Desire Lines – Cary Alan Johnson (Querelle Press)

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The Vivian Maier photo gracing the cover of Cary Alan Johnson’s Desire Lines pretty much tells you what you need to know. A young Black boy stands on the deck of a ferry with his hands in his back pockets, looking at the 1980s Manhattan skyline as he tries to figure out how. or even if, he figures into that cityscape. As it turns out, part of the answer lies in Africa, part of it waits in the bars, and yet another part balances addiction and redemption in Johnson’s restless and searching debut novel.

An unnamed Black narrator raised in Brooklyn longs for the life on the other side of the river, getting as far as Hell’s Kitchen, where he lives in a five-floor walkup as he and his friends cruise the bars and make connections just as the AIDS crisis comes along. In part to escape the deadly disease, our narrator takes the Peace Corps route to Zaire. In orientation for that trip, he meets a straight, biracial woman named Regina who becomes his best friend both in Africa and when they return to New York City. They continue as roommates, the narrator falling for a man who introduces him to cocaine and, finally, crack before he breaks the downward spiral.

Johnson obviously knows the milieu and the time period in question, as his descriptions of the political and sexual landscape are dead accurate, and I’ll also wager he knows something about substance abuse. He does an excellent job with the gradations of addictive behavior, and the scene where he finally realizes his dealer is entirely in control is both scarifying and heart-rending.

Two of the most important characters here, however, are the places in which the narrator lives. He has NYC–both Brooklyn and Manhattan–down cold. You can feel the grit and decay of the 80s. But the chapters taking place in Africa are noticeably less impressive in terms of local flavor, which initially bothered me. However, as these episodes unfold, it’s easy to see the primary goal here is the introduction of Regina and the formation of their friendship rather than a travelogue.

Desire Lines is a gritty, realistic trip back to some hard times, but its characters and sense of place make it worth your while.

JW

© 2022 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Homo Novus – Gerard Cabrera (Rattling Good Yarns Press)

Set in New England in the 1980s, Cabrera’s debut novel excavates the lives of an older and a younger Catholic priest, both of whom are struggling to reconcile their gayness with their faith and institutional indoctrination. Their stories are steeped in scriptural contemplation, organizational contradictions, and the tension between the Church’s hardline orthodoxy and the changing modern world. Based on the eruption of child abuse scandals in the Church over the past two decades and the subsequent public conversation about systematic cover ups and whether there’s a place for gay men in the priesthood, Homo Novus is a novel that will likely provoke reactions from many readers, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.

Fr. Linus Fitzgerald and young seminarian Orlando Rosario enter the story at a time of crisis. Orlando rushes Linus to a Springfield hospital straight off their flight back from a vacation in Puerto Rico. Linus is weak and feverish and wakes up in a spare, segregated unit of the hospital. There’s a spoiler in the book’s back cover blurb: Linus has been diagnosed with AIDS. The narrative proceeds via each man’s recollections of how this tragedy came to be, along with a few key present time interactions.

As Orlando returns home and somewhat aggressively takes up a daily routine, he’s stung by fragmented memories, through which we learn his history and his relationship with Linus. Raised in a devout, working-class Puerto Rican family, Orlando’s entrance to the priesthood was practically preordained. Opportunities for poor, brown-skinned boys were limited, and sending Orlando, at fourteen years old, to a pre-seminary boarding school in Massachusetts offered a symbolic improvement in family status as well as a better education and the promise of a good career.

More personally, becoming a priest provided shy, uncertain Orlando with his first chance to feel purposeful and special. Then he meets Fr. Linus, an unsparing instructor at the boarding school. Linus is brutal in his criticism of Orlando, yet he invites him into a private relationship where they spend time alone and go to dinner together off campus. Orlando is humbled and eager for the attention, and when Linus introduces him to physical intimacy, Orlando feels even more special.

Confined to his bed with a stigmatized and fatal diagnosis, Linus reflects bitterly on the slights and hypocrisies that led to his downfall. Like Orlando, he began seminary training at a young age and committed his life to a higher purpose before he had time to grow up and understand himself. The seminary was a harsh, austere place in the 1950s, and the authoritarian world of the priesthood has fortified him with a sense of self-importance as well as denials and rationalizations for his sexual and emotional exploitation of Orlando (and other teenage seminarians). Still there are cracks in his certainty. How is it that his hand, guided by God, can perform both the holiest of sacraments for his parishioners and the most reviled sins of the flesh? The Church provided little guidance on how to manage his sexuality within the confines of celibacy, even when Linus underwent a mandatory rehabilitation program to discreetly correct sexual transgressions among the clergy.

Cabrera is a stylish writer but not overly so, which makes for enjoyable reading. There are lovely lyrical moments in his prose and unusual structural choices in his narrative (some chapters are written in screenplay form), but they’re not overdone in a way that hurts the storytelling flow.

What one appreciates even more is how well Cabrera gets inside both characters, enabling them to show themselves to the reader and thereby allowing the reader to decide on their own how they should feel about them. Many will come to the conclusion that Linus is a despicable predator, yet his story forces one to grapple with the ways he was harmed and let down by the Church himself. Orlando is a victim, but one sees his contradictory impulses as well, which both surprise and humanize him as a struggling young adult.

Long passages that ruminate on the Church’s teachings on sin and priestly purity will be of greater interest to Catholic readers than non-Catholics, but overall, Homo Novus is an expertly crafted character-driven novel that should have wide appeal.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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Dot & Ralfie – Amy Hoffman (University of Wisconsin Press)

Dorothy “Dot” Greenbaum and Rafaela “Ralfie” Santopietro, the two eponymous characters of Amy Hoffman’s latest novel, are two old-school dykes from Boston, a classic femme-butch pair who have been together for more than thirty years. An elementary school librarian and worker for the Boston Department of Public Works, respectively, they have built a comfortable life together: stable jobs, a condo with a modest mortgage, a small circle of friends and family; a life that comes crashing down around them after Ralfie has a long-delayed knee replacement surgery. Their third-floor walk-up suddenly seems less charming to both Ralfie and Dot, who has a heart attack not long after Ralfie’s surgery. They begin exploring options: Dot’s younger sister Susan tries to convince them to move into, not an “old folks home,” but rather a “condo development” in an outer suburb; the idea appeals to no one but Susan. Dot investigates an antiseptic senior housing development nearby (with an elevator), but they simultaneously earn too much to qualify as low income and too little to afford the place at market share. Even a condo at the high-rise where Viola, a work colleague,and sometime lover of Dot’s, lives is out of the question (Viola acknowledges that even she couldn’t afford to buy her own condo now). Then Ralfie, back at work, falls out of a small tree and is hospitalized again….

The above plot synopsis sounds dire, but it reflects a grim reality that many LGBTQ+ seniors currently or will have to face: how do they remain independent, and “age in place” outside of the usual heteronormative structures? Not that it is necessarily guaranteed to be easier for non-Gay seniors to do the same, but Dot and Ralfie have no adult children to assist them—at least their marriage is recognized as such.  And even having a supportive community of friends and family can quickly look like meddling. I will say that everything eventually works out for everyone involved, although, as in so much of life, the route to that outcome is by no means easy or straightforward.

As serious as the narrative gets, Hoffman injects enough wry humor into the story to keep it from becoming a total downer. For example, the condo development that Susan tries to convince Dot and Ralfie to move to (and which she eventually moves to instead) is named “Maple Grove”–everyone except Susan refers to it as “Maple Grave.” And a comment made by one of the characters about Route 95 disrupting the laws of Einsteinian physics will surely make any native Bostonian readers laugh out loud.

As bad as things get for Dot and Ralfie, things would have been infinitely worse for either of them without the other: for despite the bickering, misunderstandings, even outright infidelity, it is clear to us –and to them—that they love each other and are deeply committed to each other, and will do whatever they can to make their lives work. (Well, except for moving to Maple Grave, of course.) Ostensibly this novel is about overcoming the obstacles facing LGBTQ+ seniors; in truth it is about how much easier it is to be resilient in life with supportive family, friends, and co-workers.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing: A Memoir – Marshall Moore (Rebel Satori Press)

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Not long ago, I reviewed Simon Smalley’s memoir That Boy of Yours Wants Looking At, which I enjoyed despite the lack of conflict with his family over coming out. Their enthusiasm was refreshing yet jarring considering the experiences of most gay men I know, whose lives hew closer to that of Marshall Moore as detailed in his new release, I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing. This is a family to which I can relate, however graphically.

Novelist Moore, known for such portrayals of urban life and angst as Inhospitable and Bitter Orange turns a critical lens on his own life, beginning with his childhood in Greenville, North Carolina–not exactly a metropolitan area. Helping him steer blindly through the waters of adolescence are his mother, Laura, who has a penchant for white wine and pills as well as an unhealthy preoccupation with her son’s body, his eternally angry and abusive father, the Marine, and his sister, Janelle, who bumps her way into substance abuse.

Autobiographies are always interesting to me not so much for what they say but how they say it. Everyone has trauma, that being a pretty elastic term. However, not everyone can process and relate it with enough detachment to make it universal to the reader. Moore has enough intellectual and emotional distance to find those commonalities, so his prose is factual and unsentimental. Moore’s very first chapter, “The Trouble With Dick,” is about his penile surgery as a toddler among other things, and the chapters get more intimate from there. But Moore never loses his cool or his standpoint.

As a victim of child abuse myself, although not quite at the level of crazy Moore’s experienced, I know all too well the preternatural sensitivity you have to develop to survive. You have to be able to sense the mood the second you walk in the door, if not on the bus down the block. Dad’s car’s home? Oh, shit. And once you determine the mood, you have to be able to switch in a second if your entrance alters it. Childhood is precarious for us, and Moore portrays that balance of comfort and unease with unerring accuracy.

Moore’s gallows humor is also on display here. His fiction has always worn a dark, mordant grin, and his non-fiction follows through with that–except the grin is a little darker and a bit wider. He’s able to find the humor, often ironic, in the most embarrassing of situations. Yet another survival technique, but it makes for fine reading.

I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing is a compulsively readable account of a somewhat compulsive life. If you’ve enjoyed Moore’s fiction, this should be next on your list.

JW

© 2022 Jerry L. Wheeler

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The New Life – Tom Crewe (Simon & Schuster)

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The subject of Tom Crewe’s début novel will likely be obscure to many readers, beyond those, like myself, who are gay history geeks. Many decades before Alfred Kinsey brought attention to the natural range of human sexuality, and eighty years prior to the psychiatric community decategorizing homosexuality as a mental disorder, two British academics John Addington Symonds and Havelock Ellis published a medical textbook, Sexual Inversion, that presented homosexual men as well-adjusted, healthy, and unjustly persecuted individuals. The year was 1897, and while the book faced skepticism and scandal at the time, it planted the seeds for a movement to depathologize and decriminalize gay sex. Crewe doesn’t seek to state all the facts about the authors’ lives and motivations, but in crafting his historical fiction, he drew heavily from the men’s biographies and changed their names just slightly. What results is an imagining of the events that led to Symonds and Ellis’s scholarship, grounded in what is known of the social and political climate of the time.

John Addington is a respected member of London’s intellectual class. He writes poetry and literary criticism and has a special interest in homoromanticism in ancient Greece. A gentleman of a certain age, he has a wife, two grown daughters and a daughter headed to Oxford University. He also has long been painfully aware of his attraction to men and kept that part of himself hidden from the world with the exception of a few clandestine sexual encounters.

Henry Ellis is a thirty-one-year-old newly married doctor. He and his wife Edith are proponents of an enlightened philosophy known as “the New Life.” The gist of the New Life is that society can be bettered by prizing intellectual inquiry over cultural convention, and with its egalitarian principles, it attracted socialists, suffragettes, and “sexual radicals,” as they were known at the time. Henry and Edith are well-matched in terms of values and academic passions, and they are both looking for a marriage that isn’t tethered by traditional roles and responsibilities. Edith is in a discreet affair with another woman. For Henry, his interest in marrying is a bit more complicated than seeking cover for homosexuality. He can only be aroused by a fetish, which he fears will render him unlovable.

John writes to Henry with praise for an article Henry wrote about the poems of Walt Whitman, and through their correspondence, the two men agree to collaborate on a book of case studies illuminating same-sex male relations. The story of how they bring their book to life (semi-fictionalized, Symonds and Ellis never actually met, and Symonds died before the book was published) is an immersive journey that has much to say about what it might have been like to be gay in the 1890s. Their subjects are terrified of being socially condemned and jailed, yet they manage to fulfill their needs for sex and companionship through coded signals, cruising grounds, and carefully curated social networks.

John and Henry risk a lot in publishing their work, and the question of how their daring endeavor will turn out is a surprisingly suspenseful hook. Oscar Wilde’s first trial for sodomy erupts in the midst of it all. Despite social liberality inching forward among the educated elite, a plague of injustices remain for gay men, from discriminatory penal codes to religious bigotry to blackmail.

Crewe delves deeply into each man’s struggles to come to terms with who they are. John enters a relationship with a working class man, Frank, who is substantially his junior, and with whom a long-term companionship is possible based on Frank’s desire to make a life together and John’s relative freedom now that his children are grown. He must adjudicate his deception to his wife and daughters while increasingly being aware of how society has deprived men like him the chance for self-acceptance and personal fulfillment.

Henry’s situation adds complexity to the sexual liberation theme. He feels a kinship to the men he interviews, as well as the subversive romanticism of Whitman, but his path is lonelier in some ways. His attachment to his wife is heartfelt, even desperate at times, but Edith will only be happy with a woman, and what man or woman would accept his sexual secret? Crewe is bold in portraying each man’s sexuality with sensuous detail, which gives his characters an appealing humanity.

The New Life is a well-realized novel that works both as a dramatization of gay history and a more personal story of two men searching for ways to live outside social convention.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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The Feast of Panthers – Sean Eads (Queer Space/Rebel Satori Press)

I thought Sean Eads’s debut novel, The Survivors, was one of the best books I’d read that year, turning an often hilarious yet one-note joke into a treatise on the human capacity for violence in such a subtle, masterful manner that I had to read it again. I inexplicably lost track of his work for a couple of years, but I’m glad to say I’ve reconnected with his unique vision and faultless execution in The Feast of Panthers, a killer historical fantasy.

Opening, naturally, in a tavern/opium den, the narrative recasts Oscar Wilde, his wife Constance, Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie), the Marquis of Queensberry, and William Butler Yeats into time and dream travelers. Along with new characters such as amateur pugilist Charlie, with whom Wilde falls madly in love, this team is the only hope mankind has of defeating ancient Eqyptian queen Bast in her bid to take over the world by capturing her with a spell cleverly disguised as a Wilde-penned play.

There are spells and magic and rings and glass spheres that shatter and embed their shards in an enemy, dragging him away as they reunify in another dimension. People appear and disappear, friends become enemies and enemies comrades, all within the overarching irony of Bast’s attempt to colonize the Ultimate Colonizer of the Victorian Age. Both an excellent example of steampunk and a comment on its absurdity, this book has many layers–all delicious.

Eads finds the warrior within Wilde, accentuating his bravery but never forgetting his misdeeds as he agonizes over his previous treatment of Constance and determines not to make the same mistakes with Charlie as he did with Bosie. But above all, Eads is having such tremendous fun upsetting the apple cart and playing against history, his joy can’t help but shine through his narrative. And it’s palpable to the reader.

The Feast of Panthers is a terrific read–rich in detail, bold in concept, and perfect in execution, it’s an enviable achievement. Highly, highly recommended.

JW

© 2022 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Army of Lovers – K.M. Soehnlein (Amble Press)

Army of Lovers is an evocative title that might first bring to mind the tantalizing story of the Sacred Band of Thebes with its pairs of battle-hardened warriors in thigh-length kilts. K.M. Soehnlein’s latest novel is a much more recent work of historical fiction, but that title works well for his memoirish account of AIDS activism in New York City in the late 80s and early 90s. It also brings to mind the Swedish pop group of the same name whose campy hits were playing in gay bars far and wide at the time. Soehnlein’s principal reference is the men and women who fought against AIDS apathy and hatred side-by-side, as friends, lovers and caretakers at the height of the pandemic.

The storyline chronicles the early years of ACT UP from an engaging on-the-ground perspective. Soehnlein brings the reader right inside the passionate and sometimes contentious meetings of the fledgling organization and demonstrates how such gatherings served multiple, vital purposes, including and beyond AIDS advocacy. For some gay men, attending a meeting was a first foray seeking connection with others of their kind and overcoming shame. For others, ACT UP was practically the only place where AIDS information could be found while a public health response wallowed in opposing political tides. The men and women of Soehnlein’s novel find lifelong friendships through their participation in the organization, bonded together not only by shared anger and fear, but also humor and bravery and creativity. Some find partners, others cruise for sex, and most movingly, they create a caretaking network for men who have been shunned by their families and society.

Meetings get messy at times from conflicting priorities and the exhaustion of fighting for a government response while friends are dying every day. The political actions, several of which will be familiar to readers, are depicted with all the triumph, frustration and personal danger one would expect. Demonstrations halt Manhattan traffic, draw media attention, and gradually succeed in accelerating the distribution of life-saving drugs. Seen through the eyes of the people who led them, they were also precarious and at times chaotic and often ended with activists, including those in very poor health, getting beaten by police batons. It’s hard to read at times, but stirring in its complexity.

While the novel is the story of a political movement, it’s also quite a personal story about love. The narrator Paul is a recent college graduate who is part of ACT UP’s core leadership along with his lover Derek. Paul and Derek have an open relationship that is struggling to stay within the bounds of trust and honesty. Derek begins to spend more time with a handsome, spiritual man from the South, Michael, and Paul is drawn to a young, biracial artist Zack. One sees how this would be a sticky situation in any circumstances, and Paul and Derek are also figuring out how to be with men of different serostatuses and dealing with a friend group that’s in constant crisis, from declining health to depression and suicide to gay bashings on the supposedly safe streets of the West Village. The author captures brilliantly the many moods of gay living in NYC post-Stonewall and pre-anti-retroviral therapies: the thrill of sexual rebellion, private jealousies, and the ceaseless fear of death.

This is a novel with incredibly high stakes, so while it’s lengthy, it’s difficult to turn away from the pages, and by the end, difficult to forget. On a broad level, it raises questions like “who will survive an unmitigated epidemic?” and later: “how did anyone of that generation survive the constant trauma?” The personal stakes are equally profound and gripping. Will Paul test positive like so many of his peers? Will he ever find inner peace and the sense of home he desperately wants? Or will he succumb to self-destruction like so many of his friends? Soehnlein reminds us of the brutality of an era many years before the availability of effective HIV treatments and the (partial) realization of LGBTQ+ civil rights. He also teaches us how hope and community are possible even at our most powerless moments.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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Gordon Merrick and the Great Gay American Novel – Joseph M. Ortiz (Lexington Books)

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Gay men of a certain age have had the shared experience of spying a Gordon Merrick paperback in a bookstore or library and several thousand sexual awakenings were sparked. And those Avon covers were throbbing pulpy post-modern baroque masterpieces; for the then-contemporary viewer each cover was as packed and vivid as Raphael’s The School of Athens, I kid you not. We’re talking best-seller status. Gay books that were simultaneously everywhere paperbacks were sold throughout the 70s, with covers featuring hot hunks, page turners filled with complex relationships, yachts, European locales, cocktails at every turn, and torrid affairs with men and woman. All sustained by powerful erotic writing. Yet the very triumph of these novels doomed them: their accessibility goaded more serious and strident gay writers (and readers) to dismiss Merrick and, in some cases, outright attack him. That and literary tastes shift. Some material has aged badly, and his publishing success means the ongoing reappraisal and appreciation of pulp books initiated with Michael Bronski’s 2003 Pulp Friction pushed Merrick farther aside. But one of those boys in the bookshop became a professor. Joseph M. Ortiz not only recognizes this oversight, he has written the long-overdue biography of Gordon Merrick.

 To read Merrick is to somewhat know him. His more popular work is so biographical, fans of his writing will recognize characters and events, and Dr. Ortiz connects the dots throughout, all while successfully piecing together the story of a life both thrilling and privileged. Born well-off, preternaturally good looking, a Princeton boy who dropped out before his senior year to give Broadway a go, Merrick’s early years have a Gatsby-esque quality. The excitement and danger of 30s and 40s queer New York City comes alive here, as well as Merrick’s lifelong ambivalence to the gay scene. While his jetsetter life is likely known to his readers, the fact that he served as a spy in World War II will come as a surprise to many, and adds more than a dash of thrill to this eminently readable biography. Ortiz makes each chapter its own sustainable bit of gay literary history with enticement to read on, so while fans of the Peter and Charlie series might be surprised we don’t get to The Lord Won’t Mind until halfway through the book, there they can look back with wonder at a journey well-told.

Of particular interest are Merrick’s often overlooked early books with which he established himself as a serious novelist. His long-term relationship with the younger Charles Hulse unfolds across their decades together, from the Grecian Island of Hydra, where they befriended a young Leonard Cohen, to the latter years in Sri Lanka where Arthur C. Clarke was a neighbor, and Hulse’s love and support play an integral role in Merrick’s evolution as an artist. (Hulse published his own gay novel, In Tall Cotton, in 1987 and helped finish Merrick’s posthumous and wildly phallocentric true crime novel The Good Life.)

Middle-age, rejected manuscripts and dry spells coupled with seismic changes in gay culture gave us the creative breakthrough that is The Lord Won’t Mind. Famous for what many readers at the time considered the first gay happy ending (prior gay characters in literature ended in suicide or some sort of abject destruction), the sensation that was The Lord Won’t Mind quickly birthed the Peter and Charlie trilogy, with One for the Gods (1971) and Forth Into Light (1974). Ortiz, in reviewing the original manuscripts at the Princeton archives, reveals that Merrick took his sex scenes seriously, and documents multiple revisions. Merrick understood what he was writing and how he was putting it on the page was an original, historically important endeavor. The accounting of the agent-writer-publisher relationship that follows is surprisingly captivating. This is something not seen in most literary biographies but significant here as the publisher’s ability to promote Merrick’s book and the utilization of the same cover artist, Victor Gadino, throughout the series and beyond, are as much a contributing factor to the success of Merrick’s work as the stories themselves.

Still, I would vote that the most valuable discovery in Ortiz’s research comes with the trove of fan letters to Merrick. An entire chapter is dedicated to this phenomenon, and does more than anything else to re-assert Merrick’s special place in gay letters. (I need to pull the Mary Renault biography off the bookshelf. I vaguely recall similar experiences of epistolary appreciation, and I am comfortable linking the two seemingly disparate writers here as their originality and output are equally singular and forceful.)  Gordon Merrick and the Great Gay American Novel not only exculpates Merrick from the crime of not being a serious artist, but the summations and explorations herein mirror the subject: the journey in these pages as in Merrick’s books are deliberate and joyful. Wasn’t that the point of his Aegean love stories –and what critics couldn’t fully grasp due to their own internalized subjugation –that we deserve to be at the helm, under the stars, setting our own course?

Reviewed by Tom Cardamone, editor of Crashing Cathedrals: Edmund White by the Book, and the author of the Lambda Literary Award-winning speculative novella Green Thumb as well as the erotic fantasy The Lurid Sea and other works of fiction, including two short story collections. Additionally, he has edited The Lost Library: Gay Fiction Rediscovered and co-edited Fever Spores: The Queer Reclamation of William S. Burroughs.

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The Complicated Calculus (And Cows) of Carl Paulsen – Gary Eldon Peter (Regal House Publishing)

I think I need to read more sweet stories. The current political climate has sharpened my cynicism to an almost painful point, honed daily on the news. So, when I find stories that alleviate that feeling, I don’t believe them at first. Where’s the catch? I wonder. When’s the twist coming? They’re not gonna kill the dog, are they? There are no dogs in the Gary Eldon Peter YA release, The Complicated Calculus (and Cows) of Carl Paulsen, but the titular cows are never really in danger. It’s a gentle, earnest tale worth reading.

Carl Paulsen is a fifteen-year-old son of a new, struggling dairy farmer in southern Minnesota, but his mother’s recent death isn’t his only problem. He also has a crush on also newly arrived city boy Andy Olnan who may or not feel the same way. Meanwhile, Carl’s father is not settling well into being a dairy farmer. The farm was a legacy from his late wife, who wanted to live there before she died. He and Carl are trying hard to honor her wishes, but it just isn’t working. Amidst the clashes with his father and mixed signals from Andy, Carl learns how to survive in a world without certainty.

This is a quiet book. It doesn’t have an edge or feature a bunch of screaming arguments or have some sort of daring element. That’s not to say it’s boring or has no conflict, but the major conflict of Carl’s father and the farm is handled from a place of mutual love and caring, so it’s less harsh but no less involving. The is-he-or-isn’t-he situation with Andy has more teenage angst to be sure, but even that has been dialed back. It’s a book whose virtues are solid and sure, and although the ending is happy, its calm wobble keeps you just off-balance enough to make the ride interesting.

The maternal influence in Carl’s life is one of two minor female characters appearing here. Annie is a girl his father hires to run the household and Cathy becomes Carl’s study partner and best friend and both of them try to keep Carl out of trouble, especially when he and Andy smoke pot (even these scenes are G-rated). Both of the girls, and indeed the whole book, are somewhat quirky yet wholesome. And that’s not a bad thing.

So, The Complicated Calculus (And Cows) Of Carl Paulsen pours you a glass of milk and sits you down in front of a plate of cookies to tell you its story, but it keeps you entertained down to the last crumb.

JW

© 2022 Jerry L. Wheeler

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A Conversation with Jim Grimsley

Special to Out in Print

from Gavin Atlas

Jim Grimsley was born in North Carolina and educated at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has published short stories and essays in various quarterlies, including DoubleTake, New Orleans Review, Carolina Quarterly, The New Virginia Review, The LA Times, and The New York Times Book Review. Jim’s first novel, Winter Birds, was published by Algonquin Books in 1994 and won the Sue Kaufman Prize for best first novel from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His other novels include Dream Boy, Kirith Kirin, and My Drowning. He has also published a collection of plays and a memoir, How I Shed My Skin. His body of work as a prose writer and playwright was awarded the Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2005. For twenty years, he taught writing at Emory University in Atlanta. His newest novel is The Dove in the Belly.

GA: Hi, Jim!  Thank you so much for agreeing to the interview!  To start, I loved The Dove in the Belly.  One thing that surprised me is it’s considered YA yet the characters are rising college seniors.  However, I know it’s considered normal for younger readers to “read up”.  So, are you finding that a number of your readers are high school age or younger?  What kind of feedback, if any, have you received from young people?

JG: The response that I’ve seen has been positive, sometimes overwhelmingly so, though it’s early days yet. It’s also hard to tell with online reviews whether the person writing is the age of the target audience, so I can’t really answer the question with much authority. But I shaped the book to be felt, so that readers who want to open themselves to the story can live inside it and feel it as if it happened, and my purpose in doing that was to make an experience that, especially for a young reader, would be hopeful and affirming in the end. I want young gay readers to be able to see themselves in this book, to see what their past might have been like if they had been born earlier, to understand this bit of history.

GA: I’m pretty sure I can answer this question since I’ve read the book, but for the uninitiated, could you explain your title?

JG: For me the title evokes the feeling of love, that warmth that resides in the belly, which is the seat of feelings. I always experience emotions in my core, whether they be love, fear, anxiety, whatever. The image of the dove as a bearer of peace, the similarity of “dove” to the word “love,” contribute to the image. The phrase is drawn from a Wallace Stevens poem about the illusory nature of appearances, and that, for me, echoed the fact that the differences between Ronny and Ben are mostly illusion, and that when they come together they form a core around which they can build their lives, at least for a while.

GA: I don’t want to give away too much, but there are two motherly figures whose lives affect the main characters significantly.  Was there anything specific that led to that choice?

JG: Most choices in writing, for me at least, begin as impulses and evolve as the story grows. In the case of Miss Dee, the boardinghouse owner, she is based directly on the owner of a boardinghouse I lived in for one summer during my Chapel Hill years. She’d lived a hard, long life, had fought to keep her home, and lived her days surrounded by college boys who helped her to stay financially afloat. We developed a small friendship and liked each other very much. Something about her presence touched me and stayed with me through the years, so that when I decided to set a novel in a boardinghouse parallel to hers, I had to put her in it because she was such a vivid part of the experience. The importance of Ben’s mother to the story grew out of the need to soften Ben’s rough edges, to show that the surface of him was not the whole story of him. And the loss of the two women is what ultimately transforms Ben and Ronny’s relationship into something that they both want to endure. The loss of Ben’s mother breaks them apart and the loss of Miss Dee brings them back together. That’s an oversimplification, but I think it’s mostly true.

GA: Conversely, the main character, Ronny, has a mother, Thelma, “with as many surnames as a soap opera heroine.”  She fascinates me though I’m not sure I’d want to know her in real life.  Do you have a background for her in your head explaining what made her the way she is?  Also, in what ways do you think her idiosyncrasies formed Ronny’s personality?

JG: Thelma has to be the kind of mother who would pack up and leave her son without a place to live; that was part of the first impulse of the novel and shaped who she became. Since he’s at college she figures he is able to take care of himself now, and she’s right, of course. Ronny might wish she was a bit more nurturing and such, but he knows her very well, as she knows him. She’s a complicated person, deeply loving as a mother but not the type of woman who put her own needs second to her child’s. I don’t think that means that she was neglectful; Ronny always had a roof over his head. The worst he has had to endure is her need for a man on which to focus her life. She was scarred by the fact that she married a man who turned out to be gay and had to rebuild herself. I thought of her as lovingly selfish and self-centered, but not in a cruel way. She knows that Ronny is strong and relies on him to take care of himself, and she probably has always done that. The fact that she loved her son but relied on his strength even as a child is what shaped him into the person he has become, quiet and determined, maybe a bit conniving, even, where his own happiness is concerned. He sees Ben and goes after him. I admired that about Ronny very much.

GA: Your story takes place in the 70s, and I saw an author note revealing how important setting and period accuracy was to you.  If it’s okay to ask, how close to autobiographical is this work?  Did you know anyone like your jock character, Ben?  

JG: That’s a fraught question; one of my limitations as a writer is that, in a realistic novel (as opposed to science fiction or fantasy) I need to write something that is very close to my own life, something that I know inside out. So there are many elements of autobiographicality, to make up a word, in this books, and it’s certainly what I wish had happened to me in college. But I am far more solitary as a person than Ronny is. I think Ronny is like his mother and needs a relationship. That’s not really me; I’m a lifelong singleton.

GA: Frankly, I have a sense there are many colleges and many parts of the country where a relationship between a clearly gay “nerd” like Ronny and a jock identifying as straight like Ben would be as complicated and frustrating today as it was in the 70s.  But what is your feeling about that? 

JG: I think it’s interesting that people say Ben identifies as straight; in the book it’s Ronny who identifies him that way. Ben himself refuses to say who or what he is. And Ben has had a sexual encounter with a boy before. So I think he understands that there is something in his sexuality that’s not fixed. When he understands what Ronny wants from him, he goes where his attractions take him, without much angst about it. He’s concerned not to be found out in terms of his relationship with Ronny, of course, but that’s understandable, and Ronny is the same way. I think it’s clear that being a gay or bisexual football player would be very complicated today. We’re only just at a point where a gay NFL athlete can be public, and there haven’t been more than a handful who have done so.

GA: Just so you know, my parents went to Duke, and as you are a UNC Tarheel, my understanding is that makes us lifelong enemies.  First, I extend a hug peace offering.  Second, how much of UNC’s culture and environment made you who you are?  How do you feel about the school’s relationship with the LGBTQ+ community then and today?

JG: I return your hug. I almost went to Duke myself; I had a scholarship there but had always dreamed of being at Chapel Hill. My years at Chapel Hill were electric; I finally understood that brains had a value, that writing could be a means of doing something more than amusing myself. I had a stable, peaceful life for the first time. There’s no way to measure what the university gave me. I will always be grateful for that. During my years there the Carolina Gay Association was formed and came into being; this was at a time when I had come out to only a handful of people, and I was astonished at the notion that there was a parallel world of people like me. But I never thought much about what the school thought of me being gay and didn’t ask for any particular nurture from that. So I don’t really have an opinion to express about your latter question.

GA: I’m not sure this is fair to ask, but when thinking about all your works, are there any characters or stories you love the most?  Or that you think about the most?

JG: At the moment, this book is the one I love the most and these are the characters that matter to me. I like to think about Ben and Ronny and how long they might be together. I love all my books, but I can’t deny that Winter Birds and Dream Boy are the most special to me. They came first, and when I was publishing those books everything seemed possible.

GA: You’ve been interviewed many times.  Is there a question you’ve never been asked that you’ve always wanted to be asked?  And if so, could you answer it? 

JG: No one has ever asked me about my favorite color, which is green.

GA: And >>poof<< here’s your genie question:   If you had one wish with the caveats that you’re not allowed to ask for unlimited wishes or world peace, what might you wish for? 

JG: You and your tricky legalistic restrictions! The wish that’s deepest in my heart at the moment is that I continue to love writing as much as I always have. Sometimes these days I feel as if I could let it go. Aging is as harsh as Bette Davis said. But even when I have doubts about myself or my viability or my writing, I still find myself coming back to the page and trying to make something happen there. So let’s just say that my wish is that I publish another book, and then we’ll see what else there is.

GA: Is there anything you’re hoping to work on or accomplish next?   Any travel or other goals you’re looking forward to?

JG: I want to return to my fantasy world and finish that. By this I mean the world of the Hormling novels and Kirith Kirin. I have another substantial volume in that universe but there’s a lot more work to do.

GA: Thank you so much, Jim!

More information about Jim Grimsley and his books can be found at JimGrimsley.net

Author Photo by Kay Hinton

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