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Tom Cardamone has established himself as a unique voice in gay speculative fiction. Picking up one of his stories begins with a sense of wonder about what you will encounter because he never does the same thing twice, nor does he replicate in any way what you find from other authors. I had that sense of anticipation when I received Green Thumb for review. Cardamone enchanted me with this dystopian post-nuclear war tale and its one-of-a-kind characters.
Set in the Florida Keys and Miami after a nuclear apocalypse, Cardamone masterfully sets the scene from the onset. While a reader expects such ease with grasping the plot, setting, and characters, few futuristic novels do it with such grace. It typically takes at least a third of such a novel before I fully buy into the destroyed world and new civilizations, or lack thereof, rising from it. Cardamone had it all worked out within the first ten pages. The novel feels real, despite fanciful cities built on former highway bridges, boys who are part sea creature, and a main character who feeds off the sun, can regrow body parts like a plant, and is entirely green.
Gay literary world, meet Leaf, one of the most fascinating storytellers to come along in a long time. Leaf and his friends, Skate, Scallop, and eventually Hardy, embark on a mission to find Scallop’s father, who they fear was taken captive by slavers. They must remain constantly vigilant because that region has fallen into the grasp of King Pelicans, who capture people and force them to work as a human aqueduct, getting fresh water to what used to be Miami. These vicious creatures appear as typical pelicans, but with a human hand and the vice grip of an oligarchy’s rule.
I wish I could explain some of the twists and turns faced by these friends on their journey, including betrayal, near death experiences, lust, and romance interspersed throughout. But any detail would give away one of the driving forces of the novel: its sense of longing, adventure, and danger propel the plot forward on almost every page. I planned to read Green Thumb over several days and then write my review. Instead, I opened the book and never put it down until I finished. I will say this, however. Cardamone captures the essence of humanity in these pages, with all of its contradictory longings, narcissism, depravation, love, and caring.
I do want to warn readers about a couple of criticisms. The novel contains a little too much telling and not showing. I wanted to see the action take place and watch the actors play it out, instead of reading long paragraphs of explanation. And my other criticism challenged my sanity, but maybe that was the point: In an attempt to do something creative, avant-garde, Cardamone employed some Kerouacian page breaks.* For example, some sections end in the middle of a sentence and some paragraphs break then continue on the next page, after a huge white space of half a page or more. So I’m reading along in this magical world and BAM! He jars me right back to my own living room, dogs sleeping on the floor, and air-conditioning humming in the background. I gaze around, wondering what just happened. Because I lost my suspension of reality and at times had to take several minutes to understand where to read next to continue the story. Instead of adding to the speculative nature of this novel, it just bewildered me and often ruined the moment.
Perhaps it speaks to the mastery of this novel that the above failed to dampen my enthusiasm for it. I loved the sense of darkness and depression that Cardamone set, particularly in the congested new towns or former urban centers. It had a ring of authenticity and dread that rang true for what might develop in a world of anarchy and post nuclear changes to everyone’s DNA. But what sets this book apart from most futuristic novels is the inclusion of the charming innocence and coming of age of the characters within this world. In the midst of the destruction, we glimpse hope and goodness.
Yet Cardamone maintains a sense of dismay to the bitter end. No pretty bow wrapped on this tale, and appropriately so. This work of speculative fiction proves how powerfully this genre can comment on our society. It pulls you into a dream world and then offers lessons about love, trust, and betrayal.
By Tom Cardamone
Paperback, 9781590213674, 142 pp.