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I really wanted to like this book. I wanted it to be interesting and heartbreaking with marvelously drawn characters and an intense follow-through on its fascinating premise. Unfortunately, that’s not quite what I got.
Missouri is the story of fictional English poet Douglas Fortescue who, due to an Oscar Wilde-style sexual imbroglio, has to escape his native land for refuge in the nineteenth-century American midwest. There, his coach is robbed and he’s kidnapped by a gang of outlaws headed by young Joshua Jenkyns who learned to read by studying Fortescue’s work. Jenkyns and Fortescue fall in love (sort of) and run from the law as well as Fortescue’s rescuing brother, Douglas. Great potential, huh?
Not once, however, does Missouri come close to fulfilling its promises. It has no sense of place at all, which is unsettling and disorienting considering the time period in which it takes place. I could ride past that and claim that the author is refusing to succumb to Western cliches but the few attempts she makes to play off those cliches come off clumsy and lame.
Then, there’s the problem of character. Fortescue is oddly …well, unwholesome. I don’t have to love – or even like – every character for the book to succeed. Some of the best books I’ve read are populated by scoundrels and rogues, but Wunnicke’s Fortescue is inexplicably icky. At least I understand Jenkyn’s feral and fearsome nature, but when the two men come together, I wonder why they are attracted to each other.
Part of the problem is the book is too short (less than 140 pages) to explore any of these relationships in depth. I applaud terse, sparse writing but there are times when themes must be expanded upon and reveled in so the reader can get a better look at the internal structures that make the characters tick. I’m not asking for the excessive length of Lonesome Dove here, but at least Larry McMurtry knows how to create people that jump off of every sweaty page.
There’s also an odd blurb on the back cover that claims the book is “destined to become a gay men’s camp classic for its earnest, romantic reinterpretation of a time and place in American history traditionally closed off to gay readers.” Romantic? Earnest? Perhaps – it’s too short to say. But camp? Oh, I don’t think so. Camp implies a certain sophisticated, winking, tongue-in-cheek attitude rightfully lacking in this book. Auntie Mame is camp. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is camp. Missouri is not.
What Missouri is is a book of missed opportunities that tries hard but ultimately falls as flat as the midwestern landscape it attempts to depict. And that, my friends, is a damn shame. It coulda been a contender.
Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler