Nathan Landis, dubbed “the Mayor of Oak Street” by his father, knows a lot of secrets: in 1960s Illinois, where small-town residents mind each other’s business, he has a habit of entering into the unlocked homes of his paper route customers, and so knows who keeps a less-than-spotless house, who might be addicted to diet pills, which unmarried couple of female roommates might be…something more than just roommates. Of course, Nate himself has his own secrets: the aforementioned habit of trespassing, his own growing dependence on the diet pills he steals, and the slowly dawning awareness that he might be…different.
These secrets all come to a head—explosively—after Nicholas Baronian and his family move to Oak Street. The athletic, musical, cultured doctor immediately captivates Nate, who enters Dr. B’s empty house at every opportunity. It is during one such “visit” that Nate spies Dr. B going down on James Beard, his tennis partner, when his wife is out of town. And finally, some years later, when Mrs. Baronian uncovers the truth and shoots James, it is Nate who helps Dr. B deal with the immediate fallout. Although not implicated in the ensuing scandal, once Dr. B leaves town, Nate relies more and more on drugs to cope; first with the stresses of high school, then the stresses of attending Tulane, and the perils and pitfalls of coming out and first love. And when Nate’s relationship with Marc, his first boyfriend, ends, along with an unexpected chance meeting with Dr. B, Nate’s downward spiral culminates with a visit to the ER.
Meis’ novel defies easy categorization: darker than most coming-of-age stories (it has a trigger warning on the copyright page), it likewise guarantees no happy ending for these potential lovers, or even that Nate will escape his self-destructive trajectory. The carefree mix of sex, drugs, and found family reminds one of Tales of the City, albeit set in New Orleans instead of San Francisco. But it is the turbulent events of the Sixties and Seventies (e.g., the Vietnam War, Kent State) playing out in the background that reinforce the novel’s somber tone. For all that Meis uses actual historical events to ground his novel, it is not a “historical” novel as such; for example, while Woodstock is mentioned, Nate attends a similar music festival in Florida instead. Similarly, the Stonewall Riots are mentioned in passing, but it is the the devastating fire at the Up Stairs Lounge in 1973 that Meis focuses on; that tragedy actually takes center stage for several chapters and propels the narrative, forcing matters between Nate and Dr. B to a climax. Although Meis may not have intended to write a historical novel, The Mayor of Oak Street does provide a glimpse of a more “innocent” time, as the era between Stonewall and the onslaught of AIDS is sometimes portrayed, seen through the eyes of a flawed protagonist. The view, however, is not nostalgic: finally having his fill of secrets, Nate looks unflinchingly at his own life, and the times he lived in, and lays all those secrets bare.
Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske