A lot has happened between Trebor Healey’s fantastic, dark and trippy short story collection Eros and Dust (Lethe Press, 2016) and his latest, the beguiling literary feat that is Falling (University of Wisconsin Press, 2019). The worst of America has bubbled to the surface like an effervescent tar, staining the globe and leaving multitudes gasping in despair. The activism that Healey dove headfirst into as these endless political calamities erupted, working with refugees seeking asylum and reporting on their plight, has deepened his art. Rather than retreat inward, pulling down a smoky curtain of opium and waiting until reality improves, his stories rush to the “other” and contain not only a smoldering political urgency, but one grounded in the profundity of how the most valuable of literature has always grappled with such concerns.
The reader knows from the immaculate first story, The Fallen Man, that they are in the hands of a master craftsman as the main character struggles with amnesia in a country not his own, wrapped in fluttering prose reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. That this story offers no redemption but rather beautiful, painful knowledge is an indicator of all to come. Healey is a traveler, not a tourist. There are no white saviors here. As these stories, for the most part, unwind across Central and South America, their linkage becomes clear: we are all adrift in the world and the fractured relationships we forge might not lead to the outcomes we imagine or desire. In the first-person story, Ghost, the unnamed protagonist has the kind of raw relationship with a heroin-using male prostitute that moves beyond sex and into the seamless obsessions that fester to the surface when we find ourselves alone in other countries, those countries often being books, not places. The road-ready jazz of Kerouac pervades, ambling alongside the more visionary reach of Chilean novelist Roberto Bolańo and the English writer Jeanette Winterson, whose work is quoted throughout Ghost. There is no time to be coy in this age of information -no, make that this age of anxiety; our influences are best placed front and center, or, in the words of Winterson, “(t)true stories are the ones that lie open at the border.”
Jorge Luis Borges gets namechecked in a story or two, and the imprint of his labyrinthine imagination is a well-felt influence throughout the collection; as the complexities of cities and cultures unwind, as artists struggle with love and personal loss, and wanderers fail to find themselves but do find others. One short story in particular, Spirited Away, is a verdant meditation on loss and relationship:
Vic never went back to the village, and after that, he painted Henry, and he painted hongos, and he painted a woman and the road and the waterfall that he had never actually seen and didn’t care to. He considered it Henry’s private place. As was his tendency, he painted figuratively until the figures turned into forms and then to abstractions so that you would never be able to tell that the vortexes he was fashioning were made of plants and a waterfall and Henry -and the square and its chairs and old men, and even the colonial buildings of Oaxaca and the ruined temples of the Mixtec and the Zapotec.
The closing novella, The Orchid, is a deep dive into Argentinian political machinations and personal manipulations reminiscent of Yukio Mishima’s plotting from his exquisite middle period. The overlay of heterosexual politics and gay lives as homosexuality gains as a commodity in the world is something of a new topic to be tackled by literature, and is done so here deftly and the reach of the story and multitude of characters, some sketched deeply with only minor appearances, hints that this was intended as a longer work but found authorial satisfaction in its current shape and form.
Trebor Healey’s short story collection, Falling, is recommended primarily as a work that far exceeds the reflexively introspective grasp that is current gay literature. Following the immortal urging of E. M. Forester that we “only connect,” Healey’s stories do so and with great daring, political acuity, and a genuine interest to see and hear and feel other cultures as they are, not as how they exist in relation to the fetid living corpse that is the dis-United States.
Reviewed by Tom Cardamone
More on Trebor Healey’s activism: https://www.newsweek.com/inside-migrant-caravan-we-have-room-these-amazing-people-opinion-1211851
Tom Cardamone is the editor of Crashing Cathedrals: Edmund White by the Book, and is the author of the Lambda Literary Award-winning speculative novella Green Thumb as well as the erotic fantasy The Lurid Sea and other works of fiction, including two short story collections. Additionally, he has edited The Lost Library: Gay Fiction Rediscovered and The Lavender Menace: Tales of Queer Villainy! You can read more about him and his writings at www.pumpkinteeth.net.