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There is much to be admired and enjoyed in Perry Brass’s latest novel but it’s slightly buried behind a misleading veneer. Brass often writes about spirituality and sexuality in his fiction. He has written a number of speculative fiction novels and even a time-travel novel about angels. The title, King of Angels (Belhue Press), has a pious ring to it. The picture on the cover includes both hunky angels and a shirtless young stud in prayer, and the blurb below the picture promises that it is “a novel about the genesis of identity and belief.” The opening epigraph is a mystic quote from the ancient Popol Vuh, so I was primed to read a speculative or spiritual novel. Instead, I found a young voice telling a good old fashioned coming of age story mixed with a murder mystery that takes place in a unique setting period in recent history.
King of Angels might be compared to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, substituting the turbulent 1960s with Lee’s depression-era setting and replacing Catholic-Jewish antagonism and homophobia for the race relations that drive To Kill a Mockingbird. Both novels take place in distinct areas in the “Deep South.” Both novels feature a young queer narrator who recognizes that they must figure out the secretive adults and hypocrisy in their community before they can take their place in the racist or homophobic world around them.
Benjy Rothman, the agreeable narrator of King of Angels, is 13 years old at the beginning of the novel with a Jewish father and a non-religious Episcopalian mother. Benjy’s father is often out of town on business and therefore sends him to a Catholic military academy in Savannah to make a “man of him.” At the academy, Benjy discovers that some of his fellow students are much more knowledgeable than he is about their own burgeoning sexuality.
To compensate for sending Benjy to the Catholic academy, Benjy’s traditionally Jewish father has also requested that Benjy be “Bar Mitzvahed.” This creates a series of upheavals that Benjy must resolve in creative ways. Benjy’s mother is an attractive woman who worries about Benjy and tries to protect him from growing up too fast, but spends most of her time smoking and drinking Salty Dogs on the veranda. When things turn bad, she depends on her stable parents to take care of the family.
One of the monks at the military academy, Father Alexis, is handsome and very sympathetic toward Benjy’s Jewish “fish out of water” experience at the Catholic school and wisely counsels him at various times. Of all the monks and priests at the school, Father Alexis is the most fully drawn.
At school, Benjy makes two important friends: Tim and Arthur. Tim comes from a large Irish family that includes a pair of handsome older twin brothers. Tim recognizes his own gayness and introduces Benjy to several things that that are fun to do together on sleepovers. Arthur is the exceptionally handsome Puerto Rican student who questions the Catholic dogma he is given, and the other outsider on whom Benjy develops an all-encompassing crush.
Outside school, Benjy meets Nathan, the troubled older brother of a Jewish boy that Benjy befriends during his Bar Mitzvah studies. Nathan, recognizing a handsome fellow traveler in Benjy, shows Benjy around the local cruising sites and hints at what it’s like to be gay in the South. The central mystery of the novel occurs at the same time that the major characters are established. This event takes place before Benjy begins to study for his Bar Mitzvah and insinuates itself in the background as Benjy meets other Jewish boys, tries dating girls, and deals with the health and financial problems of both of his parents.
The novel is appealing but not without a few problems. Some of the characters are underwritten so that they appear as empty signifiers rather than fully formed characters. Some of the dialogue that attempts to re-create a Southern accent is slightly distracting. In addition, while specific historical events are mentioned to define the era in which the novel takes place, these events often seem extraneous to the story.
A number of conflicts in King of Angels clearly describe the growth of a young boy in a difficult environment. Benjy’s acknowledgment of his gayness is measured and feels authentic, especially when he tries to discern what he is actually feeling rather than how he’s expected to act. His religious confusion is also realistic, forcing him to face contradictions that only a more mature person could be expected to settle.
While contemporary readers may recognize Scout’s early queerness in To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee made Scout too young for a conscious sexual awakening. By making the narrator of King of Angels a slightly older gay boy, Brass introduces a twist to the Southern coming of age story. As Benjy unravels the murder mystery at the center of King of Angels, he discovers truths inside himself that guide his decision to do the right thing and that transcend both his Jewish legacy and his recent Catholic coaching.
King of Angels
by Perry Brass
Paper, $18.00, 360 pagesMarch 2012