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James Magruder’s Let Me See It (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press) is a collection often interlocking stories that follow the lives of Elliott Biddler and Tom Amelio, first cousins who grow up separately in places like Kansas City and Chicago and find each other as they come of age as gay men in the 1980s. Much of the poignant beauty of Magruder’s book hinges on the very different ways the two young men confront their sexuality and the crises and consequences that await them in adulthood.
In “Use Your Head,” Tom spends the summer before college laboring over a condolence letter for the parents of a seventh grade friend from whom he has long been estranged. Jeff Hills had been an adolescent exhibitionist whose penchant for openly masturbating and sticking gourds up his ass sent Tom running long before the day Jeff drove his car into a tree at eighty miles per hour. In high school Jeff was a teenage bad boy, a socialite and a stoner. Tom sublimated his appetites to achievement, both in the classroom and on the wrestling mat. “Just write what you feel,” Tom’s mother tells him. Try as he might to feel anything, Tom can only entertain judgmental recollections of Jeff’s unabashedly queer sex shows. Jeff’s father is a polished and erudite high school principal, the kind of man Tom lives to please. When the older man shows up at Tom’s summer job to acknowledge the letter, he confesses a covetous fascination with him. The unexpected display of desire (“Tom realized that Mr. Hill’s hand wasn’t counting change.”) literally brings Tom to his knees as a flood of grief and terror threatens his scrupulously crafted self-image in ways he cannot yet begin to fathom.
While Tom strives to be everyone’s all-American, Elliot longs to be anything but.“Elliott Biddler’s Vie Bohéme” finds him in Paris for his junior year of college, but the world’s most romantic city seems only to have it in for a mid-western boy with cosmopolitan pretensions. Elliott is bested in the language department by his roommate Bruce who, to add insult to injury, is the son of Christian missionaries; he credits his linguistic prowess to “God and the war in Indochina.” An outbreak of acne strikes at Elliott’s vanity, leaving his face “bumpy as a hand grenade.” Worst of all, his host mother, Madame Sirjean, expects her bébés américains to devour Paris with the gusto of little Hemingways; she thinks that Elliott is a thumping bore. In despair, he hides out reading American literature (“another way to blow Paris”) in the Centre Pompidou library where he attracts the lingering gaze of an older man. Elliot has already dabbled in men and he quickly succumbs to a full-blown Parisian affair, one that dramatically improves both his affinity for the city and his conversational French–including as it turns out, the jargon of the venereal disease clinic. Elliott’s coming out at the Sirjean’s table, in French no less, is one of the book’s funniest and most rewarding moments. He emerges the way we all hoped to, more interesting and better loved for having found the words to speak himself into full existence.
Life begins to take a darker turn when the cousins find themselves thrown together in New York City. “Buccellati” is set in 1985; talk of a gay plague hangs in the air but only cautious Tom goes out of his way to heed the warnings. “The point of sex is danger,” Elliott says when Tom presses him about condoms. Elliott is the kind of young man for whom New York City was made, always on the look-out for a better job, a better table, “the first to take his shirt off on the dance floor . . . the kind of guy who managed to lay a groomsman at every wedding he went to.” Meanwhile Tom excels in a solid-paying data entry job and settles into steady dating with the first good man who shows him any interest. But there is something terribly guileless about Owen Teeter. Perhaps his love for Tom comes too easily, just like his pleasure in acquiring a single piece of his beloved Buccellati sliver every year, all that his modest ESL salary will allow. Tom responds with an uncharacteristic act of betrayal that serves no good purpose other than to put him beyond the reach of Owen’s love.
Tom’s self-loathing is compelling enough but it is always Elliott who shines, and Elliott for whom we mourn when his youthful joie de vivre abruptly fades.“ Elbows and Legs” finds him back in the Chicago suburbs to help his prosperous older brother Frank move his growing brood into a new home, his largest yet. Elliott’s worldliness, his love of beauty, do not count for much in this milieu; in ways large and small it is as if he never left home. The story ends with Elliott noticing his veins as he prepares to shave away his overgrowth of body hair and we are reminded that on the flipside of eternal youth is death. It is also one of several instances in which Magruder noticeably strains to satisfy the short story’s demand for resolution while Elliott and Tom seem to pine for the novel’s broader horizons.
Magruder’s touch is lighter but no less affecting with the larger themes that he develops over the course of these ten stories. Elliott’s Biddler’s1980’s are almost unbearably harrowing for reflecting the blitheness with which so many entered into a decade that would snuff out those lights that burned brightest for beauty and for love. And Tom’s devotion to him reminds us of how family (chosen, un-chosen, or both) can sustain us through our worst sufferings.
Let Me See It
By James Magruder
TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press
Paperback, 9780810152441, 208 pp.