Publisher: Silver Publishing: ISBN: 9781920501037 Reviewer: Victor J. Banis 4.75 stars out of 5.
Blurb: In these seven stories, the author explores people's shifting views of each other, of the images they project, and of themselves. Individuals fragment, the pieces fall into ever-changing patterns like bright confetti in the base of a kaleidoscope, and our ideas about sexuality color what we see.
My review: This is an utterly unique – I can say without hesitation “fascinating”-- collection of stories and anecdotes, like nothing I’ve ever encountered before. It is certainly beautifully written and on the surface, at least, written with a great deal of insight into human behavior – but with a disclaimer in the author’s preface, in which he states that “We never truly know another person; we do not truly understand ourselves.” What the author presents here, then, is a never entirely reliable and often changing look at various situations in which various people find themselves, but, he warns us, “None of them are omniscient.” So, this collection is not about some vague “truth,” but rather about perceptions, and these changing perceptions are the kaleidoscope of his title. And the insights may not be insights at all, but erroneous perceptions.
It is both an intriguing conceit and at the same time somewhat distancing. When George, in Polygon, says, “No man would ever talk about the intimate details of his marriage bed with his buddies” which is patently untrue, since men do this all the time, is the author wrong? Or George? Or, maybe just this perception? Nothing, here, is necessarily what it seems – or, if I understand correctly, necessarily not what it seems either.
Well, there are worse sins for an author than ambiguity – Hamlet, anyone? Certainly the stories are thought provoking. And libido provoking as well. There is nothing, really, in the way of raw sexuality and yet sex permeates everything, either in its presence, or in its absence – although we’re not always quite sure if it is present—or absent. Still, these tales are, I should say, as much about sex in its various permutations, as they are about anything. But, sex in many different lights.
It’s worth mentioning that the author covers a lot of ground age-wise, too—teens and high school grads and seniors, and pretty much everything in between. Same with gender and (at least perceived) sexual orientation. It seems, when one has finished, that there must be more than the seven stories the volume includes, but no, only seven, just with much to say.
Proteus is about a gay college professor in his late sixties, and a handsome young student who, we realize gradually, likes older men and is trying very hard to come on to him—but the prof insistently rebuffs the young man’s advances—he doesn’t like younger men and he’s not interested. He says. But, what to make of this passage, which hardly exemplifies disinterest: With Bramson sitting almost directly in front of him, Edmund had a ringside view of the boy and his assets. His legs were a definite asset, muscular and shapely, his thighs big enough so the gym shorts dug into them when he bent his knees. They were looser around his hips, so his endowment did not fill them, but Edmund guessed it was fairly generous. The tank top hugged his upper body, outlining his pecs and nipples, and sometimes it rode up so you could see his navel. The muscles in his arms were very hard, and the hair in his armpits and what little he had on his arms and legs as blond as the hair on his head. I found this story perhaps the most erotically charged of the collection.
In Roomies (this one more a collection of anecdotes than a story), two of the three young men who share a condo, Marty the swish and Denny the butch, go camping together: Both felt that they shouldn't have sex; both wanted to. Marty was mostly concerned that if they did it would put a strain on their easy relationship back at the condo, not that there was much chance of them becoming lovers and Art ending up left out. Denny was too promiscuous for that. Anyway, Art had a boyfriend. Denny, on the other hand, was afraid that it would leave him feeling unsatisfied since he would want to flip-flop and Marty, a committed bottom, wouldn't.
Which seems straightforward enough—except that the author has already told us that this narrator, like all the others in the book, isn’t omniscient—this is just his take on things. Which is to say, maybe the boys did, and maybe they didn’t. How would he know? Just as in the real world, what happens and what someone tells you happened may not be the same thing.
In Photographic Memories, Tanner was seen leaving a bar with the man who supposedly murdered him. With his photographic memory, Kyle, who saw them leave together, would seem to be the perfect witness—except he isn’t sure if he saw the accused, or someone he knew from his own past. Those perceptions again.
Facing the Music offers us Joe and Max, who more or less stumble into a sexual relationship which quickly gets them in trouble with their homophobic church, and they are sent to a reindoctrination camp intended to make heterosexuals of them. It maybe works. Or maybe it doesn’t.
In Kevvy, we get, Rashomon style, three different versions of the same story about a trio of teens, mostly leading up to gay Kevin giving straight Arthur a blow job, seemingly at Arthur’s insistence. As the author puts it in his preface, “None of the versions of "Kevvy" is entirely accurate however, (Kevin's may have been, but we hear it from Cole, who editorializes heavily)” Robbie, in Since the Reunion, is perceived by some as straight, by others as bi – and his own perception of himself varies—but, as the author points out, he may be as reluctant to reveal his true sexuality to the reader as he is to the two friends in the story.
So, what on earth is one to make of this? Comic Brother Dave Gardner was wont to say, “don’t tell me your doubts, I have enough doubts of my own, tell me something you believe.” There isn’t much here to believe, it seems. What is there to grab hold of, to anchor one to these people, their adventures? Maybe nothing. Which of course is entirely true to life.
The author is right in his premise that the ambiguity in these pieces reflects real life – it is true, we never really know ourselves, let alone one another. But the best writing—the best in any art—doesn’t merely mimic life, but illuminates it. Art is a mirror that we hold up to ourselves, in the hope that we will see ourselves in a different light—as when walking down a street, we catch a glimpse of ourselves in a store window, and both recognize ourselves, and see ourselves differently. Good writing, the best writing, functions as that store window.
Do I see myself in these windows? I see a lot of questions (is that really me?) mostly without answers, or where there seem to be answers, they quickly morph into another question. Or maybe, the author is suggesting, the question is the answer?
Still, I found this collection intriguing and intelligent, and savored it mightily. Like everything else I’ve read from this author, it’s refreshingly different and I came away from it after two readings (and I suspect there will be many more) with much food for thought and with my sense of how things are somewhat roiled—which may have been exactly what the author intended. This is not—nor do I suppose it was intended to be—for everyone, but for the reader of a certain discernment, it affords considerable pleasure, if mostly of a reflective kind.
One thing cannot be disputed, however: the author’s prose is elegant beyond reproach, as clear and dry—and as bracing—as a good martini – which, perhaps, is the apt metaphor with which to end this review—I found myself shaken, not stirred.
I write novels, short stories and screenplays.
I am the author of eight published novels and three unpublished screenplays. You can read about all my pubished works at http://alanchinauthor.com
I live and write half of each year at my home in Southern California, and spend the other half of each year traveling the globe with my husband, Herman Chin.