Barry McCrea's debut, "The First Verse," plunges us right into the dark heart of Dublin. Maybe it's an Irish thing, but McCrea understands that...
“The First Verse”
by Barry McCrea
Carroll & Graf, 368 pp., $14.95
by Abha Dawesar
Anchor Books, 356 pp., $13
“Contract with the World”
by Jane Rule
Insomniac Press, 343 pp., $16.95
Dublin, Delhi and Vancouver: These far-flung cities are the inspiration for three recently released gay-themed novels.
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Barry McCrea’s debut, “The First Verse,” plunges us right into the dark heart of Dublin. Maybe it’s an Irish thing, but McCrea understands that the best writing about place has a touch of the mythological. His narrator, Niall Lenihan, tells us “Mine is just the rude tongue of my homeland, the bourgeois suburbs on Dublin’s southern side, a Levantine country reaching from the tree-hushed redbrick of Ranelagh, Rathmines, and Donnybrook, on the edge of the city centre, stately places of canals, cornices, and quiet burghers.” Ranelagh, Rathmines, Donnybrook: I’ve never even heard of these places before, but I believe McCrea’s story because he’s grounded it in these specific syllables.
And it’s a good thing McCrea anchors his story in such details, because the thing is flighty to the point of being airborne. Our boy Niall goes on a fellowship to Trinity, where his life is filled with fairly common excitements: studies and new friends and cruising gay bars for the first time. Then he stumbles upon Sarah and John, a mysterious, charismatic pair of friends who are obsessed with reading.
Or, more exactly, obsessed with using books as divining tools. Sarah explains it to Niall when he stumbles on their ritual: “The Romans called it sortes, or lots. Simply put, you ask a question and take a random quote as your answer.” Niall asks a question, blindly chooses a book from the shelf and a passage from the book, and finds his question perfectly and clearly answered.
Sarah, John and Niall slip into a kind of shared, sustained, months-long trance, constantly looking for what they call “synchronicities” between their books and their lives. Sarah hints at a larger organization with larger aims, yet will tell no more. The three spend their nights in a stupor of books and candlelight and alcohol and hallucinations, a kind of book lust probably unknown to Nancy Pearl.
An obvious influence here is Donna Tartt’s best-selling novel “The Secret History” (McCrea even namechecks the book), and like so many other yarns that trade in secret societies and occult doings, McCrea’s ultimately disappoints. The big payoff never comes; no final revelation could merit such a buildup. That’s not to say the writing is weak: McCrea’s evocation of the real world of Dublin and Trinity is so fine and funny we hardly need the side trips to cloud-cuckoo-land.
Anamika, the heroine of Abha Dawesar’s novel “Babyji,” also lives in a fantasy land. Hers, however, is purely sexual.
It’s the mid-1980s, and Anamika is a brilliant high-school student in Delhi. The opening chapter finds her at a dinner party with her parents, where she feverishly fantasizes about the women present: “The hostess announced dinner while I was busy unbuttoning lady X.” A couple of short chapters later, Anamika’s dreams turn to reality as she begins affairs with a sophisticated divorcee and with her own family’s luminously beautiful servant. She decides to seduce a glamorous schoolmate to round out her triumvirate of conquests.
If Anamika’s entry into these bedrooms seems a trifle abrupt, that’s the charm of the protagonist, and of the book. When it comes to love, Anamika is untroubled by morality, or lack of confidence, or scruples. She is simply hungry. When she first makes love to the divorcee, she has a single moment of doubt: “For a second my inner voice squeaked, You’re a teenager. She thinks you’re a kid. But I stifled it and thought of the equation from my physics textbook, p(q) = Planck’s constant and reminded myself I was free.” It’s rare enough to meet a female character this unabashed, let alone an Indian girl.
The book is organized loosely, following Annamika’s movement as a free agent of love. The plotting toward the end is uncertain, but there’s a lot of pleasure in meeting this brash, unexpected girl in this rough, unknown city. Like McCrea, Dawesar is obviously entranced with her location and gives us a Delhi that is both enchanting and quite scary: “The night air is thick — nothing can be seen. Things happen in the dark. Men are killed. Their cries of anguish go unheard. If it is winter, the mornings are covered with fog, and corpses are discovered only after the shroud lifts at ten.”
Jane Rule’s Vancouver is also a threatening city but in an entirely different way. Her 1980 novel “Contract with the World” — reissued this year by Insomniac Press — is populated by artists trying to work and make a living in Vancouver, where the city’s provincialism suffocates them.
We get the story from the perspective of six friends: Joseph, a nonartist given to losing his mind; Mike, a burly he-man of a sculptor; Alma, Mike’s wealthy earth-mother wife who takes a female lover halfway through the book; Roxanne, Alma’s lover, a sound artist; Allen, a gay photographer; and Carlotta, a painter whose solid work ethic and commitment to staying in Vancouver make her the closest thing to a heroine Rule has on offer.
The six fall in and out of each other’s beds, lie to each other, betray each other, and finally are galvanized by the straight world’s hatred of homosexuality. The book is set in the 1970s, which Rule characterizes as a time of gay self-discovery and self-loathing. These themes twine nicely with her exploration of the artist’s lot. No one in this novel knows what they are doing, no one is following a prescribed course in their life, and we love them for it.
Rule possesses a knack for characterization that is both fond and gently mocking: “Aside from his natural flirtatiousness, directed at anyone, male or female, who had not grossly offended him, Allen was, in fact, nearly a prudish man.” Despite the big themes of her novel, Rule’s writing has a quicksilver, charming, sociable quality that makes it just right for chronicling the lives of the bohemians. Like McCrea and Dawesar, Rule demonstrates a fierce loyalty to her city. By the novel’s end, Vancouver feels less like a provincial burg and more like the center of the world.
Claire Dederer is a Seattle writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, and New York magazine.