Vincent Traughber Meis has written six prior novels (one of which, The Mayor of Oak Street, I reviewed last year for Out in Print) and now he has published Far from Home, a collection of twelve short stories. Aptly named, his stories take place in Saudi Arabia, Barcelona, Turkey, Cuba, and Mexico; only two of them are set in the United States. All of the stories but one feature a Gay male character, all of whom are American. The Otherness of being Gay is therefore intensified throughout the collection, as these characters are already othered by being Americans outside of America, but then have to hide their dual otherness in such places as Saudi Arabia, Cuba, and Mexico; alienation is a constant theme, as is the fear of violence and loss.
Two of my favorite stories, “Shelter in Place” and “Reunion,” strike me as perhaps being the most autobiographical. (Of course, Meis notes that he has traveled to and/or lived in the places he writes about, so each story, if not autobiographical, is at least informed by his knowledge of these locales.) The former describes the relationship between a young American man living in Barcelona, and the much older British man he meets there. The platonic friendship that develops ends abruptly, and the reconciliation sought by the younger man is hindered by the arrival of the recent pandemic. Meis explicitly states in his acknowledgments that the latter story was inspired by attending his own fifty-year class reunion in his hometown; the protagonist learns how much (and how little) things have changed in the Midwest town that he grew up in and left (Decatur, IL, dubbed the “Soybean Capital of the World”). His life comes full circle when certain events from his youth repeat themselves.
Ostensibly, the men in these stories are searching for others like them, and possibly even love. The trio of stories set in The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (“Man in a Shalwar Kameez,” “Market Day in Qatif,” and “Manama Christmas”) in particular show how this search is complicated when it occurs in a foreign country, with barriers of language, custom, and religion. (For example, in the Middle East affection between men is common—they may embrace and touch each other in public—while actual sex between them is outlawed.) “All in the Cuban Family” moreover, depicts how complex homosexual relationships can become when enmeshed with heterosexual relationships, especially pre-existing familial ties, and then further entangled by marriage ties.
With the exception of “Blade of Grass” none of these stories have what might be called a typical happy ending. Some are perfectly ambiguous (“Backlit” is an excellent example). We often tell stories to ourselves to make some sense of our lives, to give it a narrative arc that we can follow; Meis’ stories are more like quick snapshots that give us a brief glimpse of another place or time, with the sense that the characters’ stories continue on. Since four of these stories are inspired by events depicted in his earlier novels, fans are encouraged to seek them out and read further.
Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske