“Family Man” by Heidi Cullinan and Marie Sexton

Family Man

This book turned out to be surprisingly good – not great but compared to some of the M/M stories I have recently read, a definite improvement. As a gay man I like reading stories whose plots include two guys finding each other attractive, having sex and building a future together. I won’t deny that I enjoy being aroused by the descriptions of their love-making but when an author uses the thinnest of plots to essentially write nothing more than pornography, I feel cheated by the author. Regrettably I have encountered that a fair amount in my reading of late. How depressing to then see other readers give those books a 4 or 5 star rating on goodreads!

Much to their credit, Heidi Cullinan and Marie Sexton who co-authored the book avoid this approach or at least do in Family Man, the first book by either author that I have read. The story traces the relationship and romance that blossoms between Vince Fierro and Trey Giles. Vince is approaching forty, has been married three times (each one ending in divorce) and in the first pages of the book is beginning to question his sexuality. On the advice of his sister he heads to one of Chicago’s Boystown bars to check out the scene, hoping to prove to himself that he is not gay. He’s there just a short while feeling he has succeeded in validating that he is straight when in walks the attractive and much younger Trey, whom Vince casually knows from his neighborhood. Trey is openly and comfortably gay but is dealing with a boatload of issues in his life – a mother with severe substance abuse issues, a grandmother whom he loves dearly and whom he feels he needs to care for, two jobs, and school. He feels he does not now have the luxury of time to be dating anyone. In fact he has decided to remain a virgin until he meets the right guy. The two start to talk and Trey convinces Vince to go to another club where they dance cheek-to-cheek to the sexy music of John Coltrane. They quickly become attracted to one another; Trey’s no-sex attitude in fact makes Vince feel comfortable that he does not have to perform. Before very long a romance is blooming.

A lot happens before the last pages not the least of which is Vince coming out to his big Italian family, no small achievement. The book contains its share of humor, pathos and yes some down-and-dirty sex but that last item does not occur until more than halfway through the story. It was a joy to read the poignant connection that develops between the two main characters and to see each of them try to work through the emotional baggage they carry before having to read who stuck what into whom (not suggesting for a moment that was not enjoyable and sexy to read). The authors took the time to build an interesting story and develop appealing, complex and believable characters. What a breath of fresh air compared to some of the smut I have recently encountered!

One thing that I found a little odd about the work was the fact that while you see the story shifting between each character’s perspective, Trey’s vision is written from a first person POV, whereas Vince’s is from a third person POV. The fact that the book was written by two people made me wonder if essentially one author was writing Trey’s part of the story and the other writer was penning Vince’s story. If so it seems a little odd that before the book was published someone did not edit it to make it have a uniform POV. I did not see where this technique if intentional added anything to the story. I guess it would be a good question to ask the two authors.

I do think this is a worthwhile work and would recommend it to anyone who wants an easy, quick and satisfying novel. I posted a similar review on goodreads and commented that I so hate the very limited 5 star rating system that goodreads uses. As has happened so often in the past, for me this book falls between a 3 and a 4 under their system; more like a 7 out of 10. I cannot bring myself to rate this a 4 based on some of the books to which I have given that rating in the past. Thus I will have to knock it down a notch to a 3.

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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.