When cub Bill (a barista and struggling writer) meets daddybear James (a disabled factory worker) at an OctoBear Dance, more than sparks fill the air: conflagration ensues. The two men immediately embark on a winter-long affair of passionate sex-filled weekends spent in the cabin of James (located, in true Midwest fashion, “up north”) that ends on the vernal equinox, when James phones Bill that it’s not going to work out between them and then hangs up.
Thus begins Raymond Luczak’s novel Flannelwood, which starts not at the beginning of the relationship between Bill and James, but rather at the end; the rest of the novel is Bill examining the arc of his romance with James, in an effort to understand how something that was going so well could end so abruptly, so completely. Along the way, the fortysomething Bill retells his entire life trajectory, compulsively searching for a reason, any reason for the end of their relationship. He revisits his childhood, the slow realization that he was different from his family and the members of the rural community he grew up in, his escape to college, his eventual coming out and the repercussions within his family, his relationship with Craig (who succumbs to AIDS), and the subsequent loneliness that is briefly lifted when he meets James. It is only near the end of the novel that Bill learns a truth about James that causes him to re-evaluate their time together; in this way he finally achieves closure—their ending becomes for him a beginning.
For all that Bill feels that he has failed as a writer, his narration of the novel is profoundly poetic, deeply truthful, and unashamedly erotic. He describes perfectly the intensity of both new-found love (especially after a long absence) and the despair and confusion when a relationship ends. (The endless self-examination and asking What if… and What could I, should I, have done differently?–we have all been there.)
Luczak, not surprisingly, writes about disability directly, without being gratuitous. In the very first scene of the novel Bill recounts an incident whereby he surprises James, who has finished showering, but has not yet reattached his prosthetic shin and foot. Instead of bolting or looking away, Bill approaches James and kisses his shin, a “space far more private than anywhere else on your body.” Although the novel begins with this vivid scene, it does not define the entire novel: yes, one of the main characters is disabled, but the novel is not about his disability.
The jacket copy acknowledges that Flannelwood is Luczak’s homage to Nightwood by Djuna Barnes; a metafictional work published in 1936, it is one of the earliest novels to depict explicit homosexuality between women. Towards the end of Flannelwood, the references to Nightwood become much more explicit; Bill’s housemates quote directly from the novel while helping Bill deal with his loss. (It is also known that Barnes wrote Nightwood as a roman à clef; one cannot help but wonder if Luczak did the same.) Like many lesbian novels of the time, it ends badly for the protagonists. However, Luczak has done more than use the post-modern structure, swap the genders of the characters, and rewrite the ending: he has written his own work, a beautiful, meaningful, and above all, honest novel.
Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske