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Companions (Nich’ooni) is an astonishingly powerful self-published novel by Jed A. Bryan (BecHavn,2012) that explores two unfamiliar American folk cultures, the Mormon Church and the Navajo Nation. In 1968, young Anglo missionary, Elder Johnny McKay is teamed up with his Pueblo-German missionary companion, Elder Geoffrey Rama, to preach the Mormon faith to “God’s chosen people,” the Navajo Nation. It’s hate at first sight as the two young men compete to outdo each other in their missionary zeal. The towheaded Elder McKay is stereo-typically “Mormon” with eyes that “exactly match the faded blue of the hottest summer day.” When Elder McKay first lays sight on Elder Rama, he thinks, “He was undoubtedly the handsomest Indian I had ever seen,” but is quickly put off by Rama’s cold arrogance, “Dressed in a full suit, coat and all. Idly, I wondered whom he thought he was going to impress out here. The Navajos laughed at us behind our backs for wearing such impracticalities as white shirts, slacks and oxfords where the summer heat was often well above a hundred, and sandstorms were as common as flies on a dead goat….We had an image to maintain. An image of stubborn refusal to adapt.”
But adapt they must. Denied the only means of transport the church allows, decrepit Dodge vans, “We elders called them DOGs,” the two traverse their large mission territory on horseback in regulation missionary white shirts and ties. Based at a century old trading post, Tsisyi Nanisht’in (Hidden Forest), the young missionaries are soon caught up into the fabric of Navajo life, despite their insistence that the Navajo ways be suppressed by the preaching of the Gospel. Tom Yazzie, a baptized Mormon who nonetheless lives according to Navajo traditions, personifies the Navajo attitude of “go along to get along.” He tells the missionaries, “You haven’t learned much out here if you don’t realize that for a Navajo, being a member of a Christian church is like an Anglo joining
Rotary or the Elks. A Navajo is a Navajo. Anything else is superfluous.” Tom secures for Johnny and Jeff an abandoned hooghan believed to be haunted after the suicide of Tom’s nephew—“He was what we call a nádleeh…The plains Indians call them berdache.”
Though the two are inseparable from dawn to midnight, repairing the hooghan, praying, studying and proselytizing, they hardly speak to each other. But Tom sees through their mutual hostility. He tells Johnny, “I’d be willing to bet that you don’t see it, but the trouble is that you and he are too much alike—in some ways.” In their competitiveness they have baptized more Navajos than any other team on the reservation, but their mutual hatred reaches the point of a bloody fist fight—a scene beautifully illustrated on the book’s cover by an uncredited artist, perhaps Mr. Bryan, himself? Bryan’s resolution of the young men’s repressed love is a masterstroke of yearning and restraint.
Bryan never stereotypes either the Mormons or the Navajos but instead invites the reader to understand the way of life that so strongly binds both communities. His portraits of the missionary teams and their irreverent attitudes towards the clueless church hierarchy provides many of the books more comic moments, even while he keeps the reader aware of the sincere faith that motivates their sacrifice. Likewise, the Anglos’ perception of the Indians is comic, but Johnny’s growing self-awareness helps him to become aware of the wisdom and dignity and oppression of the diné. So much so that he begins to incorporate some of their spirituality into his own faith, a heresy known as “traditionalism.” While proclaiming the Indians “God’s chosen people,” they are simultaneously disdained as Lamanites—a fallen race whose ultimate redemption is becoming white. Similarly, Johnny and Jeff can only be redeemed by becoming something that they’re not.
In a scene evocative of Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric,” Tom invites the missionary teams to join him in the sweat lodge. Apart from their apprehensions about participating in a native ritual, the young men aren’t allowed to remove their Temple garments except to bathe. Finally, the district leader reasons that the sweat lodge is a bath of sorts, so all the young men strip down and in the dark confines of the sweat lodge, skin touching skin, they listen to Tom’s haunting chant. Soon the young Mormons begin to sing their own traditional hymn, expressing “the waves of loneliness, the despair of being denied love.” It’s too sad to even smile at the obvious double entendre:
“Some poor fainting, struggling seaman,
You may rescue,
You may save.”
Johnny and Jeff’s tragedy, the tragedy of their Mormon faith, is that while saving others, they cannot save themselves and remain Mormon.
Among the book’s many delights is a vivid depiction of the young missionary teams playing basketball in their Mormon union suits, rear flaps flying. Bryan includes many other interesting details of Mormon and Navajo life, including a Navajo pronunciation key as an appendix. Perhaps more useful would be a short lexicon of the many Navajo words and phrases he uses liberally throughout the book, although generally he does an excellent job of bringing out the meaning of this beautiful language in context. An audio version is promised—you’ll want to Whispersync the print and audio versions, if available on Amazon.
Shoot Off at the OK Corral
Wyatt: Doc Holliday’s Account of an Intimate Friendship (Bold Strokes Books, 2012) is billed as an erotic novel rather than a romance, but readers will find this fascinating historical Western by m/m writer Dale Chase amply satisfies both needs. I have classified the book as a folk tale simply because the story has become larger than life thanks to its silver screen versions. I dare say Chase’s treatment is much more historically rigorous than those, even with her intriguing assertion of a romantic relationship between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. One wonders where that relationship falls in the author’s disclaimer that she has “adhered to historical accuracy where it suits the story and loosened the reins where it does not.”
Chase opens with the image of death as “le petit mortis”—
“Gunplay gets a man’s blood up. A fellow goes for his revolver, meaning to do me harm, and as I dispatch him, everything in me stands at attention. By the time his life runs out, my blood rushes to such an extent that my dick is hard.”
—and death haunts the story throughout as we know from page one that Doc is dying of tuberculosis. Yet the story moves too fast to ever be morbid. There is plenty of the type of action that will leave lovers of Westerns drooling. Chase’s language is blunt and unsentimental and the couplings between the sexually adventurous Doc and the upright and married Marshal Earp have the stark urgency of men who need to shoot first and ask questions later. Doc’s persistent cough adds a tragic poignancy to their relationship, but Chase works by understatement and she packs more pathos into a four line epilogue than some writers do in entire novels.
It’s hard to believe that this confident and entertaining book is Chase’s debut novel. I will be looking for more by Chase at www.dalechasestrokes.com.
“In Love With a Boulder Man”
In a recent posting in Lambda Literary Review, Diana Denza wrote about the rise of alternative fairy tales for LGBT kids and Jeremy Jordan King’s debut novel, In Stone: A Grotesque Faerie Tale, (Bold Strokes Books, 2012, www.boldstrokesbooks.com) is just such an ambitious attempt to create a new gay fairy tale for young adults. King was featured in the Advocate as one of the ten LGBT YA authors to watch out for.
The contemporary story is simple. Financially struggling New York caterwaiter, Jeremy Jordan King, perpetually in crush with unobtainable guys like his co-worker, Robbie, becomes a victim of a hate crime while stumbling home stone drunk on New Year’s Eve. Apparently he dies. Or does he? He wakes up being ministered to by a Guardian, the first of his several timely rescues:
“My superhero wasn’t a man at all, but some humanoid monster thing, hunched over and ancient.
I muffled a gasp in my hands, then said, ‘You’re a…a gargoyle?’
He sighed. ‘We are called grotesques. Gargoyles are drain pipes.’”
The back-story about how Garth became a grotesque is so convoluted it is often difficult to figure out what is going on or why, even though it ostensibly parallels the contemporary story. In a nutshell, long, long ago in a kingdom far, far away, Garth and his friend, Francis, were turned into stone by an evil king. Garth then sat as a Guardian over the crown prince. The prince becomes a victim of a hate crime perpetrated by his evil twin brothers, but instigated by the evil king, and apparently he dies. His friend, a garden statue of a warrior queen, becomes allies with Garth and Francis and Francis’ friend, a fountain statue named Helena. They journey forth to try to rescue the soul of the prince from the Avenging Angel. Well, lots more than that, but, as I said, this is it in a nutshell.
It’s a pity that King didn’t trust more in his basic premise—boy and grotesque fall in love—because a simpler back-story would have better held my interest and propelled the story. Instead, because the back-story is so complicated, what should be of central interest to the plot, Garth and Jeremy’s relationship, gets lost in the rocks. At the end we finally discover who Jeremy really is and why Garth is his Guardian.
In the contemporary story, King cleverly names the protagonist after himself to anchor the story more firmly in reality. Similarly, the character Jeremy’s New York wiseacre voice, though sometimes grating, does keep the story firmly on the pavement in contemporary New York City. Unfortunately, King’s portrait of the city is more from a bridge and tunnel crowd viewpoint—he’s constantly in danger of being mugged. But King does put the city to good use when Garth finds it easy to hide in plain sight by blending into some of New York’s several Gothic landmarks, such as St. John the Divine Cathedral. Garth’s vigilantism is morally ambivalent and here King properly evokes the violence of many children’s fairy tales—the ones that haven’t been Bowdlerized to clean up all the blood.
The allegorical moral of the story, that little gay boys must grow up to face the big bad reality of hate crimes and unrequited love, is not the one I wanted and I think that’s the reason this chimera of contemporary story and fairy tale didn’t work for me. King needs the courage of his brilliant imagination to write a full-blown fantasy. Since this is Book One of The Immortal Testimonies, perhaps he intends to do just that in Book Two, Night Creatures, scheduled out this fall. From the title I am hoping that the new book will feature Bryant, the sexy vampire introduced to us in the first book. If King keeps coming up with such intriguing premises, I’ll keep buying his next books.
The cool cover art is also by King. The photogenic young author can be found at http://jeremyjordanking.com.
Waking Up is Hard To Do
Alex Jeffers’ new novel is 20 years old (and you thought you had a tough time finding a publisher). Originally written in 1991-1992, during the height of the last big recession, it is interesting that it is out just in time for the next big recession. Amazingly it doesn’t read like a period piece, but is as fresh as today. The book’s full title is Deprivation; or, Benedetto furioso, an oneiromancy. Deprivation as in not getting enough sleep and oneiromacy as in the interpretation of dreams in order to foretell the future. Benedetto is the Italian version of the protagonist’s name—Benedict. Furioso meaning mad as in looney and referring to the Italian epic poem, Orlando furioso. The publisher is Lethe Press, but of course—Lethe being the goddess of forgetfulness and oblivion, or sleep (www.lethepressbooks.com).
If the title needs to be parsed, one may be hesitant to delve into the admittedly rich text. Certainly, Deprivation benefits from a good Italian red preferably while listening to the Giovanni Perin European Quartet’s jazz take on Vivaldi’s “Orlando furioso” on the “Dream With Open Eyes” CD.
The story begins with a 30-page dream that has the illogical quality of a dream, best read, as I said, with a buzz on. The 18-year old Dario, the son of an Italian prince, and his two half-siblings, his protective older brother, Laud, and his playful little sister, Gioia, are adrift on the streets of Boston in winter when they are rescued by our protagonist, Ben Lansing, who takes them home with him. Dario becomes Ben’s lover. Is Ben dreaming? The three siblings beg for a Freudian interpretation. Ben cannot sleep: “How did he survive like this, how did he keep going? Surely sleep deprivation, prolonged, was unhealthy.” He realizes that his dreams of Dario are transitioning to “hallucinations, delusions” and that soon he will not be able to distinguish the dreamer from the dream.
The book has no chapters, so when Ben wakes up there is no abrupt transition from dreaming to waking and no clear definition that he is awake, merely a gradual sobering into the reality of his daily commute from Providence, RI, to his job at a temp agency in downtown Boston. And then, wham! he’s hit by a humpy Greek bike messenger named Neddy who offers to have his soiled suit cleaned. Jeffers’ description of Neddy is resonant with the subtle allusions that the astute reader will discover throughout this novel:
“‘I’m Neddy.'” His hair, a dense, hueless black, hung unruly around his narrow face, draped like a silk scarf around his neck to the center of his chest. Five or six thin braids tied with bits of narrow yellow ribbon coiled through the mass. They lashed about whenever he moved his head, or when he raked the hair back from the brow with one gloved hand.”
Neddy stands as the very image of the Renaissance figures Ben views while strolling through a museum–An elongated face like Neddy’s in a painting by El Greco is framed by a black hood similar to Neddy’s scarf-like braids. Or the “gold laces tying off” a young boy’s cod-piece in a painting by Titian are similar to the yellow ribbons coiled through Neddy’s black braids. Later, at Neddy’s apartment, Ben sees a self-portrait by Neddy in which he has portrayed himself as a Greek kouros.
Meanwhile, when Ben finally gets to work, the office yenta has set up a blind date for him with M. Kenneth Pace, a comfortably well-off translator from the Czech who selfishly takes an unneeded well-paying temp clerk-typist job from Ben’s agency, leaving more desperate job seekers high and dry. But the beautiful M. Kenneth, whom Ben likens to Titian’s Portrait of an Englishman, has a surprising sexual orientation. Nonetheless, he becomes a source of refuge for Ben.
In the midst of these dreams and dreamlike encounters, Ben gets a call from his first crush, his Italian teacher and soccer coach from prep school, Paul Antonescu, who Ben claims looks identical to a self-portrait by a Renaissance contemporary of Michelangelo, Andrea del Sarto. Ben daydreams about a moment’s too long tumble he took with Paolo in the soccer field five years earlier, or of the smell of espresso and the mature man’s heat and cologne. Paul is coming out to Boston on his way to Italy on business, may he see Ben?
Fortunately in a novel this psychologically complex, Jeffers provides clues for us along the way. When Ben and Kenneth discuss the book that Kenneth is translating from the Czech, Kenneth tells Ben (and the reader), “There’re a lot of dreams in Kamil’s book. Literary dreams, sure, important to the plot.”
Ben dreams of sex with his father. Does his father represent Paolo? The phone rings and it is his father, Lon, coming out to his son. The crisis is perpetrated by his mother Sandra’s newest successful novel about a gay father and son—her method of outing. As Ben reads his mother’s book we follow the novel within the novel like a daydream and Ben is his mother’s fictional gay son Tom and has Italian ancestry and lives in Italy. Mother and Father fly to Boston to see Ben as Ben tries to sort out dream from reality, Neddy from Paul, Paul from his father, Dario from himself. When Ben dreams of Paul’s arrival, the reader knows it is not simply a dream but a dream come true.
Ben reflects that “The journey not the arrival matters” and much of the delight of this novel comes by following the links that are practically embedded in the text (I hope the ebook edition actually has embedded links). With “Orlando furioso” as the backdrop, we are introduced to many elements from the poem such as the mythical hippograff and medieval paladins. The mad arias from Vivaldi’s and Handel’s operatic interpretations of the poem form a brilliant soundtrack for this book, download them on iTunes. Jeffers vivid descriptions of paintings by El Greco and Titian illuminate the book from within. With its many references to the Italian Renaissance, the novel could almost serve as a single volume introduction to the quattrocento. You won’t want this dream of a book to end.
The book’s charming cover was designed by Jeffers. For more of Alex Jeffers, go to http://sentenceandparagraph.com/.