As someone who cut his teeth on Poe and Hawthorne and Tolkien, my heart is always with the massive, epic story. Some kids craved thick, juicy steaks. I wanted thick, juicy books. That hasn’t changed as I’ve grown up, but I’ve come to balance them out with shorter stories. That doesn’t mean the shorter works aren’t just as complex, however. Sometimes, the briefest books can have multiple layers, and so it is with Dan Callahan’s That Was Something.
Bobby Quinn has done just about the most futile thing a gay man can do, and that’s fall for a straight guy. In this case, it’s one Ben Morrisey, a photographer in late 1990s Manhattan. Bonded by the nightlife, films, love of the outrageous, and the madness of New York City, Bobby and Ben also encounter a mysterious and beautiful silent film fan named Monika Lilac at one of the many screenings they attend, folding her into their sphere as they stay up late, philosophize, and obsess.
Obsession, both for cinema and romance, is the hallmark of That Was Something, so plot is secondary to character. Not much happens except ordinary everyday–for them–events: movies, sex, late night diner excursions, movies, longing for sex. The characters, though, are interesting and multi-faceted enough so you don’t notice any sameness the narrative might have had with less complex figures propelling it.
The back cover blurb portrays both Ben and Monika as the quirkier characters, but the big mystery for me in this very short book was the narrator himself. Bobby floats through his own life like a ghost. Ben controls his heart, Monika his mind, and a series of dominating, rough boyfriends (Arthur first, then Heinz) abuse his body. Which part of Bobby Quinn is uniquely Bobby? As I was reading this, my central question eventually became whether or not Bobby ever found out who Bobby was, and when I finished it, I still wasn’t sure. He becomes more confident as he steps out of their influence (not really a spoiler–the book’s also about growing up and away), but his true self remains elusive.
Callahan’s writing is clear and concise, and his characters’ insights are dead on. Cinema is obviously his metier, but he never sounds pompous about it. And he’s certainly steeped in late Nineties Manhattan, which suffuses every page of this book. A short, punchy character study and treatise on obsession, That Was Something gives you a lot to think about.
© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler