind of person does that begin to make him?

BRATTON: It's difficult to say that Hal really is an individual because of this weight of lineage. There have been so many Dukes of Lancaster before him, that when it gets to Hal, he is born with this expectation that he is going to carry these ancestors' lives forward into the future. And he doesn't really get a choice to be himself, to decide who he wants to be.

SIMON: (Laughter) is it valid for readers - at least for, I don't know, the first three-quarters of the novel - to dismiss Hal as kind of a whiny, rich kid who uses his privilege just to get blotto?

BRATTON: People may certainly have that reaction. Writing the novel, I wasn't really thinking about, will readers consider this character good or likable? I imagined what life would be like for Hal to be stuck and how people react to that - I kind of wanted to play with. I wanted to play with people's moral responses and moral feelings and suggest some things that might make people recoil. And then try to kind of bring them back in and show them where these attitudes and behaviors are coming from.

SIMON: Great, unspeakable crime at the center of his soul, too, isn't there?

BRATTON: Yes. The center of the novel really is Hal's relationship with his father, which is tainted from the very beginning by this idea that he's just an extension of Henry, which is complicated not just by the fact of their being aristocrats, but by their Catholicism. The father is meant to be the spiritual leader, the imitation of God within the family. And Hal really has no choice but to submit to the will of his father.

SIMON: Can we be a little more explicit than that? His father - can we say - he was abusive?

BRATTON: Yes, absolutely. Hal's father has been sexually abusing him since he was an adolescent. And that abuse has continued on at aged 22, which seems maybe to some too old of an age to be abused by a parent in this way. But I wanted to show that these ideas that had been seeded in Hal from birth are not so easily shaken off.

SIMON: Without giving away anything about how the novel concludes. How do we reach a state of coexistence with Hal - accepting him for who he is?

BRATTON: Well, I'd like to think that the reader will follow along Hal's journey. And how he reaches that state of equilibrium with himself is by looking into his family's past - the life and death of his cousin Richard, who was gay and closeted and died of an AIDS-related illness. He was always held up as the person that Hal shouldn't be like. And as Hal grew up, he realized, oh, no, this is the person who I'm like. I'm not moving away from that legacy. I'm reenacting it. And by the end of the novel, Hal decides that he's happy to be echoing Richard, if not entirely repeating his life.

SIMON: Allen Bratton's novel, "Henry Henry." Thank you so much for being with us.

BRATTON: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF VISION STRING QUARTET'S "PLUNK BALLAD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.

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