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I really, really hate Eric Arvin.
Not only is he handsome, but his Facebook pics indicate he has a body that would make grown men weep (so do I, but they’d be crying for entirely different reasons). Even worse, he’s a very talented writer. His last book, Simple Men, hinted at that but didn’t live up to its promise. Woke Up in a Strange Place, however, fulfills and surpasses all expectations.
Joe has died, sparking an afterlife journey as beautiful as it is heartbreaking. He reacquaints himself with old friends and makes new ones as he trudges towards an unnamed goal. Does he meet the lover death has separated him from? Well, of course. But their story is not as simple as all that. In fact, Joe finds nothing in this strange place is as simple as it appears on the surface.
Arvin has spun a wonderful tale here—a lyric romance full of meaning and philosophy, as stunning in terms of setting as it is in character. Joe learns much from his journey as well as from his guide, Baker, a guitar-strumming folkie who lives in a treehouse. Both characters are rich and well-drawn, as are many of the “old friends” Joe meets, including old loves Declan and Guy, and Declan’s mother, Abigail. Abigail has made some regrettable mistakes from which she’s unable to move on—leaving her stuck, tending a grey garden of monstrous vegetables.
But this is only one of the bizarre, wondrous settings Arvin has in store. He also takes inside an idyllic fraternity house where all the brothers are naked (my idea of idyllic), a city where your thoughts are always visible for general consumption and innumerable, mysterious forests, plains and mountains. If this were a movie, it would be breathtaking—but Arvin’s skill as a wordsmith is almost as good at conjuring scenes that allow your imagination to run wild.
I was recently asked my opinion of gay romances. I responded that I found them mostly assimilationist as their roots are in the larger, straight culture, and I was looking for something unique and uniquely gay. Woke Up in a Strange Place comes closer to realizing that than any other romance I’ve ever read. And the ending will leave you in tears—I guarantee.
Woke Up in a Strange Place is a marvelous read—full of inventive flourishes that don’t lie in a bed of cold cliches like many other romances. This is Arvin at his best.
Unless he’s got his shirt off, that is.
Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler