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Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark. For the straightforward pathway had been lost. —Dante, “The Divine Comedy”
Two-time LLA-winning romance author Michael Thomas Ford has another winner in The Road Home, (Kensington), a powerful novel of return, redemption and self-discovery.
The book opens with Burke Crenshaw, a middle-aged, successful commercial photographer, surfacing to consciousness after a major auto accident. Submerged in his unconscious state, he relives the memory of a childhood toboggan accident, and so Ford sets the stage for Burke’s return to unresolved emotional traumas of his youth.
Burke survives the accident only to discover that the emotional connections he has made in his adult life are so shallow that he cannot find a single friend—not even his past lover—who will nurse him through his lengthy convalescence.
Burke is packed off to his boyhood home in Vermont to the care of his taciturn father, Ed, and Ed’s long-time companion, Lucy. The first night home he finds the first gay novel he read and jacked off to as a teenager. But the stirring memory is ruined when he hears his father and Lucy thumping away in another room.
In the moment he is reduced to being a child again, a sensation which continues when he is forced to allow Lucy to attend to some of his more intimate bodily needs. Burke’s boyhood memories are further stirred by the appearance of Will, the 20-year old son of Mars Janks, Burke’s best bud from high school with whom Burke had shared an intense moment of teenage intimacy—A moment that Mars had promptly passed off to too much beer.
The friendship faded as Mars conformed to small-town life in Vermont and Burke went away to Boston to pursue a career and a lifestyle his father considered foolish.
In his enforced idleness, Burke becomes intrigued by a book written by Lucy’s deceased husband about the Vermont militia in the Civil War. Burke discovers that young Will Janks also shares an interest in Civil War history. When Burke uncovers a box of antique cameras, the Janks boy takes Burke to a ruined Civil War era farmhouse to take pictures.
Precariously balancing on crutches, Burke slips and Will catches him against his chest and the two kiss. In Will Janks, Burke sees the potential young man that Mars might have been, that they might have been together. But then he discovers that the young man has a girlfriend. Burke is furious:
“‘So you’re going to hide your whole life?’ said Burke.
‘You’re going to marry Donna, have a couple of kids, and play country vet forever?’ …‘Why are you being such a dick?’ Will asked.
Because you’re doing the same thing to me that your father did, Burke thought.”
But Will isn’t the only apple that hasn’t fallen far from the tree. After a difficult conversation with his father about his mother’s death, Burke reflects on his life:
“It wasn’t until his first boyfriend, then the second, third, and fourth complained about his inability to communicate that Burke realized he had inherited—or at least learned to emulate—his father’s reluctance to show emotion.”
Meanwhile, Burke reads a letter written by a Civil War soldier and his gaydar is set off by the accompanying photograph of the soldier, his betrothed and another young man. Burke’s research leads him to Sam Guffrey, the town’s bachelor librarian. Sam is something of an expert on local history and he is able to provide important information on the soldier and his lover.
Here Ford’s plot wanders into Wuthering Heights territory, but, unfortunately, without the convenient genealogy that Brontë provides. I found the complex Civil War back love story—one that includes possibly transgendered characters, false identities, arson and a family murder—fascinating but difficult to sort out. Nonetheless it adds a richly textured subtext to the main themes of return, redemption and self-discovery.
Burke automatically checks Sam’s ring finger even though he thinks the librarian is not his type. Still Sam’s intelligence and altruism challenge Burke. When Sam helps a local boy with a reading disability, Burke admires him.
Sam responds, “’There’s not much point to being alive if you don’t do what you can to make life better for someone else, is there?’ he said.” Burke realizes, “He’d never really helped anyone. It had always been about him.”
Even so Burke continues to relive his second boyhood in his romance with Will Janks despite his misgivings about its propriety or the likelihood of its permanence. Ford has Burke reflect: “Standing in the doorway of his room, he looked at what was left of his childhood. He’d left all of that behind to go into the world to find out who he was. Now he wondered if he’d ever really figured it out.”
But a more grown-up relationship begins to bud with Sam. Here Ford leads us in an unexpected direction as Sam introduces Burke to radical faerie spirituality. Ford manages to introduce this surprising element so seamlessly, and it flows from the story so naturally, that the reader accepts this unusual development with ease as it becomes the next step in Burke’s growing self-discovery.
After a discussion about what faerie spirituality is, Sam asks Burke: “So, what’s your life about?” Burke responds, “My life is all about me. What I want. What makes my life better.” When Sam asks him if he is happy with his life, Burke thinks, “About his life back in Boston, the one he’d thought he couldn’t wait to get back to. He thought about his work, and how instead of doing how own projects, he’d accepted commercial work because for the good money. And he thought about the failed relationships. ‘No,’ he said, his voice catching in his throat. ‘I really don’t think I am.’”
But before Burke can truly come home to himself, he faces two gut-wrenching but cathartic encounters, one with Will and one with his father. The book’s climatic scene ties together the book’s many rich thematic elements in a moment of pure magic where Burke re-emerges into life and love.
Hot Off the Presses by Elliot Mackle (Lethe) also introduces a radical faerie motif, but in this failed romance the central character seems to use Body Magic massage more as an escape from his sexuality than as a means of self-discovery.
The novel is set on the eve of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Henry Thompson is the editor of “Outlines,” Atlanta’s gay rag, owned by the rich, straight, white liberal couple, Pope and Marguerite McClelland.
Henry wants to blast the homophobia of black Mayor Rawson Ramble, who has refused to request federal funding for minority AIDS education because “Atlanta blacks didn’t contract HIV, not according to the gospel preached by Pastor Rawson Ramble at his Shining Light Baptist Church.”
Meanwhile, Ramble’s son Martin is not only gay, but a drug user and plays unsafe.
The McClellands and the rest of Atlanta’s white power establishment don’t care so much about blacks and AIDS as they do about making sure that the Atlanta Games go off without a hitch. That includes making sure that “Outlines” doesn’t offend Mayor Ramble.
Meanwhile, Henry becomes sexually involved with closeted gymnast gold-medal contender and Georgia homeboy, Wade Tarpley. When Tarpley gets caught with his pants down getting a Tantric massage from Henry’s Body Magic pal, Skip, before he bombs in men’s compulsories, he brashly tries to blame his performance failure on the radical gay agenda of “Outlines” and a series Henry ran on “Rainbow Names, Honest Games.”
The mayor finally breaks down and makes an appearance at a fundraiser for St. John’s House, an AIDS shelter, but his hypocrisy is unveiled when Henry exposes the mayor’s son, Martin, Wade Tarpley and several other Atlanta gay notables as participants in a bareback orgy at the AIDS fundraiser’s after-party.
When the mayor and his handler, Ellen Inman, try to buy Henry off, Henry’s boyfriend, “Sports Illustrated” reporter, Brian Murphy, steels Henry’s nerve to follow his journalist instincts.
Elliot Mackle’s first book, It Takes Two, (Alyson) was a LLA-finalist in mystery and remains one of my favorite gay mysteries. It has everything Hot Off the Presses lacks: a sexy romance, a well-developed historical setting, and non-stereotyped, believable characters, black and white.
I don’t know why he’s so off his game with this one, especially since he is apparently “writing what he knows” having reported on the 1996 Games for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. And why was this dumped into the romance category by Lethe anyway? What little romance there is comes only after the reader has sloughed over two-thirds of the way through the book.
I get it that the novel is set in the mid-90s at the height of the AIDS crises and so the characters are going to be concerned about safe sex. But instead of introducing safe sex elements in a natural way as part of Henry’s normal, healthy gay sexuality, Mackle makes every sex scene in the novel a safe sex educational moment.
It starts to seem like Henry isn’t so much concerned about safe sex as he is freaked out by sex in general.
But the hypocrisy of the character is such that whenever he is at a crisis moment he slinks off to the steam room at the gym for a quickie. Of course, he is meticulously safe in all he does there, but what about MRSA, herpes, crabs? If I was this obsessed about STDs, I think I’d stay home and jack off.
Mackle tries to salvage Henry’s sexuality by having him indulge in lots and lots of Tantric massage and other Body Magic techniques as if getting a good massage satisfies the same sweet spot in a man’s soul that a good fucking does. I wasn’t convinced.
Curiously, neither are Mackle’s own characters. When the tardily introduced love interest, sportswriter Brian Murphy finally makes his way into Henry’s bed, Mackle commits the unforgivable sin of romance writing—Brian can’t get it up. Why? Because he can’t stay hard with a rubber!
Also Henry is squeamish about bottoming, rubber or no. The reader’s own interest has gone flaccid by now.
The two black staffers at “Outlines,” receptionist-reporter Bambi Fawne and illustrator and cartoonist Ibo Williams, are made to mouth an embarrassing Ebonics dialect. Supposedly they speak this way out of ironic anger over the sellout of the black elite.
Obviously, Southern black characters may have a dialect, but curiously, when Mackle introduces white characters who have dialects, such as the McClellands, he alludes to the dialect and then drops it, leaving it to the reader to hear the Southern dialect with our inner ear. Not so with the black characters, with them every “be” is written as an infinitive.
As a dedicated fan of Mackle’s successful first novel, I have been anxiously awaiting the highly anticipated appearance of Captain Harding’s Six Day War, whose publication has languished while Alyson Books is being restructured as an e-book publisher.
Richard Labonté previewed the book in “Books to Watch Out For” and he wrote: “Military veteran Mackle’s resonant story, set with Catch-22 authenticity against the backdrop of the Six Day War, spans an emotional spectrum from lusty horniness to nuanced romance with literary polish and story-telling punch.”
I whole-heartedly expect “Captain Harding” will redeem the promise of Mackle’s debut novel when it is released. Soon, I hope. Go to www.elliottmacklebooks.com for more on Mackle.