Hope – William Neale (MLR Press)

Buy it now direct from MLR Press

During an interview this past May, Molly
Ringwald, discussing her most well-loved film Pretty in Pink, stated
that Duckie, a character in the film, was gay. 
I smiled when I read this interview.  
As a not-quite-out-of-the-closet-even-to-myself gay man, I adored
Duckie.  I went to see Pretty in Pink several
times in the theatre (this was prior to the ubiquity of VCR’s: yes, I said it,
“VCR’s”).  Twice with my girlfriend.  During the final scenes, I fantasized that
somehow Duckie, after being cast aside by Andy (Ringwald’s character), would
find his misfit self in the hallways of my high school and we could live
happily ever after.  At that time, the
formula of the romantic comedy was not a story about love, it was its transcription—and
for many, many years, I searched in vain for romantic comedies in which gay men
were the protagonists.  A much younger
version of myself felt that once romantic comedies with gay characters
circulated in mainstream media, gay people would have arrived.

With Hope—William Neale’s
posthumously published fourth installment to his Home series—readers
have just such a novel.  Neale has given
us the classic summer book, a perfect beach read.  His characters—from the rich and powerful,
longing-to-be-transformed bad boy Thomas, to the stunningly good-looking,
struggling-novelist Spencer, to the gay dads Rogan and Lucas, to the cellist
with a heart of gold Hunter, to the high-school football star Rogie—all long
for love and happiness; their quests seem familiar and end well.  These characters, while unrealistic in many
respects, seem quite believable:  they
act and talk like us, or like people we know—their desires are our desires,
their struggles our struggles.  The book
presents a number of obstacles to the characters’ happiness, and maintains a
sense of suspense, about both romantic and other matters, but moves along in a
manner that is easy to follow, without becoming boring.  The characters act like gay men from our
neighborhoods and bars, without being stereotypes; they encounter homophobia
and prejudice, without being solely victims of a cruel world; they are
supported and successful, without being poster children for pride.  Some plot points are resolved a bit too
quickly and others are resolved a bit too mawkishly, but the book is, without a
doubt, a page-turner.

At the story opens, Spencer has been
abandoned by his closeted boyfriend. 
(Apparently, as lovely and delightful as Spencer is, the prospect of a
career in the NFL is even more appealing.) 
Spencer starts a new life in Cleveland as an English teacher and
assistant football coach at an elite boys’ prep school.  He stays with two good friends, where he
mentors their teenage son.  He also meets
two men—one, the CEO of a computer firm, who comes on just a bit too strong and
one, the father of a child in need of a heart transplant, who resists Spencer’s
affections because he feels they will distract from his ability to be a good
father.  Like any good romantic comedy,
the formation of happy couples marks the narrative’s end.  I’ll let the reader discover which couples
are formed.

Although the fourth installment in a
series, Hope stands alone quite well. 
While I found myself intrigued enough by the characters to consider
reading earlier novels in which they appear, I never found myself unable to
follow the story or connections between characters in this volume.  At the same time, I never found myself
slogging through pages of exposition that summarized prior events in these
characters’ lives.  So, the book’s
pleasures are on offer for both Neale fans and Neale neophytes.

Hope is a romantic novel, not a pornographic
one.  There is definitely tension around
desire, and even a couple of sex scenes, but there is no graphic content.  At the same time, I often found myself turned
on as I read.  Having said this, however,
there is another way in which this novel is not suitable for “children.”

As noted above, Neale’s vision of love and
happiness, his conception of home, his narrative of hope circles around the
couple.  And this couple is emphatically
a monogamous couple.  The villain
of the piece, the one who must explain his actions and prove himself, is the
one who sleeps around.  To be promiscuous
is bad, the root cause of unhappiness, the tragic consequence of childhood
trauma.  And even sluts, in Neale’s
world, would never dream of having sex without a condom and feel quite
comfortable noting their superiority to those who make their living taking
money for providing sex.  In Neale’s
world, teenagers don’t struggle to come out: 
coming out is relatively easy, and it is followed by announcing
life-long fealty to one’s first boyfriend, a pronouncement that is celebrated
as fully authentic rather than looked at wryly by one’s parents.

Romantic comedies are mythological tales
about love.  And, as both Roland Barthes
and Bruce Lincoln have so elegantly argued, mythic models are the vehicle of a
culture’s ideology.  They warp our sensibilities,
often presenting unrealistic ideals about what is possible, while at the same
time making it seem like an utterly unquestionable real.  I don’t critique romantic comedies as a cynic
or from a place of bitterness, even though my perspective on their vision of
personal happiness is informed by feminist and queer commitments.  Most importantly, I am no longer
interpellated by romantic comedies because I have experienced a range of
pleasures that they cannot contemplate. 
Living happily ever after with Duckie was a fantasy, and although
fantasies can provide hope to lonely, closeted gay boys living in small towns,
they can be a source of great pain when reality fails to measure up, and they
can prevent one from experiencing the richness that life beyond the movie
screen has to offer. 

In Hope, Neale gives his reader a
well-wrought, captivating, lively piece of escapist romantic fiction.  But given how such narratives can distort our
sense of what we should want and what we can get, it should definitely be
considered adults-only reading material.

Reviewed by Kent Brintnall

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