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The Complicated Calculus (And Cows) of Carl Paulsen – Gary Eldon Peter (Regal House Publishing)

I think I need to read more sweet stories. The current political climate has sharpened my cynicism to an almost painful point, honed daily on the news. So, when I find stories that alleviate that feeling, I don’t believe them at first. Where’s the catch? I wonder. When’s the twist coming? They’re not gonna kill the dog, are they? There are no dogs in the Gary Eldon Peter YA release, The Complicated Calculus (and Cows) of Carl Paulsen, but the titular cows are never really in danger. It’s a gentle, earnest tale worth reading.

Carl Paulsen is a fifteen-year-old son of a new, struggling dairy farmer in southern Minnesota, but his mother’s recent death isn’t his only problem. He also has a crush on also newly arrived city boy Andy Olnan who may or not feel the same way. Meanwhile, Carl’s father is not settling well into being a dairy farmer. The farm was a legacy from his late wife, who wanted to live there before she died. He and Carl are trying hard to honor her wishes, but it just isn’t working. Amidst the clashes with his father and mixed signals from Andy, Carl learns how to survive in a world without certainty.

This is a quiet book. It doesn’t have an edge or feature a bunch of screaming arguments or have some sort of daring element. That’s not to say it’s boring or has no conflict, but the major conflict of Carl’s father and the farm is handled from a place of mutual love and caring, so it’s less harsh but no less involving. The is-he-or-isn’t-he situation with Andy has more teenage angst to be sure, but even that has been dialed back. It’s a book whose virtues are solid and sure, and although the ending is happy, its calm wobble keeps you just off-balance enough to make the ride interesting.

The maternal influence in Carl’s life is one of two minor female characters appearing here. Annie is a girl his father hires to run the household and Cathy becomes Carl’s study partner and best friend and both of them try to keep Carl out of trouble, especially when he and Andy smoke pot (even these scenes are G-rated). Both of the girls, and indeed the whole book, are somewhat quirky yet wholesome. And that’s not a bad thing.

So, The Complicated Calculus (And Cows) Of Carl Paulsen pours you a glass of milk and sits you down in front of a plate of cookies to tell you its story, but it keeps you entertained down to the last crumb.

JW

© 2022 Jerry L. Wheeler

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A Conversation with Jim Grimsley

Special to Out in Print

from Gavin Atlas

Jim Grimsley was born in North Carolina and educated at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has published short stories and essays in various quarterlies, including DoubleTake, New Orleans Review, Carolina Quarterly, The New Virginia Review, The LA Times, and The New York Times Book Review. Jim’s first novel, Winter Birds, was published by Algonquin Books in 1994 and won the Sue Kaufman Prize for best first novel from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His other novels include Dream Boy, Kirith Kirin, and My Drowning. He has also published a collection of plays and a memoir, How I Shed My Skin. His body of work as a prose writer and playwright was awarded the Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2005. For twenty years, he taught writing at Emory University in Atlanta. His newest novel is The Dove in the Belly.

GA: Hi, Jim!  Thank you so much for agreeing to the interview!  To start, I loved The Dove in the Belly.  One thing that surprised me is it’s considered YA yet the characters are rising college seniors.  However, I know it’s considered normal for younger readers to “read up”.  So, are you finding that a number of your readers are high school age or younger?  What kind of feedback, if any, have you received from young people?

JG: The response that I’ve seen has been positive, sometimes overwhelmingly so, though it’s early days yet. It’s also hard to tell with online reviews whether the person writing is the age of the target audience, so I can’t really answer the question with much authority. But I shaped the book to be felt, so that readers who want to open themselves to the story can live inside it and feel it as if it happened, and my purpose in doing that was to make an experience that, especially for a young reader, would be hopeful and affirming in the end. I want young gay readers to be able to see themselves in this book, to see what their past might have been like if they had been born earlier, to understand this bit of history.

GA: I’m pretty sure I can answer this question since I’ve read the book, but for the uninitiated, could you explain your title?

JG: For me the title evokes the feeling of love, that warmth that resides in the belly, which is the seat of feelings. I always experience emotions in my core, whether they be love, fear, anxiety, whatever. The image of the dove as a bearer of peace, the similarity of “dove” to the word “love,” contribute to the image. The phrase is drawn from a Wallace Stevens poem about the illusory nature of appearances, and that, for me, echoed the fact that the differences between Ronny and Ben are mostly illusion, and that when they come together they form a core around which they can build their lives, at least for a while.

GA: I don’t want to give away too much, but there are two motherly figures whose lives affect the main characters significantly.  Was there anything specific that led to that choice?

JG: Most choices in writing, for me at least, begin as impulses and evolve as the story grows. In the case of Miss Dee, the boardinghouse owner, she is based directly on the owner of a boardinghouse I lived in for one summer during my Chapel Hill years. She’d lived a hard, long life, had fought to keep her home, and lived her days surrounded by college boys who helped her to stay financially afloat. We developed a small friendship and liked each other very much. Something about her presence touched me and stayed with me through the years, so that when I decided to set a novel in a boardinghouse parallel to hers, I had to put her in it because she was such a vivid part of the experience. The importance of Ben’s mother to the story grew out of the need to soften Ben’s rough edges, to show that the surface of him was not the whole story of him. And the loss of the two women is what ultimately transforms Ben and Ronny’s relationship into something that they both want to endure. The loss of Ben’s mother breaks them apart and the loss of Miss Dee brings them back together. That’s an oversimplification, but I think it’s mostly true.

GA: Conversely, the main character, Ronny, has a mother, Thelma, “with as many surnames as a soap opera heroine.”  She fascinates me though I’m not sure I’d want to know her in real life.  Do you have a background for her in your head explaining what made her the way she is?  Also, in what ways do you think her idiosyncrasies formed Ronny’s personality?

JG: Thelma has to be the kind of mother who would pack up and leave her son without a place to live; that was part of the first impulse of the novel and shaped who she became. Since he’s at college she figures he is able to take care of himself now, and she’s right, of course. Ronny might wish she was a bit more nurturing and such, but he knows her very well, as she knows him. She’s a complicated person, deeply loving as a mother but not the type of woman who put her own needs second to her child’s. I don’t think that means that she was neglectful; Ronny always had a roof over his head. The worst he has had to endure is her need for a man on which to focus her life. She was scarred by the fact that she married a man who turned out to be gay and had to rebuild herself. I thought of her as lovingly selfish and self-centered, but not in a cruel way. She knows that Ronny is strong and relies on him to take care of himself, and she probably has always done that. The fact that she loved her son but relied on his strength even as a child is what shaped him into the person he has become, quiet and determined, maybe a bit conniving, even, where his own happiness is concerned. He sees Ben and goes after him. I admired that about Ronny very much.

GA: Your story takes place in the 70s, and I saw an author note revealing how important setting and period accuracy was to you.  If it’s okay to ask, how close to autobiographical is this work?  Did you know anyone like your jock character, Ben?  

JG: That’s a fraught question; one of my limitations as a writer is that, in a realistic novel (as opposed to science fiction or fantasy) I need to write something that is very close to my own life, something that I know inside out. So there are many elements of autobiographicality, to make up a word, in this books, and it’s certainly what I wish had happened to me in college. But I am far more solitary as a person than Ronny is. I think Ronny is like his mother and needs a relationship. That’s not really me; I’m a lifelong singleton.

GA: Frankly, I have a sense there are many colleges and many parts of the country where a relationship between a clearly gay “nerd” like Ronny and a jock identifying as straight like Ben would be as complicated and frustrating today as it was in the 70s.  But what is your feeling about that? 

JG: I think it’s interesting that people say Ben identifies as straight; in the book it’s Ronny who identifies him that way. Ben himself refuses to say who or what he is. And Ben has had a sexual encounter with a boy before. So I think he understands that there is something in his sexuality that’s not fixed. When he understands what Ronny wants from him, he goes where his attractions take him, without much angst about it. He’s concerned not to be found out in terms of his relationship with Ronny, of course, but that’s understandable, and Ronny is the same way. I think it’s clear that being a gay or bisexual football player would be very complicated today. We’re only just at a point where a gay NFL athlete can be public, and there haven’t been more than a handful who have done so.

GA: Just so you know, my parents went to Duke, and as you are a UNC Tarheel, my understanding is that makes us lifelong enemies.  First, I extend a hug peace offering.  Second, how much of UNC’s culture and environment made you who you are?  How do you feel about the school’s relationship with the LGBTQ+ community then and today?

JG: I return your hug. I almost went to Duke myself; I had a scholarship there but had always dreamed of being at Chapel Hill. My years at Chapel Hill were electric; I finally understood that brains had a value, that writing could be a means of doing something more than amusing myself. I had a stable, peaceful life for the first time. There’s no way to measure what the university gave me. I will always be grateful for that. During my years there the Carolina Gay Association was formed and came into being; this was at a time when I had come out to only a handful of people, and I was astonished at the notion that there was a parallel world of people like me. But I never thought much about what the school thought of me being gay and didn’t ask for any particular nurture from that. So I don’t really have an opinion to express about your latter question.

GA: I’m not sure this is fair to ask, but when thinking about all your works, are there any characters or stories you love the most?  Or that you think about the most?

JG: At the moment, this book is the one I love the most and these are the characters that matter to me. I like to think about Ben and Ronny and how long they might be together. I love all my books, but I can’t deny that Winter Birds and Dream Boy are the most special to me. They came first, and when I was publishing those books everything seemed possible.

GA: You’ve been interviewed many times.  Is there a question you’ve never been asked that you’ve always wanted to be asked?  And if so, could you answer it? 

JG: No one has ever asked me about my favorite color, which is green.

GA: And >>poof<< here’s your genie question:   If you had one wish with the caveats that you’re not allowed to ask for unlimited wishes or world peace, what might you wish for? 

JG: You and your tricky legalistic restrictions! The wish that’s deepest in my heart at the moment is that I continue to love writing as much as I always have. Sometimes these days I feel as if I could let it go. Aging is as harsh as Bette Davis said. But even when I have doubts about myself or my viability or my writing, I still find myself coming back to the page and trying to make something happen there. So let’s just say that my wish is that I publish another book, and then we’ll see what else there is.

GA: Is there anything you’re hoping to work on or accomplish next?   Any travel or other goals you’re looking forward to?

JG: I want to return to my fantasy world and finish that. By this I mean the world of the Hormling novels and Kirith Kirin. I have another substantial volume in that universe but there’s a lot more work to do.

GA: Thank you so much, Jim!

More information about Jim Grimsley and his books can be found at JimGrimsley.net

Author Photo by Kay Hinton

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Paul’s Cat – Jameson Currier (Chelsea Station Editions)

In an interesting occurrence of synchronicity, this past weekend I agreed to cat-sit for a couple of friends, and once ensconced in their apartment, I opened up Paul’s Cat by Jameson Currier, which ostensibly begins with Paul’s friend Jay arriving at Paul’s apartment to care for Paul’s cat. Paul’s cat escapes at once, and Jay must follow it, first down six flights of stairs to the basement laundry room. Of course nothing can be taken at face value: the “laundry room” in the basement is filled with drag queens preparing for a show. Paul’s cat then leads Jay on a merry chase: across the stage of an empty theater, outside and back into a theater lobby with a fortune teller, into a gym locker room, through a dance club (with VIP room), down a hallway before a set of doors guarded by an old man, across a pool, into a hospital, until finally reappearing on the roof of Paul’s apartment building. Along the way, the people that Jay meets continually prod him with questions, or offer him a choice (“Future or fortune?” “Pleasure or knowledge?” “Sobbing or screaming?”) while evading his own questions.

My first thought (led on by Jay’s initial descent to the basement, later reinforced by ending on the roof) was that Paul’s cat was going to lead Jay through some queer underworld. The idea of guided tours of the afterlife/other world is millennia old, going back to Classical Antiquity and even earlier. Jay does visit nine locales (similar to the nine circles of Hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy), but none of them deal specifically with punishment or reward. Instead of considering the possibilities of the afterlife, Jay’s journey is a trip into his past, down Memory Lane, although there seems very little nostalgic about this tour.

While I won’t say that his journey is archetypal, Jay’s recollection of his life takes him through many places familiar to Gay men: the drag show, the theater, the gym, the dance club; and many Gay Men of a Certain Age will remember many bedside vigils in the hospital. The introspective quality of Jay’s excursion, however, raises the possibility that Paul has died. Except that Paul himself does not appear in Jay’s musings about the past: the characters that Jay meets force him to focus on his own responses to situations in his past, questioning his life choices. Paul may be absent from Jay’s memories, but Jay continually contrasts his own reactions to the (more confident, more daring) responses that he presumes Paul would have given. (But then, if Paul is not a key figure in Jay’s memories, how is it that Jay is caring for his cat? How did they meet? Based upon what we learn about Jay, they apparently are not exes-become-friends, perhaps tricks-become-friends?)

Even with his cat acting as a catalyst for this journey, Paul is clearly incidental to Jay’s dream vision. Moreover, Jay’s journey is highly personal, the typical queer settings notwithstanding. And, as one can see, despite its short length, Currier’s story provokes numerous questions for the reader, just as it does for Jay. For all that I read this story within an hour, I find myself still thinking about it.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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Dead Letters from Paradise – Ann McMan (Bywater Books)

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Bywater Books

I was looking forward to this because I loved Beowulf for Cretins so much (the title alone makes me smile), and I love the concept of finding old letters. As usual, McMan more than hits it out of the park, creating some vibrant characters she pushes through an intriguing mystery involving herb gardens, bigotry, and a coming out of sorts.

Esther Jane “E.J.” Cloud manages the Dead Letter Office in Winston-Salem NC along with her friend, Lottie. E.J. has a very quiet existence, living in her family’s Old Salem house and volunteering at the town’s communal medicinal herb garden. Her peaceful existence, however, comes to an end with the discover of a cache of undeliverable letters from the nearby town of Paradise to a fictional recipient in care of the herb garden. With the help of her new neighbor, ten-year-old Harriet (“Harrie”), E.J. tries to discover the identity of the sender while pretending not to get caught up in the passionate content, which brings up some unsettling feelings she’s always had for women. And this all happens against the background of 1960s North Carolina, its prejudices and bigotry on full display.

McMan plays to her strengths in this, her thirteenth novel. Her main characters are independent and fiercely imperturbable women who somehow become perturbed, and E.J. certainly qualifies. But she bonds with Harrie over Postum and racial harmony. I’ve often heard it said that people come into each other’s lives for a reason, and that’s certainly the case here as E.J. provides latchkey kid Harrie with stability and Harrie pays her back with adventure. They both learn and grow, which is exactly what characters should do. And McMan makes it look easy.

Neighbor Fay Marian and co-worker Lottie are excellent support characters and sounding boards, especially Lottie, whose nephew is involved in a pivotal lunch counter incident with Harrie. I’m not going to spoil anything, but watch this scene carefully. It’s short and dramatic but drama-free. Its power comes from its presentation as an everyday incident, but one that clearly marks both Harrie and E.J. This is a milieu McMan is obviously familiar with, because she nails both the attitude and the consequences with ease.

Where’s the romance, you ask? Well, certainly there’s a romance. But here as well as Beowulf for Cretins and The Big Tow, the other McMan books I’ve read, the romance is less the point than creating the possibility of romance, of breaking someone far enough out of their routine to accept happiness they wouldn’t ordinarily dare to experience. And watching her take her characters through those changes is always an interesting ride, be it with a towing service, a college campus, or a dead letter office.

Dead Letters from Paradise is good fun from one of our finest authors. Heartily recommended!

JW

© 2022 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Devil’s Due – J.P. Jackson (Queer Space/Rebel Satori Press)

Y’know, I don’t read enough demon stories. It’s not that they’re not out there or that I dislike them in any way. In fact, I love them. Demons are far more interesting than your average vampire, they can assign the shapeshifting to their minions, they only do the dirty work they want to do, and they just seem an altogether superior class of supernatural beings. If vampires are the administrative assistants of the Otherworld, demons are the CEOs. And Dominic Ronove, the contract demon starring in J.P. Jackson’s latest novella, Devil’s Due, is a perfect example.

Dominic Ronove has souls to collect, contracts to sign, and penalties to extract. He doesn’t have time to be lured to his death by witches bent on destroying him, but he investigates anyway. And he certainly doesn’t have time to fall in love with Malik Parsa, but he does. The problem is that Malik isn’t quite as human as Dominic believes him to be. Aided by his servants Elisha and Rodolfo and his hellhound, Cerberus, Dom wades right into the witches’ domain and gets the plot rolling.

Jackson does a terrific job of pacing the budding romance alongside the witches’ plan to assassinate Dominic. He also has a strong facility with characters, as both Dom and Mal have interesting and distinctive voices. The battle scenes are inventive and move smoothly, and the dialogue is snappy. In fact, there’s not much to dislike except its brevity.

Being a novella, there’s less of this than I would have liked, especially since what’s here is quite well done. Still, I understand the value of leaving the reader with a cliffhanger for the next installment. J.P. Jackson’s Devil’s Due, then, is good, fast-paced fun with some interesting characters and a worthwhile plot that leaves you wanting more. Hopefully, he’ll deliver soon.

JW

© 2022 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Ghost Town – Kevin Chen (Europa Editions)

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Europa Editions

A forty-something writer returns to his rural hometown in Taiwan, after his release from a three-year prison sentence for killing his German husband. His homecoming coincides with the region’s annual Ghost Festival, when hell’s gate opens and villagers burn envelopes of money as offerings to the dead. In his afterward, the author says he always wanted to write a ghost story, and with Ghost Town, he indeed achieves an eerie atmosphere of spiritual possibilities, particularly through the telling of folk traditions such as hanged cats in bamboo groves. But more so, his characters are haunted by real world horrors, and it’s a family saga rather than a paranormal encounter.

One finds often that literary fiction takes inspiration from the author’s life experiences. In that, Chen’s work is transparent. Like the author, the main character Keith is a Taiwanese writer who emigrated to Germany. He even has the same family name, and “Keith” is not a far cry from Kevin. I mention this to say that Chen’s novel is a very personal story about Taiwanese families and their troubles. Only the author can say how much of the material came from his family and childhood, but his book has that daring quality of good autobiography, letting the reader in on something deeply personal.

The main plot is Keith’s relationship with a troubled street performer in Berlin, who he only refers to as T, Keith imagines describing his hometown to his deceased partner, and gradually, memories of T’s mental breakdown surface, culminating in the night of terror that led to Keith’s incarceration. Woven into that drama are stories from the points-of-view of his mother, sisters, and other supporting characters, some of which relate to Keith and some do not (at least directly).

I struggled early on with the question of whether this is a novel or a collection of short stories, closely connected thematically? By the end, one sees Chen’s purposes. He glues together collective family memories and individual journeys to construct Keith’s story, as an artist creates a collage, and it requires standing back from the work to recognize the greater whole. Each “piece” or story is so striking, it demands the reader’s focus and thereby challenges one to pause and consider what one is seeing in its entirety.

Keith is the youngest child in the Chen family and born at a time when Taiwan was transforming from a cash-crop economy into the manufacturing powerhouse it has come to be known. To stay with the collage comparison, imagery of Keith’s hometown of Yongjing fills the gaps and borders of his narrative canvas with a melancholy mixture of moods and textures: irrigation ditches with dead dogs that overflow into the streets during seasonal rains; concrete townhouses overtaking the lush countryside; ripened,

bright orange betel nuts being harvested for sale; an abandoned soy sauce factory that was once the town’s main employer; walls placarded with faded campaign posters of disgraced politicians; and an ancient temple to the Lady at the Foot of the Wall that served as both a slaughterhouse and a nightly cinema in Keith’s youth. Many will relate to Keith’s sense of dissonance upon returning to one’s hometown, but I would venture to say that few of those locales contain such complexity and contradictions, owing to past Chinese and Japanese colonialism, steadfast folk beliefs, decades of authoritarian government, and rapid economic development that turned many farm-based workers into get-rich-quick entrepreneurs, sometimes through corrupt schemes.

Keith’s father Cliff aspired to be an entrepreneur, but he was more unsuccessful than not. He and Keith’s mother Cicada had five girls before his older brother Heath came along, an unlucky circumstance in Taiwanese families of the time. Girls were a family burden, only good when they married well, and not worth sending to school. Chen subverts that narrative by having each sister tell her story. Their chapters captivate with wit and heartbreak and leave the reader curious about the possibility of breaking off into novels of their own.

The eldest sister Beverly marries a hapless schemer, not unlike her father, and, not unlike her mother, she takes on the role of keeping a broken family together in spite of her miserable marriage. The next, Betty, becomes a government clerk and is embroiled in a trend of our times: a cruel, social media prank that ruins her reputation. Belinda, the favored daughter, marries a handsome TV anchor who provides an enviable lifestyle at the price of degradation and abuse. Barbie marries the son of the town’s prominent Wang family, but they’re a loveless couple, and Barbie descends into madness, locking herself in one room of their mansion and living as a packrat. Each woman searches for a way to privately rebel against a society that offers spare opportunity to make their own choices. Plenty, the youngest, does so openly, mutilating her body with a razor. Betty sneaks off to a motel to watch gay porn videos, inspired by her brother’s fearless way of living. Their mother, a harsh and domineering presence, has secrets of her own that allow her to achieve a measure of autonomy.

Keith’s ability to be himself was thwarted, too. In secondary school, he was discovered fooling around with an older boy and faced ridicule and violence from his teachers, classmates, and his mother. His gift for writing leads to an eventual escape, and after some success in Taiwan, he grabs an offer for a fellowship in Germany.

There, he finds love and marriage with the mysterious T, but their relationship turns nightmarish and leaves Keith on his own to rebuild his life in a town that reviles him even more than when he left. Chen creates quite a dark collage for Keith, and it’s not a tale that ends with hopeful resolution for him or his sisters. Though perhaps through

their refusal to give up in spite of what society thinks of them, Chen suggests that a bartered life is better than the alternative.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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Before All the World – Moriel Rothman-Zecher (FSG)

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FSG

Two survivors of a Red Army pogrom search for purpose and connection in Rothman-Zecher’s latest novel. It’s a story that brings readers face-to-face with unfathomable childhood trauma while pondering complex themes of racial and religious persecution, intersecting subordinate identities, and the socialist movement in pre-World War II America.

Strong, appealing characters carry Rothman-Zecher’s necessarily heavy and emotionally-painful story. Leyb, now nineteen years old, was a small child when all of his family and neighbors were taken to the forest by soldiers to be massacred in a village in Eastern Europe. Through a network of extended relatives, he was brought to faraway Philadelphia and raised and educated in the city’s Jewish-Orthodox community. Living among hard-working, religious families, Leyb develops an appreciation for worldly learning, though he remains an outsider, drifting through an urban environment (“amerike”) he longs to but struggles to understand. While he’s given the nickname Lion, Leyb is much more of a lamb– gentle, trusting, and ill-prepared to protect himself from the harshness of the world. He also has the task of figuring out how to live as a gay man in a community and a broader world that considers his nature shameful and deviant.

Gittl was just a few years older than Leyb when their village was massacred, and their lives diverge and then intertwine miraculously. In contrast to shy, vulnerable Leyb, Gittl is a hardened fighter who made her way across Europe cleaning houses and eventually working as a translator for a Marxist newspaper. Though equipped with greater agency than Leyb, due, in part to the demands placed on Jewish peasant girls to take care of home and family, the violence from her childhood has made her a loner in a tough, emotionally-detached way. Whereas Leyb seeks love and connection, Gittl looks to survive through human transactions that can easily be left behind. Her deeper connections are from the past via the spirits of her siblings who are always with her, giving her strength to persevere. A mantra echoes in her head: “Gittl, never alone.”

Both Leyb and Gittl’s lives are transformed when they meet Charles, a writer who travels in Philadelphia’s socialist circles. Charles is also a black man who knows quite well the tenuous position of minorities in society. Leyb meets Charles at an underground gay bar called Crickets, and they enter an affair. When Leyb is cast out by his community, Charles provides him refuge. Later, Gittl finds herself in Philadelphia and joins their household.

The author commits to an authentic voice for his characters, which is challenging at times, with dialogue and internal monologue in Yiddish and regional colloquialisms that require reading extensive footnotes to follow. Yet this is a story that provokes the mind and heart on many levels. In poetic passages, one feels the shock and dissonance of Leyb and Gittl’s trauma, and their fractured, sometimes dizzying narratives convey the lasting disorientation from childhood loss and displacement.

To equal effect, Rothman-Zecher’s novel raises profound questions about the nature of human oppression and the attempts of social movements to address its complexities. Charles, for example, finds a place to put his literary skill to use within a radical labor rights organization that is ambivalent about acknowledging the impact of slavery in America. Leyb is shunned by fellow Jews whose oppressors would hardly spare them from annihilation because they agree with their disgust for gay men and lesbians. Gittl is welcomed to Philadelphia by middle-class Jews who proclaim socialism as salvation while her family and neighbors were butchered against the backdrop of communist revolution. “What will you do before all the world?” the author asks his characters, and of course the reader. One cannot give too much away in a review, but ultimately, the author offers a hopeful message about the courage of the human spirit.

A fascinating and moving work of literary fiction, which I would say is important reading for readers of all categories.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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Sleeping As Others – Estlin Adams (Queer Space/Rebel Satori)

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Rebel Satori Press

Maybe it’s all the William Burroughs I’ve been reading and thinking about lately (due to my essay in Brian Alessandro & Tom Cardamone’s Fever Spores: The Queer Reclamation of William S. Burroughs), but Estlin Adams’s Sleeping As Others is very Burroughsian in nature. Although the mode of expression is different, the alienation and connection of disconnections that runs through Burroughs’s work is on fine display in this simply rendered yet complex examination of roles and rituals on many sides of the sexual spectrum.

The plot is deceptively simple. A man suddenly finds himself inhabiting the bodies of the men with whom he has sex. That is, John sleeps with someone and the next morning finds himself in the body of his paramour. He still thinks as John but looks like someone else. Like anyone caught in this situation, he has questions: where did this ability come from? How does he get rid of it? What happens to the other guys while he’s in their bodies? Do they come back when he’s gone on to someone else? As he searches for answers and finds truths, he confronts multiple parts of his personality and explores the nature of role-playing with leather fantasists, tricks with daddy issues, and even John’s straight boss, Luke. What does he find out? Uh-uh. You’ll have to read the book.

I enjoyed the density of the book. That’s not to say the prose is dense, because it’s quite readable despite the complexity of the concepts it presents. Rather, I enjoyed the intellectual weight of it. The idea of such a transition between bodies is rife with opportunities, and Adams takes advantage of as many as possible, observing his characters intimately and obsessively as he tracks John’s permutations and studies his strategies for John’s return to “normal.”

Both the premise and the follow-through of Sleeping As Others reminds me of not only Burroughs, but another of Rebel Satori’s stable of queer theorists with a tendency toward the surreal, Peter Dubé (Conjure, The Headless Man). I also kept thinking of David Cronenberg’s film version of Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. Granted, this has fewer typing cockroaches, but Adams captures the squalid, steampunk feel of the movie with seeming ease.

Sleeping As Others, then, is a fascinating look into a head that can’t stop hopping. Is it advocating or decrying promiscuity? Maybe on some levels, it’s doing both. Either way, you’ll find plenty to think about once you’ve finished.

JW

© 2022 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Far From Home – Vincent Traughber Meis (NineStar Press)

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NineStar Press

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

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Young Mungo – Douglas Stuart (Grove Press)

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Amazon

A fifteen-year-old boy navigates poverty, gang violence, family dysfunction, and homophobia in 1980s Glasgow, Scotland. Such is the subject of Douglas Stewart’s (Shuggie Bain) latest novel, and it’s an immersive and emotionally gripping story with thematic similarities to the work of James Joyce.

Mungo Hamilton is the youngest son of an alcoholic, often absent mother Maureen (Mo-Maw). He lives in public housing in one of Glasgow’s poorest neighborhoods where the economic policies of the Thatcher administration have created widespread unemployment. The enormity of Mungo’s plight is evident from the first chapter. Mo-Maw has disappeared, again. There’s no food in the apartment, no money to pay the bills, and his older brother Hamish (Ha-Ha) is strong-arming him to help out with his street crime schemes. Mungo, named after the lesser-known Saint Mungo of Medieval Britannia, has not yet succumbed to the bitterness of his older siblings. His sister Jodie rages over their mother’s failings while Hamish tries to grab what scraps he can from an unjust world, no matter who he hurts along the way. Mungo is the peacekeeper, the optimist, and the gentle soul in the family. Both in spite of and because of his nature, one immediately worries about the tragedies that lie ahead of him.

Yet, it’s Mungo’s story, and Stewart brings the reader in to see things from Mungo’s perspective. His mother’s neglect is frightening, but when she’s around, they share an intimate bond that transcends the troubling uncertainty of the world. His sister Jodie likewise provides some maternal comfort and protection. She wants Mungo to get an education and serves as a foil to Hamish, who’s a dropout and a thug. Mungo isn’t ready to decide what kind of man he should be to survive life’s hardships, but with his family dissolving, very soon, he must.

Then he meets an Irish Catholic boy named James, and that decision gets even more complicated.

James is gentle-hearted like Mungo, and he’s handsome and embattled by his own family problems. He raises pigeons in the backyard of his apartment building. Mungo is fascinated by him, and the fascination is reciprocated. They’re set apart by their religious affiliations, and though religious tensions abound in 1980s Glasgow, the boys are too young to have been spoiled by those prejudices.

Homophobia is a different story, however. Mungo recognizes that the feelings he has for James could lead to a lifetime of ridicule if discovered and even his own destruction.

Being the kind spirit he is, he worries more about the consequences for James. Thus their relationship develops tentatively and secretly. A side character, nicknamed Poor-Wee-Chickie, is Mungo’s only reference point for how gay men live, and as they say, it’s complicated. Chickie is unabashed, reviled, the butt of jokes, fearsome and lonely, living by himself. Worried about guilt by association, Mungo is terrified of him at first. But he turns out to be the confidante Mungo desperately needs, and he provides Mungo with some pivotal advice.

Stewart clearly knows 1980s working class Glasgow. Its sights and sounds and smells materialize from the pages, from rundown tenements to the crude vernacular of its denizens to their greasy home cooked meals. Amid the unpleasantness of urban living, Stewart also shows how beauty can be found in unexpected places. The prettiness of a Catholic boy’s face, which Mungo glimpses before the lad jumps him in a street fight. The joy of riding double on a bike with one’s best friend, feeling like the wheels you pedal could take you anywhere. A neighbor who gives Mungo the dignity of eating a much-needed meal in privacy. Stewart masterfully renders the environment that surrounds young Mungo with all its toxicities and its sustaining characteristics, however spare.

A portentous side story is slowly interwoven into the major plotline. It involves Mungo going on a fishing trip with a pair of sketchy men who Mungo’s mother hopes will teach him how to be a man. To describe it more would be giving everything away, but suffice it say, prepare yourself for heartbreaking twists.

An absolute triumph in coming-of-age literature, certain to appeal to readers of gay literary fiction and British historical fiction.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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