Let’s Get Back to the Party – Zak Salih (Algonquin Books)

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Algonquin Books

Two gay Millennials, once childhood friends, cross paths at a wedding in D.C.. Their brief, frosty encounter reopens unfinished business from the past and begins an intertwined search for meaning and connection. Firmly grounded in our modern times, Salih’s début novel endeavors to say something about our world. Indeed, its marketing materials proclaim: What does it mean to be a gay man today?

That’s a gutsy endeavor as we’ve come to appreciate the many shades of diversity within diversity and their impact on lived experience and identity. To put it more realistically, Salih’s novel sheds some light on how middle class, cis gender gay male Millennials are doing today. As gay literature has been dominated by Boomers and Gen Xers, a younger perspective is exciting. For me, an ol’ Gen Xer, it was also unexpectedly bleak.

One begins with Salih’s choice of flag-bearers for his generation, which establish a surprisingly uncharitable portrait from the start. Sebastian Mote, perhaps the more sympathetic of the two leads, is frozen in an inner world of insecurities, obsessions and jealousies, such that, while opportunities for emotional connection surround him, he comes across as wallowing and narcissistic. Oscar Burnham enters the story as a bitter, self-involved wedding guest, ducking through the affair, immersed in his cell phone where he’s rifling off texts to potential hook-ups about how dreary it is to have to participate in the celebration of the two grooms.

None of this is positioned with wit or contrasting viewpoint, and Oscar doesn’t get much more likeable from there. Oscar despises everything about the mainstreaming of gayness (vocally, and violently at times), and at thirty-five years old, he idolizes the good ol’ days in the rebellious, liberated 1970s and 80s, which of course he knows nothing about.

Things are not off to a good start for the modern gay man.

Characters need not be likeable to show the reader something true about the world, of course. Funny, reading Salih’s book reminded me of reading the work of Andrew Hollerhan and Alan Hollinghurst from the 1980s, whose characters cast unflattering reflections on gay men of that era, yet one could not deny they were honest, familiar. I think most readers will say the same about Salih’s Sebastian and Oscar. You know these guys as friends, acquaintances, and maybe, if you read on through the cringes, you can even admit you see a bit of yourself. The deft crafting of these flawed young men is an impressive achievement, and, while one wants to grab and shake them at times (“Have you really earned the right to be so jaded and self-loathing in our era of substantial social progress?”), there are moments where one feels for these guys.

Sebastian is hurting from a recent failed relationship with a guy he thought was “the one,” and his defensiveness is forgivable given the challenging landscape of gay dating apps and instant gratification. He’s also a hard-working high school teacher, cultivating student interest in art history, of which he’s passionate and profusely knowledgeable.

Oscar is transparently hurting on the inside as well while he brings down every boys’ night out with his diatribes against heteronormativity and his drunkenness. For anyone who’s had their favorite queer watering hole overtaken by heterosexual bachelorette parties, his outrage resonates. He wants to be “seen” in a world of evaporating queerness: nightclubs closing to make way for high-end real estate development, gay men blending into the suburban scenery. With LGBTQ+ sociopolitical progress, we’ve lost a sense of culture and community, which is particularly important for single gay men like Oscar. He’s also estranged from a homophobic family.

Yet, Salih takes strange turns with Sebastian and Oscar’s stories that don’t quite create compelling character arcs or insight really. Taken as character studies, their stories are exciting, even thrilling at times, but in endeavoring to show character change through complex circumstances, Salih seems to have bitten off more than he can chew. As Sebastian withdraws the world, immersing himself in his work, his need for emotional connection demands to be dealt with and leads to an obsession with a student who’s living an out and proud life. Oscar pursues solutions for himself through an equally intense emotional bond with an author of some repute who chronicled his sexual escapades in the 70s and 80s.

One sees Salih’s purposes with the juxtaposition: one man looking to the future for answers on how to live as a gay and the other looking to the past. But the desperation of their pursuits feels, if not forced, rather shallow, even pathological. In each case, there’s no real empathy for the object of their desire; it’s a narcissistic exercise. Seventeen-year-old Arthur becomes a projection of who Sebastian would have liked to have been, and when that fantasy disintegrates, Sebastian turns coldly away from the boy at a time when Arthur could use his support. The same pattern plays out for Oscar and his hero Sean Stokes. What Sebastian and Oscar have learned from these experiences is unclear, and their stories’ endings are further muddled by the evoking of a national tragedy as a catalytic event for their growth. It’s not quite convincing.

Of note, Salih’s prose is crisp and effective in forward-moving scenes, but some of his stylistic choices are distracting and unpleasant. Dialogue embedded in dense paragraphs. Chapter names taken from classical paintings for Sebastian’s point-of-view.

Sexually provocative chapter names for Oscar’s, somehow tied to Sean’s book-within-the-book. Alternating scenes from past and present that choke the narrative flow. There’s just a bit too much going on.

Ambitious, provocative, textured, overly complicated and overreaching at times, it’s exactly what a good début novel should be. So, what does it mean to be a gay man today? You won’t find all the answers, but Let’s Get Back to the Party is certainly a good conversation-starter among friends.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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