“Mysterious Skin” by Scott Heim

Mysterious Skin

Earlier this year I read Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim and only now am I getting around to reviewing it. I recall when I finished it my reaction was “Wow!” This is an engrossing and extraordinarily well-written work, especially when one considers that it was Heim’s first published novel. The subject matter is one of society’s great taboos, child abuse/pedophilia. The story traces the lives of two young boys, Brian Lackey and Neil McCormick, both eight years old when the tale begins; they live in Hutchinson, Kansas about 50 miles NW of Wichita and the year is 1981. While they do not really know one another until the story’s end eleven years later, their lives are very much connected. The two though could not be more different.

Brian is quiet, withdrawn and a somewhat nerdy kid. He is one of two children in a middle-class family in which the parents are increasingly growing apart. Brian’s father is determined to make his son a Little League star even though the boy has no interest and very little talent. In the opening chapter Brian is under the crawl space of his house late at night, bruised and confused, having no recollection of what happened to him over the past five hours. He eventually becomes convinced he was abducted by aliens and held captive in a UFO. Trying to discover what occurred on that fateful evening is his narrative.

Neil lives with his single, promiscuous mom on the wrong side of the railroad tracks. He is daring and a hell-raiser, the total opposite of Brian. We learn early on that he has been seduced and sexually abused by “Coach” Heider. Rather than feeling violated by the experience, he is comfortably drawn into the relationship. As the story progresses and Neil reaches puberty, he turns to hustling and targets adult men, craving the satisfaction and security he experienced with Coach Heider. Unlike Brian who cannot remember what happened to him, Neil cannot and does want to forget.

The story has a shifting first person POV. Besides Brian and Neil we see the story unfold through the perspective of three other people:

•Deborah, Brian’s sister
•Wendy Peterson, Neil’s close friend since sixth grade who has a serious crush on Neil but who eventually must accept the fact that his sexual cravings are not for the opposite sex
•Eric Preston, Neil’s other close friend who is gay and in love with Neil although the feeling is not mutual

Other key characters include Avelyn Friesen, whom Brian seeks out when he learns of her accounts of being abducted by aliens, Brian’s parents, Neil’s mother and of course Coach Heider.

This is not a book for the squeamish and I am certain many will be repelled by the graphic descriptions of Coach Heider’s appalling predatory behavior. If however you can stomach the subject matter, it is difficult to not be impressed by the incredible story that Heim has to tell. The author tells a frightening, disturbing tale populated with believable and interesting characters.

In 2004 there was a film adaptation of the book starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet as the teenage Neil and Brian, and Bill Sage as the Coach. Gordon-Levitt has recently become one of my favorite actors and seems the perfect actor to capture Neil’s complex and fascinating character. The film like the book received excellent reviews and I look forward to seeing it sometime soon. The novel is a definite winner, perhaps the best book I have read in 2014.

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” Flesh and Blood” by Michael Cunningham

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Flesh and Blood is another masterful work by Michael Cunningham, an incredibly gifted writer. Last year I read A Home at the End of the World, the author’s first novel.  I absolutely loved it. Though I have not read his Pulitzer Prize winning The Hours, I have seen the movie based on the book several times; it is one of my all-time favorite films.  This book written between the two others just mentioned is nothing short of superb.

The novel told from the third person POV chronicles three generations of the Stassos family beginning in post-World War II America. Constantine Stassos, a Greek immigrant, marries Mary Cuccio, a striking young woman of Italian heritage. Early in their marriage trouble develops and Mary soon feels she has married below her station. Things rapidly spiral downward in their relationship. They have three children. Susan, the oldest, like her mother is very attractive;  ironically she pays a heavy price for her natural beauty. Her father has the disturbing habit of touching her often and for too long, suggesting sexual cravings for her. While outwardly she seems the most conventional and successful of the children, below the surface she is quite unhappy. Billy, the brightest of the three, has a stormy relationship with his father even as a young boy; their relationship becomes especially ugly when he announces he is gay. The younger daughter Zoe is wild, rebellious and reckless. It becomes obvious she is destined to have a troubled future. Add to the mix the romantic relationships of the adult children as well as the next generation of the Stassos family, Ben and Jamal. Each character adds further depth, darkness and occasional humor to the story. Especially memorable and endearing is Cassandra, a drag queen and Zoe’s close friend.

The story takes place over nearly five decades, from 1949 through 1995. In addition there is a three page snippet of Constantine’s childhood at the beginning as well as a two page conclusion that looks to the distant future (2035). The two brief chapters act as interesting and effective bookmarks for the main story.

Cunningham covers a broad range of issues in the book: a heavy-handed patriarch, an aloof mother, love, death, infidelity, incest, child abuse, drug abuse, kleptomania, generational tension, homosexuality, AIDS, self-mutilation, class conflict, and so much more. I like many people have often thought that I came from a dysfunctional family.  The Stassos family takes that concept to a whole new level.

Cunningham is a master of prose, creating rich, complex characters and vivid images with his words. The tone of the book is one of melancholy and tragedy. There are no real villains or heroes but rather a cast of characters all with their own flaws. The book took me a longer than normal time to read not because it was dull or difficult. Rather I was captivated throughout the story and hated coming to the last page. I wanted to savor the work and not rush through it. I look forward to reading more of Cunningham’s works. He has quickly become one of my favorite authors.

“As Meat Loves Salt” by Maria McCann

As Meat Loves Salt

As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann was one of the more challenging books I have read in recent years. The setting is England during the 1640’s and the tale is told through the eyes, ears, words and mind of the unstable, violent, confused and possibly mad Jacob Cullen. In the first seventy or so pages Jacob seems quite sympathetic. He and his siblings through simple bad fortune have become servants of the despised Mervin Roche, aka Sir Bastard. Jacob is soon to be wed to another servant named Caro, whom he has known for a long time. The wedding takes place as planned and all seems well. Shortly thereafter though all hell breaks loose and Jacob, Caro and one of Jacob’s brothers take flight. In a rapid succession of events and revelations we learn that beneath Jacob’s pleasant demeanor, a monster is hiding. Following these shocking developments, Jacob is conscripted into Oliver Cromwell’s Army, where he becomes increasingly drawn to a fellow soldier, Christopher Ferris. Eventually the two become lovers. Their relationship is not only passionate but extremely perilous since anyone found guilty of sodomy during this time was likely to be hanged. The two eventually desert the army and go to Ferris’ London home. All of this action occurs in the first two hundred pages of the book. The balance of the story (another 365 pages) traces their lives and relationship from that point forward.

While the story line is interesting and generally well-written, I found the work to be unnecessarily long & agonizingly slow-paced. At times I became impatient with it and could not wait to complete its 565 pages. This book to me is a classic example of less would be more. I kept thinking that the tempo of the story would pick up. Except for several very emotionally charged scenes it largely never did. There are occasions when the author’s lengthy descriptions are appropriate and effective. One such example is the siege of Basing House, the prosperous and imposing Catholic fortress, about a third of the way into the story. The 1645 battle was a real event in the First English Civil War although the primary characters are fictitious. The graphic description of the slaughter that ensued was difficult to read. The author paints a vivid picture of the battle and provides a grim reminder of the horrors of war.

When this book is good it is quite good as the battle of Basing House demonstrates. Unfortunately though for most of the novel, I found the preoccupation with detail counter-productive. Also adding to my discomfort, the author was true to the way I believe people spoke during that time, so for my twenty-first century brain I found many of the long conversations to be a bit odd and off-balance. Having said all this, I am glad that I hung in there and completed the book as laboring as it was to read. The work for me falls just short of being great. The story and its main characters, especially Jacob, are quite memorable. The final chapters are especially quite moving. I suspect that in the right director’s hands it would make an excellent movie.

“How Long Has This Been Going On?” by Ethan Mordden

How Long Has This Been Going On? by Ethan Mordden is an ambitious, sweeping and panoramic 600 page epic novel that traces LGBT history over a 40+ year span through the lives of a broad cast of characters. The story opens in 1949 at Thriller Jill’s, a Los Angeles gay nightclub where patrons needed to be very discreet; it concludes with the 1991 New York City Gay Pride Parade. Along the way, the story takes the reader to San Francisco, small-town Minnesota and New Hampshire, and of course covers the 1969 Stonewall riots and AIDS.

I came out as a gay man in 1976 and have certainly seen a huge attitudinal change toward gay men and lesbians in the mindset of American culture during my life. I am also old enough to know how repressive American culture was to the LGBT community during the post World War II era and for many years thereafter. Mordden does an impressive job describing just how bleak that world was and how hard the fight was to accomplish the changes many of us today take for granted.

The author introduces us to a cast of wonderfully drawn and very diverse characters. Most notable among them:

  • Frank, the closeted vice cop at the story’s beginning, who later becomes a gay porno star. He is one of the novel’s most memorable characters.
  • Lois, the no-nonsense lesbian owner of Thriller Jill’s and her eventual partner Elaine. Elaine is married when we first meet her and eventually becomes a successful writer.
  • Luke and Tom ” the Twins”, childhood friends from small-town Minnesota whose lives become complicated when sexual longings begin to color their relationship.
  •  Luke and Tom’s close female friend Chris, the primary straight character in the story. She later moves to New York and achieves fame.
  • Walt, Tom’s nephew who grows from a young boy to a grown man.
  • Blue a teenage hustler from West Virginia.
  • and the unforgettable Johnny the Kid, the charismatic, cocky & talented singer/cabaret performer who in Chapter 1 is a 17 year-old and is approaching 60 by the time the story ends.

Many other fascinating characters are introduced throughout the book. Some both major and minor perish along the way; others survive to the end. There is an ever-shifting change of focus from one chapter to the next as the reader is regularly introduced to new individuals. In the hands of someone less skillful this shifting perspective might get muddled; Mordden however succeeds in making it work. He  uses a good mix of humor, sadness and pathos, infusing a sense of life and realism to the story as we join him and his characters in their journeys.

The opening sentence sets the stage for giving the reader the sense that one is looking back from the present to a distant time and place. “In the days when men were men and women adored them, there was a club called Thriller Jill’s on a side street off Hollywood Boulevard”. While primarily told from the third person POV, periodically this changes and it gradually becomes apparent that this is one person’s recollections of these events. That person’s identity is not revealed until the last pages.

While a long book, I never found myself wishing it would end. Each character’s story is fascinating and how their collective lives become intertwined made me want to keep reading. For anyone trying to understand the sea of change that happened within the LGBT community over this time period you need look no further than here. This was clearly one of the best books I read in 2014.

Background Reading for My Novel: “Just Between Us” by J. H. Trumble

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Just Between Us is the third book by J.H. Trumble that I have read in the past seven months and just like her first two she has scored another clear winner with this one. Since  my own book deals with a young gay man in his late teens, I have sought to read books with a similar theme in hopes of learning from others what for me at least works and what does not. It was this mindset that led me to read her first novel Don’t Let Me Go. Having enjoyed that so much I then read Where You Are which I enjoyed even more. Just Between Us is her most recent work. While each of her novels has a common thread of young gay men in love, the author successfully tackles very different topics in each. Don’t Let Me Go focuses on issues of gay-bashing and the challenges of trying to keep alive a relationship when two people are living more than a thousand miles apart. Where You Are dares to take on the explosive issue of student/teacher intimacy. Just Between Us chronicles the hurdles of two people being attracted to each other and then having one of them learn that he is HIV positive.

The main characters of this work are Luke Chesser and Curtis Cameron, ages 17 and 19 respectively. Luke was a major secondary character in Don’t Let Me Go. He is a high school junior and is still recovering from having his heart broken in his first romantic fling. Having an abusive, homophobic father does not help matters any. Fortunately for him his physician mom and younger brother are loving and supportive. He is a member of the school’s marching band which is a big part of his life and that helps to fill in some of life’s blank spaces. Curtis is in college but attended the same high school as Luke. After spending a good portion of his time partying in his college freshmen year he returns home and helps out as a field tech in Luke’s marching band. Unlike Luke, Curtis’ widowed dad is very accepting of his being gay as is his twin sister. The two young men soon become attracted to one another and start spending time together while postponing any sexual intimacy.

The proverbial you-know-what hits the fan when Curtis learns he is HIV positive. By now he cares deeply about Luke and is terrified that he may infect him if they have sex. The remainder of the story focuses on how these conflicted lovers and others around them deal with the news. Having been a sexually active gay man before and during the Age of AIDS and having watched scores of friends succumb to the disease, I fully appreciate what devastating news this normally is for someone. While HIV/AIDS is today not the death sentence that thirty years ago most people viewed it to be, it is a terrifying and life-altering experience for those who contract it and the people who love them. The author does a superior job depicting Curtis’ coping with the news and the stages of grief he experiences: denial, anger, depression and eventual acceptance. The reaction of Luke and others is likewise very believable. The author once again tackles a difficult issue and avoids creating clichéd characters and situations. This is a very moving, at times heart-breaking and at other times triumphal story. Just as she did in Where You Are, the story is told from the perspective of the two main characters and the technique works as effectively in this book as it did in the earlier one.

Rereading my review of her previous works, I see that what impressed me about those stories is much of what I so enjoyed reading this one. Of Don’t Let Me Go I wrote: “a very sweet, tender coming-of-age novel but not one that is overly sweet, throwing in enough drama and darkness to make it all seem very real. All of the characters have their flaws… He is impulsive and foolish at times and certainly does his share of dumb things. There are times when I wanted to kick him in the butt and other times when I wanted to tell him to stop being so insecure.” Of Where You Are I commented: “He is tormented trying to figure out what is the right thing to do, struggling with the collision course of wanting to be there for Robert, the growing sexual attraction he and Robert are feeling for one another, and his terror of where all of this may lead.”  Except for proper names, the comments are just as  true about this work. That in no way suggests the author is somehow using a cookie-cutter approach to her writing but rather that she has the rare gift to make her stories and characters appealing and believable. Not wanting to spoil too much of the plot I will simply say there were several times when I became very choked up reading this book and my eyes started filling with tears. That does not happen often when I am reading and I can only say thank you ever so much Ms. Trumble for your incredible writing talent and for giving me hours of enjoyable reading. You are a true inspiration for me in my efforts. For anyone who has not read any of her books put all three at or near the top of your To Read list. You are in for some phenomenal works. And please, please another book soon I hope!

Favorite Books That I Read in 2013

I’ve had the good fortune to have read some incredible books these past twelve months. Earlier this week I posted a rant here about the books that appear on a goodreads thread titled Best Books Ever, a list to which I took strong exception. So for the record the works I mention below are the ones I read this past year that I most enjoyed and which I believe have helped to make me a better writer; each of them I found truly outstanding. I will not attempt to rank these; each was superb in its own special way. Thus they are arranged in alphabetical order by title. These authors have all truly inspired me as I work to complete and get published my own first novel. I have also included my Honorable Mention List. A number of the books on both lists were the author’s first published work, wonderful encouragement for those of us who hope to see our own first book in print. The date following the author’s name is where you will find a more detailed review of each of these works in the Archive section to the right. Happy Holiday Reading!

A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham: (May 2013) One of my new favorite authors, the story centers around the relationship between two people who meet as young boys, experiment sexually with each other, move apart and reconnect later in life. Beautiful, heartwarming, funny and sad. This book preceded his Pulitzer Prize winner, The Hours.

Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman: (Feb. 2013) Set in the Italian Riviera and viewed from the perspective of someone looking back on events that happened in the distant past. Aciman creates an erotic energy between two young men that is not consummated until late in the book. Rarely have I ever seen such a beautiful mastery of language and images. I was in complete awe by the time I finished this brilliant literary novel.

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin: (Feb. 2013) The tragic, heart-breaking story of doomed love set in 1950’s Paris. One of the great breakthroughs of 20th century literature and one perfectly executed.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: (Aug. 2013) What can I possibly say that has not been said ad infinitum about one of the greatest pieces of American fiction? How did I ever get this far into life without having already read it? A masterpiece without question.

Where You Are by J.H. Trumble: (Nov. 2013) I read two books this year by this incredibly gifted author. This one dares to take head-on the taboo subject of teacher/student intimacy forcing the reader to not think in black & white terms. She creates a beautiful, complex and thoughtful work in the process.

Winter Birds: A Novel by Jim Grimsley: (Dec. 2013) A grim, painful and frightening novel set in a poor rural North Carolina home dealing with an abusive and alcoholic man who terrorizes his wife and five children. 

Honorable Mention List

Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story by Paul Monette: (May 2013) This memoir is so painful, so poignant, so beautifully written and deals with the author’s struggle for the first half of his life to accept himself as a gay man. So sad that this great author died way too soon.

Don’t Let Me Go by J.H. Trumble: (June 2013) The other novel I read by this talented author this year and her first. The story centers on two young men deeply in love who face serious challenges and jealousies when circumstances force them to live far apart from one another. This author has really impressed me.

Dream Boy by Jim Grimsley: (Aug 2013) One of three books I read by Grimsley this year. A disturbing, powerful and moving story of forbidden and unspoken love in the rural South.

Rainbow Boys by Alex Sanchez: (Sept. 2013) This book focuses on the lives of three high school seniors, whose lives are interconnected, each of whom is in a different state of gay self-acceptance. At times quite humorous, at other times fairly serious.

Three Junes by Julia Glass: (Aug. 2013) The 2002 National Book Award Winner. Three separate but interconnected stories taking place in Greece, Scotland and New York during three Junes over a ten-year period. Fascinating work!

 

 

Background Reading for My Novel: “Winter Birds” by Jim Grimsley

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Winter Birds is the third book I have read this year by Jim Grimsley and like the previous works this was a definite winner. Comfort & Joy was the first book of his I read and it traced the meeting and eventual loving relationship of two men from completely different backgrounds. Ford McKinney comes from an old-monied Savannah family and like previous generations is a successful doctor. Dan Crell is a hospital administrator working in the same hospital as Ford who comes from impoverished rural North Carolina roots. Comfort & Joy hints that there is a dark ugly side to Dan’s family history but leaves the reader wondering what it is. Because I enjoyed Comfort & Joy so much and read that Grimsley’s first novel Winter Birds was the story of Dan’s childhood I quickly added the book to my To Read list.

Winter Birds is a mere 200+ pages and one that can easily be finished in a day if the reader is so inclined. The bulk of the story takes place on Thanksgiving Day. Ironically enough I finished reading it on Thanksgiving Eve. The author uses an interesting second person POV for the story, suggesting that Dan or Danny as he is called as a boy is viewing the story in his mind probably as an adult. He and his four siblings live with their parents and family dog in incredible poverty in the rural South. The father lost an arm in a farm accident and from that point forward becomes a cruel, abusive, drunken monster whom everyone in the family fears. In the longest chapter in the book, we learn the history of the family’s routine movement from one poor home to the next (a total of 7 in Danny’s brief 8 years at this point) to which he and his older sister Amy Kay have assigned appropriate names; the Snake House (snakes everywhere), the Fish House (formerly a fish store), the Ice House (only one small heater in the house), etc. The last home is the Circle House since it is circular and one door opens to the next and it is here that the story both begins and ends. The design of the house helps to add to the book’s heart-pounding finale.

This is a very painful, terrifying story to read and a sad reminder of the all too common incidence of extreme abuse both physical and emotional that far too many women, children and animals endure on a daily basis. At one point Danny reflects, “I wish I could go to sleep and not wake up, no matter how loud he yells. Except then I’d be scared to wake up and see what he did when I was asleep.” The book begins fairly slowly but by the half way point the pace picks up dramatically building to a horrific conclusion. I could not put the book down for the last 80 pages even though it was way past my bedtime. Part of the suspense of the novel is reading moments of terror followed by calming relief, but the calmness has a lingering sense that more evil will soon follow. The reader just does not know what form that evil will take and just how far the madness of Danny’s father Bobjay will go.

I have read that this story is at least partly autobiographical. I can only hope for Grimsley’s sake that there is more fiction that fact in this his first novel. Writing this must surely have been a cathartic experience for the author. American publishers initially rejected the work, regarding it as too depressing and dark and for many years it went unpublished. Bear in mind self-publishing 20 years ago was unlike now fairly uncommon.  Only after being published in Germany did the reading public begin to appreciate what a phenomenal book it was. Eventually two years later it made its American debut and won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction in 1995.

Like the other books of his I have read, especially Dream Boy, this is anything but a feel-good work of fiction. Oh but it so worth it. I am so glad I had the good fortune to stumble upon Grimsley’s work this year. He is an amazing author and one I hope to I encounter again in my readings.

UPDATE: I just finished re-reading the review I wrote earlier this year of Grimsley’s book Dream Boy. “Enticing, entrancing, powerful, moving, violent, tragic, sparse, brilliantly crafted and executed, immensely satisfying” was how I described it. All of those words apply as well to this work.