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Mark Merlis’s version of history is always delightfully skewed, which is why I loved An Arrow’s Flight so much. Instead of reworking Sophocles again, however, Merlis has moved on to more recent times. In his latest, JD, he takes on largely pre-Stonewall gay history but does so through a dead queer novelist’s wife’s narration–a tricky viewpoint to say the least. But don’t be concerned. JD is a multi-leveled, multi-layered dream of a novel so sharp you don’t realize it’s cutting your heart out until it falls into your lap.
Jonathan Ascher is a critically acclaimed 1960’s radical writer of poetry and a couple of novels who never really achieved the kind of success he seemed, at the beginning of his career, cut out for. After a couple of strokes in the early 1970’s, he dies with that promise unfulfilled. Thirty years pass and, eventually, a professor wants to write a book about Ascher, approaching his wife, Martha, about the project. Prompted to read Ascher’s journals for the first time, Martha discovers his sexual adventures in the gay underground as well as the thorny relationship he had with their son, Mickey, a supposed casualty of the Vietnam War but, really, a casualty of family life.
Ascher appears only through his journal entries, but Martha continues to interact and argue with him as she reads about his affairs. She, of course, knew about them vaguely during his life but has never confronted the truth in detail. She also realized somewhere that they had both failed Mickey. Jonathan, however, fails him in a way Martha could only guess. The truth about that relationship angers her more than anything else she encounters in those journals. Mickey also only appears in Ascher’s journal entries, but all three characters are so fully realized and distinctively voiced that I’m left in awe. Together, they represent the disintegration of a family not through any covert destruction, but a simple neglect. They are incapable of nourishing each other, so all three of them die slowly inside their routines. The result is both sad and cautionary.
But the world Merlis creates in those journal entries is not the only one here. Martha’s decision whether or not to allow gay college professor Philip Marks to write about her husband is also a major part of the novel. But the relationship between Martha and Marks is particularly puzzling. He stays with her a couple of days during a power outage when he can’t take the train home, but no matter how he explains himself or his interest in her late husband’s work, she is wary. She knows the professor wants to turn her husband into some sort of “gay icon,” which Ascher would have disdained, if not been actually offended by. His take on gay liberation after Stonewall is not about equal rights as much as it is preserving the outsider status he prizes so highly, not only in his sexuality but in his career as well. And as for the student protests of the 1970’s? He addresses one of their meetings:
If you play your cards right, you can drag this show out straight through to June, and then you’ll all go home, no examinations, everybody passes. A terrific start on your unexamined lives. And when you’re home this summer, by the pool or working in your father’s haberdashery, other kids who are no worse than you are, decent kids whose daddies couldn’t send them to the nice college you’re trying to tear down, those kids will still be dropping bombs on hapless little yellow people who don’t even know why the planes keep coming. Your little shindig won’t have done a damn thing to stop those planes. And really: when the fire rains down from the sky, the people on the ground won’t know you’re not in the cockpit. Maybe you are.
In short, JD is a wonderfully readable, fascinating portrait of the crumbling American family as seen through the eyes of an iconoclastic writer whose view of the history he’s living through is as well-observed as it is painfully personal. Highly, highly recommended.
© 2015 Jerry L. Wheeler