A Natural by Ross Raisin (2017). This review is by John Cook

A Natural

Ross Raisin is quite a talent who clearly relishes the ‘under’ side of life as in his previous books. The title of this work can be seen in that vein as it telegraphs an interest-grabbing duality. It is common enough to talk about a talented person (sport, arts etc) as being ‘a natural’. Less likely, though equally real, we have all asked ourselves how ‘natural’ is our homosexuality? Raisin has drawn these two themes together in the conventionally unlikely theatre of English professional football. Anyone who looks at the number of professional players who have outed themselves in that context realises that either this is the perfect selection process for heterosexuality or there are lot of deeply closeted players. There have been a few including one tragic example (Justinus Soni “Justin” Fashanu) and publicly stated messages of support (rainbow laces) but almost no one has ventured out.

 

I am very ignorant of soccer (age showing again) except in my very early childhood though I have had friends deeply embedded in the game as organisers, fans and fathers or sons of players. Likewise, I am entirely ignorant of the overall processes of talent location, training, payment and general living conditions of the full range of players at all levels but especially in the British scene. Most of us are familiar with the publicity that surrounds the ethereal upper echelons of the game (same with most sports) and WAGS (there is one minor one that plays a key role in this story) but would be totally ignorant of the bottom feeders striving at the lower club levels to find their way to glory and some measure of economic success.

 

Raisin places Tom Pearman in exactly that context. He is a 19 year old with a record of youth attainment and experience of the football ‘schooling’ system. His family and friends live his experiences with and through him. He is playing at the bottom level of the League (literally) and wants powerfully to advance his career. His life is built totally on developing his body and skills to that end. He presents a little differently as he is more carefully considered individual, somewhat interior and reflective of what he experiences around himself. There is a reason for this as he begins to gradually realise the growth of feelings in himself for other men, experiencing the full range of responses to those feelings which become ever more pronounced engendering fear and an uneven determination to suppress them. As a ‘natural’ homosexual he fails and, as his career passes through highs and lows, he gradually develops a relationship which is going to present him with terrifying prospects and a powerful need to interrogate himself on what role his homosexuality has to play in the life he has set out to pursue. Sorry, you will have to read to get the details and the outcome.

 

I found the book a little difficult initially to get into as Raisin provides an incredible (but entirely believable) amount of detail about this young man’s daily life and routines and the club and family life that surrounds him. This can be difficult to accept (some might even reject the book on those grounds) but I gradually warmed to wanting to know and feel more and more of this situation that mixed the conventional and apart world of his sport. There is nothing here that is remotely sensational but all entirely believable. There are some weak points in the plotting that emerge late in this book but I do not include the conclusion in that assessment. Again, some might find it a little weak and understated but I found it very powerful in its simplicity and inevitability.

 

I warmly recommend this book as an eye-opener to a world about which I knew almost nothing and as a meditation on the continuing resistance of so much sport to the involvement of gay men and women.

 

 

 

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Getting Away With Murder by Duncan McNab (2017). This review is by John Cook

Getting away with Murder

This book is something of a chronicle of my life (I am 76 in a month). I have lived so much of the life of the gay men revealed and discussed in this book. Whether it be the initial fear, self-loathing and closeted existence of the early years, the beats, the beaches, the baths, the bars (less so for me) as a secret separate world with its own culture, the fear of discovery and the effect that authority could have on one’s life and career, and yes, the bashings – I was there too (almost lost an eye). Living under the mantle of the late unlamented Joh Bjelke Petersen and his coterie of misfits and fundamentalist wowsers, a visit to the sin city of Sydney was always a pleasurable adventure. I knew most the places where these assaults and murders took place and the social venues mentioned (even stayed in the very first gay pubs and B&Bs). I can even report that the story of a helicopter being used to scan and round up gay men in Queens Park is true (I was there also).

 

Like many of my generation, I have had a growing familiarity with some of the stories of bashings and murders and the personalities described and have read, in a variety of sources, of the progress (or lack thereof) in pursuing the criminal cases set out. As such, there is little that was startlingly new for me with the exception of the role and behaviour of individual police, coroners and inquest hearings. This creates a new dimension that parallels the passage of these sad events in time. It is possible to make excuses and say that many of these authority figures are just creatures of their time and place, but that simply doesn’t cut it with me when there is clear evidence that wiser more thoughtful minds offered alternatives that were abruptly aborted, ignored or treated with contempt.

 

Can I offer one more perhaps unpopular thought that has long been with me. It is similar to the ‘time and place argument’ but it still irks me. I see a clear linkages between the beer-soaked biff-loving culture of many lovers of NRL and the behaviour of these young bash gang members (often Junior players or avid followers) ‘Get ‘im!’. I have seen research which looked at the impact of past club boozing culture on younger players and any reasonably aware individual is aware that elements of the problem remain both with alcohol and other drugs. NRL is a worthy and athletic game which has often done much to channel otherwise rowdy and possibly destructive young tribal youths and young mens’ urges into more socially acceptable directions. However, like the detailed example drawn by McNab of some Police involvement, I feel there has often been a climate of denial and ‘keep it quiet for the Club’ that has dogged this culture. (Sorry for the rant)

 

I have no intention of providing a detailed account of the content of this book but would like to suggest that it be ‘required’ reading particularly for younger gay men who need a reminder of just how thin the layer of acceptance can be and the darker clouds of denial, disliked and outright hatred that are always present. There are plenty of Fred Niles growing like weeds out there and they don’t need much encouragement to vent their feelings of disappointment, disengagement and pure malice.

 

This book is a worthy clearly-written exposition of a key aspect of gay life in Sydney and other parts of the world (varying degrees of intensity) which resurrects material touched on elsewhere in a variety of sources and modes. Its principal claim to fame is that it brings a clearer eye to the repeated self-serving failures of the key organisation that could have done so much more in the original context and then stubbornly refused to re-evaluate, with the wisdom of new experience and understandings, the probable errors of their past – the NSW Police (not the only offenders vide Dr George Duncan). This is not to say that there have been improvements in practice and personnel over the years (hopefully no more Police Commissioners carousing with Premiers on illegal unlicensed premises) but there will always be a lingering doubt that the prejudices and lack of understanding of the past have yet to be ‘put to bed’.

 

Looking at my contemporary world, I can only wonder at what may be the current practices in these respects if the words ‘gay’ ‘homosexual’ or ‘poofter’ are replaced by ‘ethnic bastards’?

 

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Down the Hume by Peter Polites (2017). This review is by John Cook

Down the Hume

This is a somewhat bleak but revealing read. That said, there are occasional flashes of humour and worthwhile insight into some aspects of gay life with which I have had almost no experience. Count the ways. I have had a little to do with Greek-Australian culture but not a lot. I smiled at the description of weekend ‘Greek school’ but, apart from Tsolkas and a few others, I didn’t have a lot of insight – especially into a substantially dysfunctional family (father rejecting and vicious – mother loving, supportive but addicted and delusional) living in heavily ethnic urban areas. The world of drug use is not new to me and the author largely focuses on a painkiller with a name that echoes a range of commonly abused substances. I have had virtually no experience of  ‘Muscle Mary’ culture but have been a long-time observer of the semiotics of gay dress and speech which feature heavily in this story (especially clothing).

 

The central character, Peter, has a number of names including nicknames that make things a little confusing as it is the same for his lover and the author’s Christian name as well. Peter works in an old persons’ nursing home that is largely drawn with frightening accuracy from the viewpoint of a lowly worker who actually interacts with the patients he services. This provides an ancillary story of partnered older gay men and their treatment by family and society. Peter’s story has very little in the way of silver lining. He is deeply attached to his mother yet they share a key addiction. The back story of his family provides some answers for his current position and condition and is believable if somewhat unyieldingly gloomy.

 

His love life with his lover, Nice Arms Pete, is a case of hope over certainty (unfaithfulness, chemical, physical and emotional abuse) and there is a painful process of disabusement (is that a real word?) that readers follow (use of some typical modern hand-held technology here) wondering where it will end for Peter. The conclusion is more in the same vein with lots of tortured thinking and responses to admittedly often unpromising urban environments. I found myself yearning for some more hopeful and positive responses to this world for someone.

 

The sense of disillusion is quite overpowering in this novel and is matched by the story’s progress through the streets, parks and suburbs of an inner-urban environment (part of the departure route from Sydney on the old Hume Highway). Central to Peter’s world and life is the issue of chemical use whether it is Nice Arm’s use of testosterone and other unguessed chemicals often abused in his circle or Peter’s desire to dull his and his mother’s emotional pain with inevitable consequences.

 

This is a kind of variant on the road trip novel that is a journey through shadows and darkness.

 

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The Quarters by Errol Bray (2017). This review is by John Cook

The Quarters

The cover of this book led me a little astray. I rather expected a tale in inner city urban gang fighting with plenty of blood and guts and perhaps some human interest to add to the mix. It turned out to be that in part but much, much, more. The author set himself a sizable task with a lot happening, explanations needed and a extensive cast. Initially, things move along a little slowly as there is a lot to put in place and relationships to establish while things do become surprisingly edgier. The author uses a method of mixed length observational passages and added dialogue that, at times, read like lines from a play with directions. There are also chapter headings in the manner of a Victorian novel.

 

The structure is interesting with nods in the direction of some classical literary features (Homer?) while based upon the concept of an ‘apart’ community which has been forced in upon itself by always threatening external circumstances. It has to evolve within its own resources means of socialization and governance that cover the full range of human needs and survival. The method of delivery is rather like that of a chronicle, the age old concept of an observer who records largely dispassionately, though in this case, with more compassion, wit and humour, relaying the flow of events in this living social organism. There is a series of colliding events which spark changes, growth and sometimes loss. There is birth, life and death, at all levels, and plenty of it. There is hope, despair and resolution.

 

The author is closely associated with the world of drama and he mines this with a central role being given to a ‘street’ production of Hamlet and its sequelae providing a link with the ‘outside’ world along with other small commercial activities. A charming note is the use of a naïf ‘street’ Homer who provides a commentating voice from within on notes ranging from humour to deep tragedy.

 

With our larger world confronting another industrial revolution with the customary winners and losers and the seeds of so much dissatisfaction, loss and anger, a book like this is a timely reminder of how finely balanced our ‘civilization’ can be and the potential forms of chaos that are always waiting at the door, and sometimes within our very selves.

 

Right from the beginning, there is a clear and developing interest in relationships and sex. This seems to intensify and deepen toward the conclusion, perhaps as a response to the evolving environment. These relationships cover the full range of human pairings in ways that are exploratory and largely satisfying.

 

Given the populations involved, the author has kept the dialogue largely free from rough language and any over-use of profanity which is often pointless and solely used for repetitive emphasis. The result is simple, clear expression quite capable of conveying the range of emotional contexts encountered.

 

This is a surprising not-so fantasy tale which is at once a possible harbinger and an entertaining tale.

 

 

 

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Enigma Variations by André Aciman (2017). This review is by John Cook

 

 

Enigma Variations

I feel I have been sentenced, cooped up on a cruise ship as I am with two Aciman texts to read while I have started the more recent first – probably the wrong order of attack.  Nevertheless, it seems appropriate as people watching, listening and speculating is a popular activity for me on board, glass in hand. Aciman has a complex background, lectures prestigiously in Literary Theory and is a Proust expert. This shows as he brings an exquisite eye to thoughtfully examining and evaluating a series of evolving scenarios combining exhaustive analysis of what his characters are thinking/ doing with a delightful eye for beautifully evoked contexts, especially Summer on the Italian Riviera (no place names supplied).

 

This novel, and I suspect his previous, is about people observation but very internally and at great breadth and depth. Therein lies its great appeal or otherwise. Some will enjoy the depth of self-analysis and speculation involved while others may find it extremely tedious and self-absorbed. It is about a young boy (12 – 13 years old), Paul, initially as a youth and later a mature man, who responds in minutiae to what is said to him, a look, a glance, certainly every e-mail (later) is checked and examined for its meaning and significance. The mature man opens the story returning to the scene of his growing sexual focus as a bearded older man who wants to get to the bottom of the disappearance of his youthful focus, Giovanni the furniture repairer. He had been so obsessed with this 20-something handsome individual, he even ‘apprenticed’ himself to him in order to be closer to his physicality.

 

The style is easy enough to read though shot through with many literary and place references (Italian Riviera, NY Manhattan and Oberlin College). There are plenty of allusions to classical literature while old movies and opera are also mined as points of interest – again a problem for some readers. I will repeat it has to be said that problems may arise for some readers with these detailed external references and the extended nature of the self-examination especially with a young person however privileged and remarkably self-aware.

 

The piece is essentially about the nature of relationships seen from a very personal viewpoint – how they are initiated, play out and/or are incorporated into different phases of a life. In this sense, I enjoyed this kind of play as I have often reasoned that a great strength of the gay life (when seized) is the possibility of structuring one’s relationships without heteronormative requirements and with a fluid sexuality – certainly that is so in this case.

 

Add in the fact that the Paul’s voice is strongly two dimensional. He is intensely physically aroused and in search of physical satisfaction primarily and initially yet he is simultaneously constantly questioning and analysing the nature of his relationships, their progress and possible outcomes. This means that there is a continuing interchange between his physical life and his musings upon it. The writing on his physical observations, needs and responses is arresting and often lyrical.

 

There are three main phases in the novel which occasionally link and reference with answers to questions previously formulated. The first is his early adolescence (15-16 years old) enjoying his annual family summering on the Italian Riviera – is it an island? I am not sure. Certainly, the evocation of space, time and his budding sexuality is excellent, there is a mid section in NY focussing on a battered tennis centre in Central Park where he encounters someone who could become his rock bottom (and very understanding) partner. This is not to say that a publishing career and wife are not simultaneously possible – they are. There is a semi-final relationship which involves looking into his mid-years past and I found this extremely unlikeable – couldn’t bear the woman. And finally there is a coda ‘almost’ relationship that brings into focus those that are more enduring, even if surprisingly so. I now go to read ‘Call Me By Your Name’ which Google informs me has recently received been filmed with rave reviews. I look forward to it.

 

Clever, very clever, too clever perhaps, I think, for some readers. I enjoyed its detail and scope but failed to make the journey completely.

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Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman (2007). This review is by John Cook

Call Me By Your Name

As I have noted elsewhere, this title has been filmed (including the peach scene) and I look forward to it very much. The filming of that scene is symptomatic of much of what the book is all about.  The scene could be taken as a piece of tasteless (sorry) piece of cheap porn, yet in the book it s a remarkable moment of intense sensuality linked to a metaphoric view of the nature of life and the world. Oddly it is too easy to make too much or too little of the scene on its own. Each reader must respond for themselves.

 

This relates to another key element in this book which is repeated in his more recent ‘Enigma Variations’ – the role of antiquity, philosophy and music. The handsome young (twentyish) American professor, Oliver, arrives as a working guest at the generational Italian Riviera seaside home of the incredibly precocious 17 year old Elio. Oliver is revising his manuscript on Heraclitus whose philosophy illuminates much of the views and behaviour of the key novel characters who are often intensely sensually located in their place and moment yet equally and intensely aware of the transient nature of experience and changeability.

 

I found this a very satisfying work at a number of levels. The locations and primary and secondary characters are a delight to experience and evoke brilliantly any reader’s favourite Summer holiday experiences (Caloundra and Straddie for me). Any experience of the Ligurian coast can only intensify this pleasure and satisfaction.

 

Young Elio is in some respects a typical adolescent, moody, more than a little self-centred yet precociously talented, skilled and knowledgeable (a professor’s son) who is hyper sensitive to his constantly challenging and developing self-awareness. He is ripe physically and ready for change.

 

Change is supplied by his fellow (quiet) Jew Oliver who erupts relatively briefly into his Summer holiday world and rapidly presents challenges to Elio’s previously presumed heterosexuality. Oliver does not seem to doing this deliberately but there is a clear growing physical intensity between the two as they dance around the central issue of their mutual attraction. Elio’s fascination for Oliver’s bathers and underclothes and their fetishization rings alarmingly true. Again, I look forward to how the film will handle this.

 

Eventually there is a resolution that sees each concede ground and achieve a brief period of intense sexual pleasure. Typically, however, even as this is occurring, there is meditation on its transience. At the very least, Oliver has to return to the US and Elio is still experiencing heterosexual urges with Marzia which he consummates. There is a brief stay away from the seaside at a Roman book promotion. This was an experience both ecstatic and rather earthy which again allows Aciman to contrast the experience, its memory and the context with a series of brilliantly executed word pictures – delightful!

 

There has to be a resolution and this is supplied initially by a ‘father’s chat’ of great compassion and wisdom and the passage of time which both protagonists experience as Oliver announces his marriage plans and their eventual outcome. This phase continues later in the US when the two meet and its seems there is still an interest that goes beyond academia but no more. This process intensifies when Oliver pays a return to the Italian house where Elio now lives with his mother only. They bond over the death of Elio’s father and the reader is left with Elio musing over the reality and nature of their relationship concluding that if there remained more, Oliver should “look me in the face, hold my gaze, and call me by your name.”

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A Life Apart By Neel Mukherjee (2011). This review is by John Cook

A Life Apart

I seem to have read more books about Indian life in recent times and have not been disappointed. This, like many, directly or indirectly, looks at relationships between developing Indian culture and how it deals with older and more modern Western influences. Much of this was presaged by the dedicatory quotes.

 

Mukherjee has chosen to use the device of a young Indian man, Ritnik, who is born and bred in modern Kalkot in circumstances that propose, if not propel him into departing to England to study English literature at a great and traditional University. In this, not being commercially or technologically inclined, he is typical as a young Indian who sees all kinds of education as liberating and the one key bequest he has received from his parental home and ‘tiger’ mother. The book is not entirely clear on how the opportunity arose.

 

The novel opens with a detailed description of the Hindu cremation of his mother, at once informative and symbolic of his departure from the culture into which he was born but has a love/hate relationship.

 

We are transported to England where he slowly finds his partial way in an environment in which he has longed to participate. We are then introduced to the tale of Miss Gilby, the seed of which is taken from the dedicatory quote and developed into a parallel story. Miss Gilby is living in Kalkot pretty much at the height of the Raj, though, as a thinking person, she is very aware of the emerging tensions of the ‘new’ Indian nationalism and wants to go and live with a more modern Hindu household in a two-way cultural participation aimed particularly at women emerging from traditional seclusion. Through this, the reader regularly revisits her tale where she will have some success but eventually run into the very hard edge of the consequences of British ‘divide and rule’ political interference. There is a lot in her tale that is charming and informative – certainly the elements of a complete and satisfying novel in itself. As such it serves to highlight the notion of two people looking outward into different cultures.

 

The Ritfik tale, in its earlier stages, I found less satisfying. The period of his college life had an almost dream-like quality which, perhaps it was, especially when contrasted with the grittier nature of his gay sex life.

 

In due time, the dream (for both he and Miss Gilby) has to end and Ritfik has to find some way to stay in the UK illegally as he cannot see himself returning to India as the person he has become. At this point, his tale becomes much more closely steeped in the life of an illegal which provides a linkage with the worldwide phenomenon of those in that situation. He acquires a ‘job’ working to care for a very old lady in a decrepit house supplementing his income with ‘pick-up’ labouring including fruit picking in season. It turns out the old lady also has a very picturesque connection with India of the past

 

While I found this and interesting investigation of this limited world and its occupants, I found it to be still somewhat unengaging. Again, his sex life proved to be key to his progress and the perhaps inevitable denouement.

 

This is a very well written book with passages of clarity and beauty but, for me, the mixture failed to come together in a satisfying way despite some of the thematic links I was able to detect between the two story lines.

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