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I think it was Kurt Vonnegut who said that writing a novel was like making popcorn: the characters were the kernels, all he did was turn up the heat. What’s most savory about Personal Saviors (Chelsea Station Editions) is neither the heat (which is a slow-slow suburban simmer) nor the characters (fantastic 1969 slices of Americana that they are), but rather the butter. The poetic prose that lacquers every page in a knowing pop culture hue is simply magnificent. While Personal Saviors possesses the bright fever of a first novel, this is Wesley Gibson’s third book, with another novel preceding this one as well as a New York City memoir. This might explain the sparkling, economic prose. He’s a mature stylist, but it’s the meaning found among the words that resonate long after the cover is closed.
Paul is eleven and has leavened his burgeoning homosexuality with religion. His pastor is hot, his best friend, Denver, available for sleepovers and the typical fooling around that can best be defined as experimentation for some, confirmation for others. When not in school or scavenging the dirt lots of their unfinished suburb, he’s handing out religious tracts at the mall with Velvet, a thirty-year old lapsed slut who lives at home. His parents live in the glow of sitcoms and Cronkite. “A place where adults were the moon, stuck in the orbit of their adult lives. Boys were still comets, and they might crash anywhere.”
Gibson deftly turns up the heat; Denver drifts away, caught up with a mean older kid who moves into the neighborhood. Velvet meets the local smooth talking Charles Manson wannabe, and in an effort of integration, Lady comes into Paul’s life as the only black girl in school, and recognizes him as the other obvious outcast. His parents start to shake off their complacent domesticity: his housewife mom dreams of becoming a country singer while his construction worker dad (somewhat less believably) gets a telescope and nurtures a growing obsession with UFOs. The observational wit that carries this along is remarkably fine-tuned, as are the small descriptive vignettes which give the book its ballast: “Paul bulldozed together a pile of fall leaves with his arms. In their brilliant deaths, the leaves were a mound of dawn sky: peach pit reds, treasure chest yellows, pop art oranges.”
At a 185 pages this is a short novel, and a too-quick read could lead some to bemoan a lack of character development, but I don’t think the author was aiming for the typical arc of self-discovery here. Personal Saviors is filled with personal truths that are uncovered to devastating effect. Don’t let the beautiful writing distract. Lives have intersections, and it’s here where we fail or succeed with one another, and the lyrical Polaroids Gibson provides for these moments have a depth of color and understanding many longer, more elaborate books utterly lack.
By Wesley Gibson
Chelsea Station Edition
Paperback,9780983285137, 188 pp.