Review of Three Novels

March 22nd, 2016  |  Published in March 2016

As the worlds of fiction and literature in general broaden, we’re privileged to be able to read novels from all over the world, with ease, and the current emphasis on diversity has changed the face of fiction, too, as subject matters once considered either taboo or irrelevant are welcomed into the front ranks of literature.  In the past couple of years, we’ve seen a blossoming of fiction coming from Africa, from Nigeria and Kenya in particular, and contemporary fiction from Japan has brought us amazing new insights and stylists from that country.  Latin and South American fiction’s been around for awhile now, so that writers such as Mario Vargas Llosa from Peru have moved into the very front ranks of international literature; the late Roberto Bolano also has what must be considered almost a cult following (I among those).

Within America, we are hearing from voices from what was once ‘the margins’, from African-Americans and gay men and lesbians giving voice to their own experiences in literature often soaring with astonishing verbal beauty.   A recent spate of novels by American gay men and women, and/or about their experiences, have come to the forefront in the past six weeks, each of the three mentioned here exceptional either in plot or writing or both: the novels are Black Deutschland by Darryl Pickney; What Belongs to You , by Garth Greenwell, and After the Parade, by Lori Ostlund.  All three are exceptional novels, all worth reading, and all are completely different from one another.

Tracing a little history of the genre known in the ’70s as ‘gay fiction’, Edmund White, born in Cincinnati and now teaching at Princeton University, may well be considered its first clear practitioner, and a group of gay male writers emerged in the ’70s and ’80s. Nearly all of their manuscripts have been gifted to Yale University, so that a theme–the lives and, particularly, rites of passage of American gay males–has burst upon the literary scene relatively recently and with stellar results.

Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You is a debut novel and one of 2016’s finest to date.  Greenwell, a native of Louisville, presents an American gay male who moves to Sofia, Bulgaria, to teach English–and he is openly ‘out’ to all his friends and colleagues, that alone being a refreshing trope–and his protagonist meets a gay hustler in a public toilet.  These two men evolve a relationship that the narrator believes is strictly transactional, sex for money, but it’s not entirely clear whether the hustler views their evolving, regular meetings as the same, or as more.  Mitko, the hustler, is only in his early twenties, and the teacher understands in a relatively quick period that economic necessity and lack of any jobs in post-Soviet Bulgaria may have driven Mitko to this world.  The author does not shy from relatively open descriptions of their sexual encounters, because the possibility of a friendship arising between the two men becomes the theme, or subtext, of the novel.  Even when the teacher no longer wants Mitko around, he’ll appear, often in the middle of the night, with declining health and increasing desperation, for help both financial and emotional.  Whether a friendship exists or is possible between these two men under the circumstances of their meeting is left for the reader to determine. But the background of their lives in Bulgaria makes further reading utterly beautiful; the teacher ponders on how he came to move to Bulgaria (or leave America, or both); there are reminiscences about an appalling childhood, a vague-ish mother, brutish father, and two sisters whose presences become increasingly important to our narrator as he tries to redesign the jigsaw puzzle of his life.

The truly amazing thing abut What Belongs to You is the quality of the writing: Greenwell is a prose poet, and his language is so much like Proust’s, as is his tone, the reach of his imagination and linguistic brilliance astonishing. One feels as if Greenwell is painting with words; his novel is nearly as visual as Proust’s , and sometimes an entire chapter will continue without a period, as in Proust, too, so that the reader almost can’t stop continuing reading as the power of the narrative voice builds and strengthens while also maintaining an amazing beauty of structure and of impression. This novel is worth reading both for plot and for style, and there’s no doubt whatever that Garth Greenwell’s is a new voice with the kind of talent we associated with early Truman Capote.  If you read, partly, for the beauty  of how a writer structures words and sentences , for the cadence and shading of words, then you’re in for a great surprise and treat with Garth Greenwell’s new novel.

Black Deutschland, by Darryl Pinckney, is probably the most praised of the three novels under discussion, and its literary reach and intellectual grasp of history and literature are very impressive.  Pinckney, an African-American presumably from Chicago, has his narrator, a middle class African American male, long for Berlin, or the Berlin of Weimar, a city of nightclubs and drugs and complete openness to both black Americans/Africans and to gay men and women.  Nourished on Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, the basis of both the play and the movie Cabaret, the narrator, Jed, seeks the Dionysian life of pleasure so well represented by Weimar Germany (Germany between WWI and WWII).  Weimar Germany was indeed the most sexually permissive and culturally liberal period in modern history (Berlin its center, or headquarters, if you will), with turn-of-the-century Vienna perhaps being the underdrawing of the painting that became Berlin). And Jed does find his hangouts in Berlin, his group of dropouts and visionaries (his Berlin is really of the l980s, tho the demimondaine side of Weimer Berlin really does partially continue to this day there), of druggies and gay guys and gay bars and coffee houses, of worldly women and world-weary men.  Jed is also a recovering alcoholic, and meets an African black man who becomes his first serious lover.  So Black Deutschland is both a rite of passage novel, and a literary tribute to Isherwood and to the Weimar period.

An additonal dimension makes this novel even more engaging: we get the entire backstory of Jed’s family, several generations of it, in Chicago, a family that once owned and ran a black newspaper; by the time Jed matures , the paper is gone, a victim of so many of the forces that ran small businesses out during the ’70s and ’80s, but most interesting are the family dynamics, where children of various aunts and uncles all come and live with Jed’s rather strict parents–Pinckney’s emphasis on the strength of the fluid black American family is one of the strongest parts of this novel: the general American belief in the weakness of the black American family is rejected by Pinckney in favor of a different type of family, and the writer is often at his most brilliant in describing this extended family’s inner dynamics and strengths.

So one of Jed’s cousins from the extended family is in Berlin, having married into a rich white German family, while Jed is there, and their interactions form some of the most fascinating parts of the book, and his cousin, Cello, a promising pianist, seems to have two distinctly different sides, and thus attitudes towards him. Black Deutschland, thus, is a series of novels within a novel, in ways, and , at times, the pieces don’t entirely  come together, but then Isherwood’s impressions of Berlin weren’t entirely coherent, either. If Black Deutschland is somewhat disjointed at times, so was Jed’s life there, and his inner life is often equally fragmented. Pinckney’s erudtion is manifest all through this highly engaging novel, and it’s a very fresh approach to the concept of the expatriate, and, like Greewell’s novel above, Deutschland is one of 2016’s most engaging and intelligent fictional offerings.

The most moving, however, of the three novels is a sleeper, a novel barely registering at this time, called After the Parade, by Lori Ostlund; it’s one of the best novels of 2016 to date (the other two reviewed here are also excellent, but the novel under question here has different hypothoses and themes, or different takes on them).  Ostlund’s narrator/protagonist is, at first a little boy with a cruel and abusive cop father, and a fragile mother doing her best to protect herself and her son from her husband’s sadism. Oslund’s novel, thus, takes on the topic of bullying and outsider status, two of the most compelling topics in America now, and she addresses those themes with astonishing sensitivity and success.

We readers are privy to the small, constant cruelties of young Aaron’s father, and we can nearly physically feel his fear, his anxiety and panic, when subject to the cruelties of any bully, of anyone with power over anyone else in an imbalanced relationship. Ostlund is a genius at recreating those moments of horror; she knows when to bring them into the novel, where to place them, and how to delineate their importance in Aaron’s development and later life. And though Aaron is somewhat shielded from the worst of his father’s meanness by his mother, and mother and son will find themselves free together because of a freak accident that occurs to the father during a parade (thus the title, After the Parade), Aaron will repeatedly be abandoned by people who mostly love him, and yet he will be rescued, if you will, by other Outsiders–and that’s the great beauty of this novel. For example, Aaron’s mother manages to buy a small cafe in the tiny Minnesota town in which she and Aaron live post-father.

Aaron helps her in the cafe while he goes to high school–both elementary and high school being places of other types of bullying–and a woman defined by her great weight is hired to work at the cafe to make pastries. When Aaron’s mother vanishes entirely, after he turns l8 and is a senior in high school, that woman will take him in to live with her and her wretched, bullying mother……so that Aaron lives to see both the commonness of bullying, but, more importantly, the redemption and love offered by others who’ve lived through being bullied/rejected, too. Because he has a loving nature, he is able to accept and offer love (he gets that from his mother), and thus continues to move through life on a rather narrow ledge of people all outside the norm of middle class life.  Each of the people who reach out to him–and later, to whom he will reach–represents an alternative view of the American outsider.  Ostlund proposes an alternative world of people unnoticed, ignored, even spurned, but she has them find one another, and the kindnesses they offer one another become the major theme of this incredibly lovely and surprisingly generous novel. Aaron’s emerging homosexuality is thus a secondary trait, a secondary rite of passage, for him, and we might suggest that his already outsider status prepares him for yet another outsider status, that of being a gay man in a not terribly gay-friendly country.  The novel will have Aaron become the lover of an older man who saves him from this small town, a teacher at a university where Aaron enrolls and from which he graduates; Aaron leaves this man for San Francisco, for his attempt at independence and a life in the open, in the light, away from darkness, but his ultimate success at a life increasingly freely chosen is a result not so much of the bullying and the ugly sides of life, but of the redemptive people who reach out to him, and from whom he learns to love. After The Parade may be one of the top three novels of 2016 to date, and it’s probably the richest of the three novels under consideration, though if you’re a reader, you might try all three of these exceptionally sensitive and beautifully written works of fiction, all working in territory mostly uncharted until the American dream began to include more and more people: our country’s history may well be about the opening of democracy and freedom to increasingly large numbers of people; the dream includes more and more people, and these novels reflect those new freedoms admirably and lovingly.

–Daniel Brown

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