Minds tell logical tales of plot and sequence. Hearts tell stories of emotion and desire. But bodies … ah, bodies tell stories that incorporate both of those with an overwhelming sensuality—tactile stories filled with sound, sight, taste and smell as solipsistic as only the self can be. No one tells tales like this better than Wayne Courtois, and his new novel is a perfect example.
Paul Lavarnway finds himself in East Oak House, a spooky old mansion housing five gay men hoping to turn themselves straight through the usual group therapy and “positive” thinking exercises. We don’t know how he got there or why he stays, but in flashback we find that he’s cheated on his husband and gotten himself involved in the murder of one Lyle Cook. Or is it just the drugs house-master Brian gives him? Reality crosses swords with surreality as Paul attempts to find some answers and solve Lyle Cook’s mystery as well as his own.
Those who enter East Oak House expecting something like Courtois’ memoir, A Report from Winter will, undoubtedly, be thrown a curve. This is much less linear and bounded by family truths. It’s more an exploration of the self, hence its incredibly sensual nature as well as its selfishness. Paul is a devourer—of food, of men, of sex, of love—and he is always on the hunt for something to satisfy his appetites. Does that make him likeable? Maybe not, but it does make him interesting. Courtois pulls out all the stops here, writing feverishly literary fiction one paragraph and blatant pornography the next until the lines between the two meld into a hopeless blur. He is a master of detail and can create images so sharp they hurt. His style is sumptuous, full of little truths that lead to great revelations and even his minor characters have elements of the unforgettable.
However, let it be a warning that this book is not for those who are looking for a slam-bang, action-packed murder mystery. The events here are far more subtle, more surreal and more uncertain. They creep up slowly on little feet of dread, surrounding you before you realize what’s happening—rather like the horror movie “The Haunting,” which plays a major role in the plot.
Unfortunately, that’s what makes the too-swift ending somewhat jarring. But the more I thought about it, it couldn’t have happened any other way. Answers don’t sidle up to you and speak quietly in your ear. They hit you with quick certainty. That’s how you know it’s the answer. But I won’t even hint at it. I will tell you that my two favorite scenes are Paul’s betrayal of his husband, Eric and what happens when Paul and his housemates watch “The Haunting.” Anything else would be a spoiler.
Tales My Body Told Me is a surrealistic mystery as only Wayne Courtois could write, and I hope he never stops listening, no matter what his body tells him.
© 2010, Jerry L. Wheeler