Monthly Archives: November 2022

Desire Lines – Cary Alan Johnson (Querelle Press)

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Querelle Press

The Vivian Maier photo gracing the cover of Cary Alan Johnson’s Desire Lines pretty much tells you what you need to know. A young Black boy stands on the deck of a ferry with his hands in his back pockets, looking at the 1980s Manhattan skyline as he tries to figure out how. or even if, he figures into that cityscape. As it turns out, part of the answer lies in Africa, part of it waits in the bars, and yet another part balances addiction and redemption in Johnson’s restless and searching debut novel.

An unnamed Black narrator raised in Brooklyn longs for the life on the other side of the river, getting as far as Hell’s Kitchen, where he lives in a five-floor walkup as he and his friends cruise the bars and make connections just as the AIDS crisis comes along. In part to escape the deadly disease, our narrator takes the Peace Corps route to Zaire. In orientation for that trip, he meets a straight, biracial woman named Regina who becomes his best friend both in Africa and when they return to New York City. They continue as roommates, the narrator falling for a man who introduces him to cocaine and, finally, crack before he breaks the downward spiral.

Johnson obviously knows the milieu and the time period in question, as his descriptions of the political and sexual landscape are dead accurate, and I’ll also wager he knows something about substance abuse. He does an excellent job with the gradations of addictive behavior, and the scene where he finally realizes his dealer is entirely in control is both scarifying and heart-rending.

Two of the most important characters here, however, are the places in which the narrator lives. He has NYC–both Brooklyn and Manhattan–down cold. You can feel the grit and decay of the 80s. But the chapters taking place in Africa are noticeably less impressive in terms of local flavor, which initially bothered me. However, as these episodes unfold, it’s easy to see the primary goal here is the introduction of Regina and the formation of their friendship rather than a travelogue.

Desire Lines is a gritty, realistic trip back to some hard times, but its characters and sense of place make it worth your while.


© 2022 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Homo Novus – Gerard Cabrera (Rattling Good Yarns Press)

Set in New England in the 1980s, Cabrera’s debut novel excavates the lives of an older and a younger Catholic priest, both of whom are struggling to reconcile their gayness with their faith and institutional indoctrination. Their stories are steeped in scriptural contemplation, organizational contradictions, and the tension between the Church’s hardline orthodoxy and the changing modern world. Based on the eruption of child abuse scandals in the Church over the past two decades and the subsequent public conversation about systematic cover ups and whether there’s a place for gay men in the priesthood, Homo Novus is a novel that will likely provoke reactions from many readers, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.

Fr. Linus Fitzgerald and young seminarian Orlando Rosario enter the story at a time of crisis. Orlando rushes Linus to a Springfield hospital straight off their flight back from a vacation in Puerto Rico. Linus is weak and feverish and wakes up in a spare, segregated unit of the hospital. There’s a spoiler in the book’s back cover blurb: Linus has been diagnosed with AIDS. The narrative proceeds via each man’s recollections of how this tragedy came to be, along with a few key present time interactions.

As Orlando returns home and somewhat aggressively takes up a daily routine, he’s stung by fragmented memories, through which we learn his history and his relationship with Linus. Raised in a devout, working-class Puerto Rican family, Orlando’s entrance to the priesthood was practically preordained. Opportunities for poor, brown-skinned boys were limited, and sending Orlando, at fourteen years old, to a pre-seminary boarding school in Massachusetts offered a symbolic improvement in family status as well as a better education and the promise of a good career.

More personally, becoming a priest provided shy, uncertain Orlando with his first chance to feel purposeful and special. Then he meets Fr. Linus, an unsparing instructor at the boarding school. Linus is brutal in his criticism of Orlando, yet he invites him into a private relationship where they spend time alone and go to dinner together off campus. Orlando is humbled and eager for the attention, and when Linus introduces him to physical intimacy, Orlando feels even more special.

Confined to his bed with a stigmatized and fatal diagnosis, Linus reflects bitterly on the slights and hypocrisies that led to his downfall. Like Orlando, he began seminary training at a young age and committed his life to a higher purpose before he had time to grow up and understand himself. The seminary was a harsh, austere place in the 1950s, and the authoritarian world of the priesthood has fortified him with a sense of self-importance as well as denials and rationalizations for his sexual and emotional exploitation of Orlando (and other teenage seminarians). Still there are cracks in his certainty. How is it that his hand, guided by God, can perform both the holiest of sacraments for his parishioners and the most reviled sins of the flesh? The Church provided little guidance on how to manage his sexuality within the confines of celibacy, even when Linus underwent a mandatory rehabilitation program to discreetly correct sexual transgressions among the clergy.

Cabrera is a stylish writer but not overly so, which makes for enjoyable reading. There are lovely lyrical moments in his prose and unusual structural choices in his narrative (some chapters are written in screenplay form), but they’re not overdone in a way that hurts the storytelling flow.

What one appreciates even more is how well Cabrera gets inside both characters, enabling them to show themselves to the reader and thereby allowing the reader to decide on their own how they should feel about them. Many will come to the conclusion that Linus is a despicable predator, yet his story forces one to grapple with the ways he was harmed and let down by the Church himself. Orlando is a victim, but one sees his contradictory impulses as well, which both surprise and humanize him as a struggling young adult.

Long passages that ruminate on the Church’s teachings on sin and priestly purity will be of greater interest to Catholic readers than non-Catholics, but overall, Homo Novus is an expertly crafted character-driven novel that should have wide appeal.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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Dot & Ralfie – Amy Hoffman (University of Wisconsin Press)

Dorothy “Dot” Greenbaum and Rafaela “Ralfie” Santopietro, the two eponymous characters of Amy Hoffman’s latest novel, are two old-school dykes from Boston, a classic femme-butch pair who have been together for more than thirty years. An elementary school librarian and worker for the Boston Department of Public Works, respectively, they have built a comfortable life together: stable jobs, a condo with a modest mortgage, a small circle of friends and family; a life that comes crashing down around them after Ralfie has a long-delayed knee replacement surgery. Their third-floor walk-up suddenly seems less charming to both Ralfie and Dot, who has a heart attack not long after Ralfie’s surgery. They begin exploring options: Dot’s younger sister Susan tries to convince them to move into, not an “old folks home,” but rather a “condo development” in an outer suburb; the idea appeals to no one but Susan. Dot investigates an antiseptic senior housing development nearby (with an elevator), but they simultaneously earn too much to qualify as low income and too little to afford the place at market share. Even a condo at the high-rise where Viola, a work colleague,and sometime lover of Dot’s, lives is out of the question (Viola acknowledges that even she couldn’t afford to buy her own condo now). Then Ralfie, back at work, falls out of a small tree and is hospitalized again….

The above plot synopsis sounds dire, but it reflects a grim reality that many LGBTQ+ seniors currently or will have to face: how do they remain independent, and “age in place” outside of the usual heteronormative structures? Not that it is necessarily guaranteed to be easier for non-Gay seniors to do the same, but Dot and Ralfie have no adult children to assist them—at least their marriage is recognized as such.  And even having a supportive community of friends and family can quickly look like meddling. I will say that everything eventually works out for everyone involved, although, as in so much of life, the route to that outcome is by no means easy or straightforward.

As serious as the narrative gets, Hoffman injects enough wry humor into the story to keep it from becoming a total downer. For example, the condo development that Susan tries to convince Dot and Ralfie to move to (and which she eventually moves to instead) is named “Maple Grove”–everyone except Susan refers to it as “Maple Grave.” And a comment made by one of the characters about Route 95 disrupting the laws of Einsteinian physics will surely make any native Bostonian readers laugh out loud.

As bad as things get for Dot and Ralfie, things would have been infinitely worse for either of them without the other: for despite the bickering, misunderstandings, even outright infidelity, it is clear to us –and to them—that they love each other and are deeply committed to each other, and will do whatever they can to make their lives work. (Well, except for moving to Maple Grave, of course.) Ostensibly this novel is about overcoming the obstacles facing LGBTQ+ seniors; in truth it is about how much easier it is to be resilient in life with supportive family, friends, and co-workers.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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