The Book of Casey Adair – Ken Harvey (University of Wisconsin Press)

The Book of Casey Adair follows a young man’s passionate journey into the unknown where art, politics, life, and sexuality converge. Written in letters and journal entries against the backdrop of political turmoil at home and abroad, Violet Quill award-winning author Ken Harvey explores the emotional barriers within Casey’s orbit following the anniversary of his father’s death. The symbolism of longing for liberation from the tyranny of dictatorship and homophobia anchors the work. Rarely does an epistolary novel of such magnitude and grace delve so deeply into the conundrum of relationships and parallel the alienation and desperation to counter threats to democracy and end discrimination. All of which makes this work so topical today.

The novel spans the first half of the 80s from Vermont to Madrid, Boston to New York and Toronto. Rendezvous with activists, actors and artists, correspondence with alumni, troubled relations with his best friend Poppy and candid journal entries speak to the political and social upheaval of the times. Casey arrives in Madrid to study theater arts on a foundation grant. His humble digs in a boarding house lead to encounters with pro-democracy activist and doctoral candidate Gustavo. Colorful characters, including an accordion playing, Franco sympathizer who comes to his defense when civil guards detain him in a park and escort him home, populate the boarding house. Imbued with a rich cultural heritage, Madrid is a character, too.

He joins his first protest that turns violent, falls for a hustler named Octavio, is outed and confronted by his roommate, parties at a prominent expat’s and connects with a theater director who invites him to try out for a major play. As his faith in religion wanes, despite his upbringing, he feels untethered and Poppy arrives to commiserate. In equal measure, their disillusionment unites them in an unexpected and troubling way as an attempted fascist coup takes place. What transpires next completely jeopardizes the relationship and demands of him a seemingly insurmountable obstacle that alters his life irrevocably.

On his circuitous route to self-discovery, he navigates virulent discrimination prior to and during the terrifying AIDS crisis.  Back in Toronto, cops are busting the baths and brutally arresting gay men. President Reagan is elected in the U.S. and dismisses the crisis which claims thousands of lives, impacting Casey personally. As he begins to fully engage in gay life, alternating between the desire to be free and the obligation to accept new roles, he takes a job at a Boston boarding school, rife with a homophobic headmaster, joins a protest in New York and stages his own theatrical coup that exacts a price he’s willing to pay. He meets and struggles to embrace a relationship with a British library researcher. Meanwhile the clarion call for familial responsibility, roiling beneath the surface, emerges and he’s confronted by the need to balance life between career ambitions, family, love and the fight for gay rights.

 What’s striking is how the work goes beyond the pursuit of love and identity into the intricacies of learning how to love. Emotions begin to clarify as expectations disappear, revealing the known as well as the unknown. As Casey observes a partially chiseled 25 B.C. sculpture of a satyr on a second visit to Madrid, Harvey writes, “the contours of who we are…started to become clear but it’ll take a while before the details emerge.” By staging emotional fidelity against the mise en scene of anarchy, the novel resonates on multiple levels. One informs the other, strengthens and reinforces the fact that the personal is indeed political. While the work captures the zeitgeist of the times, it echoes far and wide in today’s tempestuous global society.

Reviewed by Melanie Mitzner

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