His Steadfast Love and Other Stories, the debut collection by Paul Brownsey of Glasgow, Scotland, contains sixteen short stories; despite their deceptive shortness and deft humor, these stories examine many aspects of modern gay life, and even the human condition, with a dispassionate, discerning eye.
A few stories involve characters so remote from the ordinary—Judy Garland, Queen Elizabeth II, even God Himself—that they nearly verge into the realm of speculative fiction. Certainly the title story, narrated by God, qualifies; who knew that He, like so many of His worshippers, was so intent on destroying love between men? (Granted, the relationship between Jamie and Alex appears to have run its course, but still.) But within His dark, biting humor, God (that is, Brownsey) reveals Himself to be a keen observer of humans and their relationships: how they begin, endure, fall apart, even resurrect themselves.
For example, about Jamie and Alex, God notes, “They have always enjoyed verbal plays. It’s one of their foundations. You, reader, are incredulous: `Something as flimsy as that—a foundation? For love, lifelong union, etc.?’ But anything at all can be a foundation; I know.” (Page 101) Indeed, Brownsey shows this in “True in my Fashion,” which opens the collection: the narrator first confesses a single white lie he has told his lover, and then the elaborate mechanisms he creates to keep his lover from finding out the truth; a lie may be a strange foundation for a long-term relationship, but in a way it demonstrates the myth-making that a couple (any couple) engages in over time. Similarily, “Continuing City” documents an epistulary relationship between two men that lasts a quarter century—an intermittent, annual correspondence that began after a single one-night stand, and lasted longer than any physical relationship that either man had during that time. “Human Relationships under Capitalism” tells the story of Simon and Barratt, who were business partners and lovers, until their shared business began to fail, which ultimately led to the disintegration of their nineteen-year relationship. (Which then raises the question, can bringing back the former somehow reinstate the latter?)
For all their surreality and even unreality, these stories will strike chords of recognition with most gay men (indeed, anyone who has navigated the uncertain seas of relationships). For example, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which compresses an entire relationship—infatuation, settling down, infidelity, and finally break-up—into a week and a half, pokes fun at the lesbian stereotype of instant coupledom, but who hasn’t met someone and immediately been convinced that they’ve met The One? Typically, once the infatuation has worn off, reality sets in and the relationship ends nearly as quickly as it began (even if you’ve already planned it years into the future).
So if you want to find out what really happened to Judy Garland (hint: she didn’t die in 1969, never mind that she inspired the Stonewall Riots), or how to talk to Her Royal Majesty the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (etc., etc.) when lecturing her about gay rights, or even if a relationship where two men don’t actually see each other for twenty-five years can withstand them meeting face-to-face again, then by all means buy this collection; don’t be surprised if lurking within the humor you find yourself grappling with these and larger questions.
Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske