I met Jeff Mann in 2006, at Saints and Sinners in New
Orleans and the first bearish blip of him on my radar screen was when he read
from “The Quality of Mercy,” the novella that ends this book. Much like the
antagonist in that story, I was captured. I rushed to the bookseller’s table
and bought a copy of the first Suspect Thoughts printing and read it on the
plane on the way home.
Five years later, the groundbreaking Suspect Thoughts Press
is no more, I have a book or two of my own under my belt, and Mann is still
kicking serious literary ass with both prose and poetry. His recent releases
for Bear Bones Books all offer their own bearded BDSM charms, but the point of
my reminiscences is that the book that started my painfully shy love affair
with Jeff and his kink is finally back into print.
The now-it-can-be-told truth is that when I review reprints
of material I’ve read previously, I rarely re-visit them. I might crack open
the cover to refresh my memory on character names and salient plot points but
that’s as far as it usually goes. That didn’t happen with A History of
Barbed Wire. From the first paragraph of “The Quality of Mercy,” (which
I’ll get back to in a bit), I was again hooked by Mann’s language, pacing and
fevered fetishistic descriptions, and I read the whole thing over again.
I admire Mann’s prose as much for its lyricism as its
bite—both proven here in magnificent stories like the foreboding “Raspberry
Moonshine,” the idyllic “Snowed in With Sam,” the melancholic “Not for Long”
and the three-way earnestness of “Daddy Dave.” But it’s “The Quality of Mercy”
I keep coming back to again and again.
In this nearly perfect novella, Sean captures a country
singer (based loosely—or wholly—on Tim McGraw) and holds him hostage in a
remote Appalachian hideaway, hoping to win the straight boy’s love and
affection through bondage, country breakfasts and the simple beauty of a
mountain summer. But there is so much more going on here than simply a power
struggle. Sean wants Tim to accept an entire ethos, an unrealistic goal which
he knows will fail. Still he has to try, even though he knows he will lose in
the end. The sex, the bondage, the humiliation, is all non-consensual and,
therefore, all the more terrifying. That’s why the resolution (which I can’t
give away) is so damn satisfying. And as wonderful as Mann’s work is in
general, this, my friends, is fucking brilliant. Please don’t miss out on it.
All this and the original introduction by the one and only
Patrick Califia make A History of Barbed Wire one of the best reprints
of the year. No wonder it won a Lambda Literary Award. Get a copy, hold your
head up high and step into Jeff Mann’s Appalachia.
But don’t forget your cuffs and ball-gag.
Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler