A review by Nick Thiwerspoon
All of my readers will know of my need to write and read stories with “happy endings”. Of course, in reality, there is only one ending awaiting all of us, and that knowledge colors all of our life, for good and ill. But I’m sure you understand what I’m on about when I use this shortcut terminology – I mean by it a book or film that, when you’ve read the last page, watched the last frame, makes you feel good about life, puts a spring in your step, helps you believe that we might, after all, be happy, have moments when life doesn’t seem merely endurable, but good and satisfying and fulfilling.
Romantic books — where a happy ending is evidently de rigueur — are a huge genre. In 2004 nearly 40% of adult fiction published was labelled romance, and that excluded romantic thrillers, romantic SF and fantasy, and gay/bi/lesbian books. Most people need romance. They go to work, doing jobs they hate; they go home, to washed-out marriages, as comfortable and exciting as old T-shirts, or worse, solitary flats with only a potted geranium for company; and they struggle to find meaning in a world where even teenagers believe you must wear stuff with brand labels on to be relevant and accepted. And perhaps gay men need it more than most, for we have to struggle harder to construct what the underrated gay Afrikaans author Karel Schoeman calls “’n hoekie vir jouself” – a little corner of your own. My garden is such a place, as Monet’s was. Yet I am thinking now of a spiritual and psychological garden. (The word paradise comes from the Persian for garden) A place where the harsh realities of life are temporarily put aside, where beauty allows us peace and contentment and the space to contemplate infinity.
Every day, on the train, I look at what people are reading. Lots of my brave fellow travellers read “romance”. (The rest sleep, or read self-improvement books, which is probably the same thing) The women read Mills and Boon/Harlequin, or bigger, glossier versions of the same thing with embossed gold lettering on the covers. The men read a different kind of romance, the modern equivalent of cowboy stories, in a genre going back to before the Iliad, stuff by Dean Koontz or Dan Simmons or Stephen King or John D MacDonald, in which a single man or perhaps a team of men takes on the world, and wins (though there is always, in the best stories, a cost.) These are tales starring Real Men, who do Good Things for the World, mostly with guns or blasters or their fists, who have readily identifiable Evil Opponents (on whom no sympathy is wasted, except in Homer), and whose relationships with women are for the most part token. The business of male romance excludes women, but equally and emphatically, it abhors sexual love between men. All affection is suspect.
Yet if you think about it, there’s potentially a very powerful and moving dynamic here — the tough, strong, manly male struggling for, fighting for, maybe even giving up his life for those he loves. How does he feel about those he makes all this sacrifice for? How does the love he feels for his, well, loved ones, mesh with the hatred he needs to feel for the enemy? What about the close bonding he experiences with his fellow soldiers/space marines/travellers-on-a-quest, which every man who has ever belonged to a team or fought in a war avers is the best aspect of their whole experience? There’s a kind of magic in a tough, taciturn jock or soldier falling in love with another man, not because he wants to, but in spite of himself, loving him so much that he sets aside convention and upbringing, the overwhelming values of our society, to listen to his heart.
This is especially true in a place where being gay is a profound failing, an “intrinsic evil”, as the new pope described it. A place like J G Hayes’ South Boston. Tough teenagers and tough men, with no room for sentimentality or affection. And when it arises, as it will, for we are programmed to love, what then?
I struggled to read his first book, This Thing Called Courage : South Boston Stories, because it was so bleak. Young men growing up in a place where it was almost impossible to be what they were, and having no one to show them the path that young men like them could tread to grow into wisdom and fulfillment. Boys don’t grow up by themselves. They need men to guide them – without that they never properly mature. And gay or bi boys need gay or bi men, because the social interactions are necessarily more complex, harder, more likely to fail. Because most of us never had such guides, we had to construct our own code of values, our own social links, our own hoekie. In Hayes’ stories, and in real life, we often fail, sometimes catastrophically, and the process always leaves us damaged and incomplete. Things are no different in this wonderful novel. Yet still, it is full of hope.
A friend sent me one of the stories from This Thing Called Courage, “A Regular Flattop”, to persuade me to read the rest of the book, and when I did read it (so much sorrow, so much love), it made me cry. In Public. On a V-line train. Luckily male sorrow or grief in public is always ignored. South Boston has a lot in common with Australia – but then both places were settled by the Irish.
So when I saw A Map of the Harbor Islands, I almost didn’t buy it. Not because Hayes is a poor writer. On the contrary, he’s just so damn good he breaks my heart.
OK, I said to myself (I was in Borders, and contemplating the immeasurably vast two half-meter-wide shelves devoted to gay books, most of them porn), I’ll just have a look.
It starts with a man and his eight-year old son.
“Dad, dad! There’s a man up there with his boat. He says he knows you.”
Well, I thought, they obviously don’t get together, our two heroes. The one gets married, and the other has a boat. Please. (I was feeling a little dyspeptic) But I read on (my father-in-law was busy elsewhere, and would be some time. And I was bored)
“He knows the secret names. He says this beach right here is the Pepperminty Coast”
[. . . .]
Jesus. It couldn’t be Petey. He’s 5,000 miles and 4 years and too many unsaid words away from me. But it must be – who else?
Mussy hair from the sea wind’s hands, and I’m blue. Home again, sea green Home again and soon to be with Petey. Is it four years? Or five?
The narrator is Danny, and he appears to be Dr Watson to Petey’s Holmes. Petey is the golden boy – handsome, polite, fitting in, straight A’s, superb at sport, all sport, but especially baseball. (Why don’t American urban schools play American Football? Even the most inner-city Victorian school will have a makeshift footy game on the tarmac.) Until the Accident. And then he becomes odd. The first chapter conveys the new sensibility, the awareness of sorrow and difference that Petey develops, with sublime mastery. And it’s about stray dogs. Well, by the time I’d read that, I was hooked. Even though I already knew I was going to cry. Dammit. Standing in Borders, swallowing hard.
Danny is utterly conventional. Seemingly. But Petey is his best friend, his bestest friend. So he sticks with Petey, despite Petey’s becoming an outcast, despite everything. And in return, Petey shows him magic. His map of the harbor islands. A special garden he crafts in a forgotten triangle in an alley. A visit to the islands and a night on the beach, under a towel tent. The night sky and the stars – “a p-peephole into heaven”. (The Accident gives Petey a stutter)
And stories. Petey tells stories, wonderful fantastical stories which subtly, oh so subtly, change Danny’s life, change the way he sees the world. Later Danny says that no matter where he goes, Petey has been there before him. The stories, those Hayes shares with us, while apparently independent and self-standing, are integral to the plot.
They grow up. And apart, a little. Yet Petey is still Danny’s best friend. And Danny is Petey’s only friend.
Danny discovers sex.
Petey brought me down to the beach, his favorite spot down at the beach.
It was the first night I’d fooled around with Noreen, back at the party, Noreen Butler. I’d kissed girls before but Noreen had also let me feel her tits this night ’o nights. I got hard the second I did, no transition period, like a light going on/off. Waiting so long now to do this kind of thing with anyone really and she the first to step inside My Space, My Erotic Space, a new place inside me where it was peppery hot. A fire blew up inside me that I thought must show in my face. My cheeks hot to the touch. Later peeing in the bathroom, I felt them with one hand as I rubbed tentatively with the other. I finally knew what it meant to be an adult, finally understood ads, related to them. Yes I’m like the rest of you now, where’s my truck, where’s my beer, where’s my woman.
“I can’t be-believe you kissed her,” Petey mumbled to me and his shoes on the two-block walk down to the beach after the party. Petey had come out to the garage at one party-point for lemonade and seen us in the act.
“Why not? She’s hot, no? I felt her tits too.”
A sudden inrush of Petey’s breath? Or did I just imagine it or was it the approaching sea?
“She’s . . . . . you did? Well, she’s . . . . . . she’s kinda dumb. If you ask m-me. And a bully like I s-said before.”
“Well who’s asking? You don’t think she’s hot? Everybody else does.”
“But h-how c-can you talk to her? She’s st-stupid. She’s s-so . . . . . . she’s other.”
“Other? What’s that mean?”
“She’s dumb. A dummy. Linda, City Girl [the pseudo Barbie doll they were using as the figurehead to their boat] on our b-boat is smarter than her.”
“No she’s not. Besides, I’m not looking for no . . . . . . . bridge partner. I just want her to put out a little.”
I paused to hear these words emerging from my mouth. Yes. Oh Yes finally, here I am.
“She let me feel her tits,” I repeated. How dare he rain on my pubescent parade.
“B-but you d-don’t like her as a person, why would you?”
Petey was ‘upsetting himself’ as his mother would say. The fingers balling up into fists, the scrunching up of him.
“Why not?” I asked. Getting mad for some reason. “I . . . . . I do kinda like her. I do.”
Petey turned and looked at me.
“What you take into your h-hands, you t-take into your heart,” he said.
“Whatever. I do like her though, Petey. She’s very nice and friendly.”
Saying it like a slap to him.
This is the first time they quarrel. It isn’t the last. (There is for example a disastrous double date, with Noreen and friend, when Danny tries to turn Petey straight.)
The years pass, with other incidents that only prove how very eccentric Petey is, and how very centric Danny is. Yet Danny goes on being his best friend, his bestest friend.
Danny joins the Marines.
And then, strange to say, a decision on my part: a billboardian one. I felt I was slipping away to some kind of amnesia, but the billboard on Broadway promised a way out: the few, the proud, in short the Marines.
[. . . . .]
. . .then looked up and there it was bigger than life: this close-up of the Marine guy holding a sword up to his nose. I liked his haircut, admired the uniform, did some role-playing and thought how I wouldn’t look half bad in that uniform and [ . . . ] I signed away the next three years of my life the following week.
“You made a d-decision based on advertising?” Petey gasped when I finally admitted my reasoning, after he pressed me no friggin’ end.
“You signed up to kill people for the next three years because somebody looks b-butch on a billboard?”
“They don’t . . . . Jesus gimme me a break! I’m not gonna go kill people, Petey, that’s not—”
[. . . . . ]
“But Danny lookit, I don’t mean to be the one to b-burst your pretty pink balloon, but that’s what soldiers do—they kill people and break things.” He kicked a small pebble on the sidewalk. “Why don’t you want to be a b-builder, a g-giver? Don’t you think there’s enough killers in the world without swelling that rout?”
Of course, Petey is a builder and a giver. And so will Danny be, when he gets there.
The night before he’s to leave for camp, after making love to Noreen, Danny meets Petey at their favorite spot on the beach. Petey tells him he’s gay. Danny storms off, but as the train to the Marines’ camp is pulling out of the station the next day, Danny sees Petey, half-hidden behind a pillar, and he leaps up and the two of them stare at each other, tears running down both their faces.
I won’t tell you any more, because Hayes does it much better than I could. The ending is given away by the reviews inside the front cover, only it isn’t, not really, the comment “stories of boyhood buddies growing up to be adult lovers are a gay fiction staple—alas, almost a cliché” saying more than the author himself says, and leaving out a whole lot of other stuff. And I don’t know about it being a cliché, except on Nifty, which scarcely counts. As it happens, I do know three people personally, who have become lovers with their best friends, and in each case, it exactly exemplified what I talked about earlier: how they loved each other so much that they overcame the taboos so that they could be together. As it happens, all six men making up the three couples are bisexual, with most of them leaning towards straight. I think that’s even more interesting and revealing than if they had been gay. In any case, like the long road from the Shire to Mordor, it’s the route that matters. And many times during the book, you hold your breath, because it looks, with total certainty, that Danny and Petey are not going to get together. And they almost don’t.
There are two major twists in the last couple of chapters in the book, and like really all good novels, everything unexplained before falls into place. The aha! moment. Very clever, and very satisfying. And absolutely heartrending. (Keep your box of tissues close by.) I don’t want to give the impression that the novel is unbearably bleak. There are actually also some very funny moments, too.
It is a completely convincing “happy ending”. The road to happiness, difficult, full of detours and going-backs, long and twisting and steep, is at last completed. And I did cry, with happiness. Yeah, I know, I’m a sapmeister. But it’s testament to Hayes’ writing, his love affair with words that move and surprise and dazzle, and to his insights into the human heart, that this “cliché” ended up moving me so much. Danny and Petey and their mothers and Noreen are as real to me as any of my own characters, my own friends and family.
J G Hayes’ begins his masterpiece – a word I do not use lightly – with this quote:
“Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time—like to have a friend takes time.”
The novel isn’t a testament to gay love. It’s a paean to something much more profound, and in my opinion richer – friendship. Petey and Danny are friends first and last. They never have sex with each other, in the book, that is. “Friendship is love without his wings”. And Byron loved both sexes, and had friends from both sexes too. He should know. Perhaps so, yet . . . . . friendship’s more robust, and it lasts longer. And for many, love’s wings are frail butterfly contraptions that glitter and sparkle and die by morning, all the angel dust turned grey and lifeless.
They could have been best friends for ever, Danny straight and Petey gay. But, as Danny says: “The thing is, I . . . when I’m with Petey, it feels like home.” He actually tries sex with other men, to see if he’s gay. And he isn’t. But he does love Petey. And his love for Petey, and Petey’s friendship for him, makes him what he becomes. So they can at last both come home.
Some people I know will find Petey’s strange ways and formidable insights as a child and teenager far too adult. But I have only to remember my own childhood, in a far more forgiving environment than South Boston, to know that this isn’t so. I didn’t have his courage, that’s the difference. But there is magic and wayward wisdom in a child’s imagination. Until life beats both out of you.
You might also criticize the slower-moving first half, when they are boys, and live the intense, obsessive life of boys. Yet without that, the second half wouldn’t be so powerful and profound. If it were a film, it would be French rather than made in Hollywood. (Please God, if it is ever made into a film, don’t let Hollywood fuck it up.)
The highest praise I can find for this story is to wish I could write like this, to wish that I too could make people cry, from happiness and sorrow, using thrilling and captivating words, and deep knowledge of our hearts as spells to open the doorways of enlightenment and enchantment.
It’s hard, sometimes, to make a hoekie for yourself. Frosts or drought kill off some of the plants. Weeds take root and grow. Bare patches develop. It’s good to have help with the labor, not to have to do it on your own. It works better that way.
Thank you, Mr. Hayes. Slainte agus Beannacht, buddy.