“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Brian is quiet, withdrawn and a somewhat nerdy kid.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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“Probation” by Tom Mendicino

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I was pleasantly surprised at how well written this book was, especially considering it was Mendicino’s first novel. The plot sounded interesting enough: Andy Nocera, a married man in his late thirties, is arrested for having sex with another guy at an interstate rest stop. His life quickly goes downhill from that point. Besides the public shame and legal ramifications, he loses both his job and his wife. As the title suggests, the story traces his life during his one year probation period. This is Andy’s story and is told from his point of view. Over the course of his probation Andy must finally come to terms with accepting himself as a gay man, something he has struggled with since his early teens. We learn much about Andy’s back story through the effective use of flashback.

Probation is an excellent accounting of one man’s fall from grace and the difficult road he must take over the course of one year before he can achieve happiness and inner peace. Andy is neither a hero nor a villain. He is just one screwed-up guy trying to make some sense out of his life. The author has strong writing skills and delivers a story that is powerful and compelling. In addition to Andy the other primary characters are:
• Matt: the court-appointed counselor, psychiatrist as well as Jesuit priest. Matt is the perfect foil for Andy and plays an important role in getting Andy to accept himself.
• Alice: his ex-wife who despite everything that has happened still cares deeply about Andy.
• Andy’s mom who bails him out of jail, welcomes him into her home and provides him important emotional support.

Some of the comments others have made about this book frankly annoy me. Apparently some people found Andy whiny, self-righteous, irritating and pathetic. One person commented “If you’re dissatisfied then change your life and stop whining. He seemed to ‘enjoy’ being miserable, drinking and smoking himself into a stupor.” Really? I could not disagree more strongly. The story as I recall takes place in North Carolina in the early 90’s, not exactly the cradle of love your gay neighbor. To apply a mindset of Will and Grace, Modern Family and Marriage Equality to Andy’s time and place as I suspect many Generation Xers and Millennials do is preposterous. Even in 2014 there is enormous societal pressure to think and act straight. Andy grew up in an environment that told him he was sick and disgusting for his sexual urges and behavior and he should probably be beaten to a pulp like Matthew Shepherd was. As a result he is self-loathing and resorts to drinking heavily to mask the pain he is feeling. “Don’t judge me till you have walked a mile in my shoes” seems an apt way of describing his situation. That is why I can and apparently others cannot understand his anguish, self-hatred and suffering.

Like Andy I too was once married, trying to live the Leave it To Beaver existence society had pressured me into believing I needed to pursue to achieve happiness. Even though I had known since my early teens that guys and not gals was what aroused me, I struggled with my feelings, living a lie, trying to convince myself and others I was something I wasn’t. Only when I reached the age of thirty and my marriage started to crumble did I face my demons. Fortunately I was not caught at a public restroom having sex, although at the time the prospect of engaging in such activity did cross my mind on more than one occasion. Living in the closet is a bleak and heavy burden to bear. Like Andy when I allowed myself to accept me for who and what I was, it was quite liberating.

This is not an easy story to read but one that is gripping, believable and very satisfying. It is not your usual M/M romance story. Rather it is the saga of a middle-aged man who happens to be gay though not willing to acknowledge it, and what happens to him after getting caught going down on another guy at a rest stop. The work was a Lambda Literary Award Nominee for Gay Debut Fiction in 2011. All-in-all this was a very rewarding novel.

” 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.

“Language Lessons” by Jay Bell: A Short Review of a Short Story

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This is a cute (maybe a little too cute?) short story about a 16 year-old guy who because of his parents’ failed marriage does not believe in love. Instead he is really only interested in regularly getting laid. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that especially when you have the raging hormones of sixteen. That’s just who Joey is. When we first meet Joey he is home and sees through his window a guy whom he has longed to snag for at least two years and who has just come home from college. For the next forty pages we follow his escapades which culminate in his seriously falling for someone much to our protagonist’s surprise.

This was a quick, easy, amusing and entertaining story. Earlier this year I read the author’s Something Like Summer which I enjoyed a great deal. This work was not quite up to the caliber of the Summer book but considering its brevity it may be a bit unfair to compare the two works.  It was good as far as it went, just not quite good enough to merit a higher rating from me. I do like the author’s light and breezy writing style and his positive portrayal of M/M relationships. I have two more of his books on my To Read list, including Something Like Winter which parallels the story line of Something Like Summer, only this time through the eyes and mind of the other party in that romantic tale. I posted a review of the Summer book in September. If you are interested you can read that review here.

PS: I am going to be out of the country for a couple of weeks so this will be my last post until I get back. If you like my reviews, thanks. I promise I will be posting another in late October after I return.

“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.

“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.

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!

Background Reading for My Novel: “The Lost Language of Cranes” by David Leavitt

The Lost Language of Cranes

What an incredible book to launch my 2014 reading! First published in 1986, The Lost Language of Cranes by David Leavitt is an intense, powerful, well-written study of an intellectual middle-age couple and their grown son. Set in Manhattan in the 1980’s, each of the three main characters has kept secrets from one another for a long time, and the story traces the need to finally reveal those secrets and the consequences each faces for doing that.

Rose and Owen Benjamin have been married for twenty-seven years and live quiet, mundane lives on Manhattan’s East Side. Rose is a copy editor for a small NYC publishing house. She is a very structured person and her work is the centerpiece of her life since her home life is so passionless. Her secret is that of a five-year affair she had in the distant past with a co-worker. Owen had a promising academic career long ago but gave it up and settled for a drab position as the director of a private Manhattan boy’s school, a position that leaves him unfulfilled. The boredom of his professional and home life is relieved only by his visit every Sunday afternoon to a gay porno theater which he has frequented for many years. The couple’s lives are further complicated by the fact that they soon may be forced to leave their apartment of many years due to a proposed condo-conversion.

Their only child and twenty-five year old son Philip has his own apartment on the West Side and works midtown as an editor of romance novels. He has fallen in love with Elliott Abrams whom he has known for about a month. Philip is painfully insecure and since Elliot is his first love in a long time he is overly eager to cling to him which alienates Elliot. Phillip is also captivated by the fact that Elliot was raised by two gay men in a literary and bohemian world, an environment totally alien from his own experience. While he is out as a gay man to his friends and co-workers, Philip has never revealed his sexuality to either of his parents even though he has known since a young teenager that he was gay. Now he feels a need to tell them since he has finally fallen in love. His decision to come out to his parents has unforeseen consequences, most acutely his father’s need to finally acknowledge that he too is gay.

This is a book to be enjoyed on many levels. Leavitt’s rich and rewarding story draws the reader into the hearts and minds of its characters. It is an excellent portrayal of different relationships: lovers, parent/child, husband/wife, friends, roommates. The story is also an engrossing account of keeping secrets and the terrible toll that can have on a person physically and emotionally. The author raises valid questions. Is it always best to tell the truth or should some things be left unspoken?  Is the burden lifted from the bearer of the secret simply transferred to the person learning the secret? Leavitt does not answer these questions but raises them in the reader’s mind for consideration. He also shows what a horrible price one pays for living in the closet. Reading and understanding Owen’s many years of secrecy, shame and guilt is painful and his desire to touch and be touched by someone for whom he feels passion is very poignant. Additionally throughout the story there is an overriding theme of loneliness and what one can or should do to try to overcome it that goes beyond just the three main characters.

The specter of AIDS looms through the story. Written at the time of the introduction of the cataclysmic AIDS era there is the fear and dread of contracting the disease running through the minds of many of the characters, a sense they are being forced into monogamy to simply survive. “Now monogamy was in fashion, but it had taken on the status of a safety tactic, an unappetizing but necessary catastrophic measure, like one of those World War II recipes for stretching precious rationed meat. ‘Find ten buddies and agree to fuck only with them,’ Phillip had read in a porn magazine early in the crisis. Then ten was reduced to five, five to two…fear became an indirect route to monogamy and, sometimes, to happiness.”

Before reading the novel I was intrigued by its unusual title and assumed it was a reference to the long-legged and long-necked birds. Instead though it is a reference to research being conducted by Elliot’s roommate Jerene, clearly the strongest and most powerfully drawn of the secondary characters. A black lesbian who was coldly rejected by her adoptive parents once they learned of her sexuality, she is busy doing research on lost languages. She stumbles upon the bizarre story of a neglected two-year old boy who related to and imitated the movement and sound of the mechanical cranes he saw from his tenement window rather than that of his biological single mom. The boy becomes the Crane-Child and when he is removed from them what he shared is forever lost.

This is a perfectly slow-paced novel, just the right tempo to paint incredible characters and draw the reader into their lives. Never did I feel it was moving too slowly; it held my interest throughout. As I am writing this it has dawned on me that the story in some ways reminds me of Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which like this novel dealt with dark secrets and the consequences of revealing those secrets. I was totally captivated by this book and plan to read more by this talented author.

One final comment. The book was adapted by the BBC into a made-for-TV movie in 1991. The one significant change was the setting, London rather than New York. I caught a glimpse of it on YouTube and from what I saw other than the setting it appeared very faithful to the book.

 

Background Reading for My Novel: “Last Summer” by Michael Thomas Ford

Last Summer

Earlier this year I read Changing Tides by Michael Thomas Ford which I found very enjoyable. I found out that he has written or co-authored a large number of books covering a variety of genres over a twenty year period and added a couple of them to my To Read list. Last Summer was the one that most intrigued me in part I think because it takes place in Provincetown.  I came out as a gay man while living in Boston oh so many years ago; since P-Town was an easy two-hour drive from Boston and also has a sizable gay population I often went there over a three-year period to relax, enjoy the sun and surf, and be a bit mischievous.

The story takes place from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Rather than focusing on just a few main characters, the reader is introduced to an ensemble of individuals who find themselves there for the summer. Some are long-time residents, some are people looking to simply relax and have a good time and some are there trying to escape their past. The story begins with Josh Felling who has left his apartment in Boston after finding out his long-time boyfriend has been sleeping with someone from his gym. He goes to Provincetown with the notion of having a long weekend by himself to sort out his feelings and winds up spending the summer there. Toby Evans is a somewhat naive seventeen year-old who has traveled by bus from Missouri to escape the condemnation of his parents for being gay. Emmeline also came here to escape parental rejection many years earlier. He/she performs in a drag show and is working to save enough money to have a sex change operation. Jackie has lived in town for 20 years, owns a popular restaurant/bar/nightclub and has recently ended a relationship with her long-time partner Karla. She is also about to turn forty and questioning where her life is headed. Reilly Brennan comes from a family that has lived in P-town for generations. He and his fiancée will soon be getting married but he finds his fantasies are disturbingly about members of his same sex. Ty Rusk is one of the hottest new stars in Hollywood and is fantasized as husband material by millions of adoring fans. What they don’t know is that he is a long-term relationship with his producer, Reid Truman. Devin Lowens is a local who has aspirations of making it big-time in New York or Hollywood but has begrudgingly moved back from NYC into her family’s home. She has an enormous student loan to pay off and feels bitterly beaten and defeated by having to live with her parents again. Marly Prentis is the successful director of the Arts House, married and with one child, who is now finding her life dull and hoping to find something or someone to re-energize it.

It is these characters and others who populate this well-written book. The story is told from the third person POV. Each chapter is brief, typically ten pages or less, and each chapter changes its focus from one of these characters to another. Ford executes this process very skillfully; in the hands of someone else the shifting emphasis of character might be confusing but I found it flowed very smoothly. The book in some ways reminded me of two other works, one a movie, the other another novel. The movie I have in mind is the 2004 award-winning Crash, the book or more correctly books of which this reminds me is the Tales of the City series by Armistead Maupin. The analogy is that all of these have an ensemble cast, not merely two or three main characters, and their lives are on a collision course with one another.

While I enjoyed Ford’s 2007 work Changing Tides, I feel this earlier work is superior. Last Summer won the Lambda Literary Award in 2004 for Best Romance Novel. If I had to find one fault with the book I would say that it has a little bit too much of a happily ever after ending. I think that’s a pretty minor criticism though. Ford wrote this book to entertain and he does a top-notch job at that. The story moves quickly and the characters are well-developed and believable. I’m surprised the story has not been adapted for either the big or small screen although maybe even in 2013 it has too much of a gay theme to make that happen. If they ever did do it though Joseph Gordon-Levitt would be perfect-casting for the role of Josh.

Even though I read the book right before Christmas, I would say put this on your summer reading list, preferably reading it on the beach or on a chaise lounge sipping one of those silly summer drinks with an umbrella in it.