Monthly Archives: December 2020

After Elias – Eddy Boudel Tan (Dundurn Press)

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Dundurn Press

Grief is a highly personal process that can manifest itself in many different ways, as you could surmise from my review of Peter Dubé’s The Headless Man. Maybe I should read happier books, you think, and maybe you’re right. However, I’d miss out on some genuinely interesting and moving stories, like Eddy Boudel Tan’s After Elias.

Coen Caraway is at a resort in Mexico waiting for his husband-to-be, Elias, and all the attendees for their destination wedding. Elias, a pilot, is flying in later that day and most of the guests are on their way when Elias’s plane crashes with no survivors. Coen decides to carry on, turning the aborted wedding into a celebration of Elias’s life, but details coming to light after the crash suggest it might not have been an accident.

The wisdom of his decision notwithstanding, Coen is a powerful character. His understandable grief turns to frustration, rage, desperation, and many other emotions, and author Tan balances these all out with finesse, never going over the top with any of them. Between the flashbacks to their life together and the real-time celebration of life—for all its awkwardness—the reader gets an intimate portrait of a relationship whose cracks were beginning to show but were still easily plastered over.

As Coen’s doubts grow, he finds a photo of Elias as a child and decides to take a side-trip to visit Elias’s hometown to see if he can find some answers, moral support provided by his best friend, Vivi, and his brother, Clark, who join him on this odyssey. Clark is another interesting character, tired of the patterns they’d established when they were kids and wanting to engage with Coen on an entirely different level.

In fact, Tan shines in the department of character creation. All the major characters are fully realized and move through the plot confidently. The story never lags, from Coen’s finding out about the crash on TV in a crowded bar to the final revelation provided by Elias’s mother in the concluding scenes. You never know quite where this will go, and I love that. Tan’s prose is uncluttered but not plain. His descriptions of the resort paradise are wonderful, but this novel isn’t about a sense of place—in this world. After Elias is a close examination of not only grief but the disconnectedness of the one left behind and how the survivor restarts in a different direction after such a fatal blow. It provides little in the way of answers—for there are no definitive answers—but paints a detailed and believable portrait of how one man deals with the loss. Highly recommended.


© 2020 Jerry L. Wheeler

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The Headless Man – Peter Dubé (Anvil Press)

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The intersection of a reader’s experience and an author’s work is unpredictable and fraught with both danger and possibility, which is what makes it so invigorating. The promise of a new read is heady, especially when you’ve enjoyed the author’s work before. But what happens when external forces put a filter between you and the author in midstream? A lens clicks over it, like at the optometrist, and suddenly you don’t see what you saw before. Or maybe you can’t see it at all anymore.

I’ve known Montreal surrealist poet Peter Dubé for many years, and I’ve always enjoyed both his poetry and his prose. His Conjure: A Book of Spells (Rebel Satori Press, 2014) is one of my favorite collections of poetry, so I was excited to receive his latest, The Headless Man: A Novel in Prose Poems.

The spells in Conjure were a tough, albeit rewarding, nut to crack, so I was delighted to find the poems comprising Headless Man were more accessible, providing me with enough of a narrative framework to not only carry me forward but allow me to relax enough to enjoy Dubé’s terse, emotive language. Lots of short sentences. Pieces. Parts. Strung together with articles or pronouns. Then a rush of unpunctuated paragraph, awash with semicolons and connectivity. A rope of meaning in a sea of images. Patterns began to emerge, a whole forming.

What I found most interesting at this point was, as Dubé indicates in “The Birth of the Headless Man,” is the headless man actually has a head. He was born with it at his side, eyes open. But he chooses to close its eyes and hide it. He doesn’t even attempt to put it on. As I read ahead in the table of contents, I see titles like: “The Headless Man Enters Town,” “The Headless Man Goes to the Bank,” “The Headless Man Goes to the Movies,” “The Headless Man Discovers Music,” and “The Headless Man Goes to the Leather Bar,” so I know he’s to undergo a wealth of experiences but has made the choice to do so without the organ that would make all of those experiences worthwhile. How does he find the worth in those experiences, I wonder? Interesting question, one maybe to base a review on. But just as he enters the city and begins to have his adventures, that lens clicked over.

My dog died.

Duncan had been diagnosed the month before with a pretty large and very aggressive tumor near his anal sac. We declined surgery or chemo, feeling he would have no idea why we were doing these awful things to him. No quality of life. So, we decided to spoil him senseless until it was time. Above all, we didn’t want him to suffer. Since the tumor was impacting his anus, we knew it was becoming increasingly difficult for him to poop. But that was the only time you’d see anything different about him. He was still bright-eyed, loved his treats, his walks, and his food. “You’ll know when it’s time,” people said. But when do you really? The best you can do is guess.

Through a much darker lens now, that’s when The Headless Man became about miscommunication or the inability to communicate at all. Added to the mix was our concern for Duncan’s one year younger sister, Lexie, who has never known life without Duncan. What did she know? How was she going to cope with being alone? Our pet communicator, Rebecca Blackbyrd, went a long way toward helping us understand and cope with what our dogs were feeling and going through, but in the end, we just had to decide. We set a date, had a euthanasia service come out, and we put him down at home. Right where he used to watch me cook.

I lost the connectivity to The Headless Man. I could only see the parts and not the whole. The images and not the rope. Or rather, I could see the rope but I could only see it in terms of parts—knots, fraying ends, fibers. I couldn’t hook any of it together anymore. None of it had any meaning for me. I tried to start it over again. I read my notes, but I just couldn’t get a grasp on it. It seemed a lifetime away. Duncan’s lifetime.

So, why even write the review?

Because Peter Dubé has a talent as immense as his love for life, and The Headless Man is an interesting read full of big questions and vivid imagery and is well worth your time if you’re a fan of poetry or surrealism. It’s art that asks the reader to dig deep and exult in its complexities, applying them to the bigger picture. And it deserves your attention.

Besides, Duncan would have wanted me to finish. Leave no bone unchewed, no corner unsniffed, and no bed unwarmed. Goodbye, my beamish boy. You’ll always be my sous chef.


© 2020 Jerry L. Wheeler

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As if Death Summoned – Alan E. Rose (Amble Press)

Bywater Books, long a publisher of lesbian and feminist fiction and narrative non-fiction, is beginning an imprint dedicated to writers of color and to writers across the broader queer continuum. The inaugural book from the Amble Press imprint will be As if Death Summoned by Alan E. Rose, a powerful novel about dying—and therefore by extension, living.

The novel begins with an incident known as the Mt Bogong Tragedy. In August of 1936, three men attempted the first winter crossing of the Bogong High Plains, a vast plateau in the Victorian Alps, some 150 miles north of Melbourne. Caught in a blizzard, only two of the men survived the experience: the third, Cleve Cole, died from exposure. When his body was found, an aborigine woman called Black Mary said, “They brought back only his body.” In subsequent years, hikers walking in the region would report seeing a lone figure, who would vanish when approached.

From there, the novel jumps forward to February of 1995, where an unnamed Narrator returns to Portland, Oregon to hold vigil in a hospital while a friend is dying. During his overnight stay at the hospital, in a series of intertwined flashbacks, we learn more about the Mt Bogong Tragedy, the Narrator’s prior twelve months as a mental health specialist at the Columbia AIDS Project (CAP), and about his ten-year relationship with his lover Gray in Australia immediately preceding his return to the Pacific Northwest—as well as the real reason for the hospital vigil. In many respects, the Narrator is a modern-day Cleve Cole: only his body has returned to Portland. Before the novel begins, he has already performed more than thirty of these hospital vigils, and he is beyond burned out (when he applies to work at the CAP, he has to reassure the rest of the staff that he himself is not suffering from AIDS, because he looks so physically unwell). Over the course of the novel, he learns how to connect to people, how to love again—in short, how to live.

Initially, I have to confess that I was not expecting to enjoy this novel. Haven’t we all read enough AIDS novels already? Do we really need another one? But once I started, I couldn’t put it down. Rose’s novel retells the early days of the AIDS pandemic in Australia and the States during the 80s and 90s, a time when being diagnosed with HIV meant one’s death was imminent. In an introduction, Rose notes the striking differences and similarities between the AIDS and Covid-19 pandemics: in particular, the amount of misinformation, and denial, and especially governmental disregard and how they have played into the spread of both diseases. Moreover, the very human need for connection with others will always hamper any attempts to halt the spread of a contagious disease.

At the end of the novel, the Narrator states:

I recalled my first conversation with Cal, almost one year ago, and his odd statement, how fortunate we were to have been part of this. Part of an epidemic? No, he meant fortunate to have been part of humanity rising up to its noblest and best in meeting a modern plague, fortunate to have witnessed so much courage and compassion, so much grace and dignity, so much self-sacrifice and love. And humor! Undying humor in the face of death. “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” he said.

And in that moment, I realized, neither would I.

While I can not say that I have reached that level of acceptance/serenity/whatever concerning the AIDS pandemic (much less the current Covid-19 pandemic), I can honestly say that I would not have missed reading his novel.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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