Be warned: Endangered Species: A Surly Bear in the Bible Belt by Jeff Mann is aptly named—there is plenty of righteous indignation here. He suffers no fools gladly, and aims his wrath at homophobes and hypocrites of all kinds—regardless of their religious or political affiliation—and takes no prisoners.
Of course, that is not all that this volume of essays is: it also contain wry humor, nostalgia, regret, and even some acceptance and detachment. Mann wrote the twenty-two essays contained herein (of which thirteen have previously been published in print anthologies or online) over the past ten years, between 2009 and 2017. (Reader warning: Mann explains in his introductory Author’s Note that these essays were not initially intended to be collected together, so there’s a fair amount of overlap in autobiographical details. Mann eliminated some of this repetition when reprinting these essays, but kept some in order to preserve the integrity of individual essays.) That being said, they run the gamut: to borrow a culinary metaphor, this volume is a smorgasbord of writings, everything from short, lyrical elegies (“David”) to serious, substantive pieces about teaching Appalachian writers in college curricula (“The Feast Hall, the rsenal, and the Mirror”) and his literary influences (“Romantic”).
Most of Mann’s essays reflect on the various intersections in his life: being Gay; living in Appalachia; being a leatherbear; being a Gay leatherbear in a non-urban part of Appalachia. Mann recognizes that he is cast very much as a niche writer; nevertheless, most Gay readers will be able to connect with him to some extent when he writes about such universal topics as family, both by blood (“Amy”) and by spirit (“Big Queer Convocations”), and home. Additionally, older readers will empathize with Mann’s looking back as he nears middle age, and grows more contemplative. (Oh, the aging leatherbear is still surly; but now he has learned to choose which battles he will fight.) And Mann simply could not write a book of this length without also discussing food (“Scrapple,” “Muslim Food”).
While these essays are without doubt entertaining, the real value for the reader is that Mann writes unapologetically and with unflinching honesty about topics that most writers shy away from: the kind of sex that turns him on (passim), the memory of a long-ago affair (“Thomas”), hiring a hustler (“Whoremonger”), the envy he feels towards writers better known and more successful than he (e.g., his own father!), and his feelings towards the Civil War (“Confederate”) and about gun ownership (“Watch Out! That Queer’s got a Gun!”). These last two essays in particular demonstrate that Mann, rugged individualist that he is, is not afraid to hold an opinion at odds with “orthodox” liberal Gay thought. It is the rare reader that will agree entirely with Mann.
So, to those readers new to Mann and his oeuvre, this volume will be full of surprises; even long-time followers of Mann will find something new to chew upon. And as I noted above, this book is not entirely surliness: Mann writes about all the things that make life worth living—food, sex, nature, poetry, and beautiful men. And whether you gorge yourself on this feast entirely in one sitting or savor it course by course, you will find something to your taste, be it an exotic new perspective or the equivalent of literary comfort food.
Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske