Portland author Tom Spanbauer has been toiling in the literary fields for some decades now. His novels have used autobiography as a sort of compost, enriching already fecund matters of love, sexuality, relationships, loss, courage and identity with sometimes shockingly authentic detail.
Spanbauer’s new novel, “I Loved You More” (Hawthorne Books, 444 pp., $18.95), is an incantation of those themes. It is also a hypnotic series of riffs on W.H. Auden’s famous couplet, “If equal affection cannot be,/let the more loving one be me.”
Narrator Benjamin Grunewald moves back and forth in time to describe the interstitial complications of a love triangle he has helped to create. (Though Ben self-identifies as gay, he has had both male and female lovers).
The book begins with the cavalier words he uses to cut himself out of this painful geometric equation, which has deteriorated, in his view, from kumbayah pansexual inclusion to the sharp angles and straight lines of a monogamous heterosexual relationship.
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Then, for the remainder of the story, readers are whisked up and down the timeline, and back and forth across geography, as Ben ranges between despair, hope and humor — ever in search of true belonging — a dogged quest for propinquity.
At one time, Ben had been dazzled by Hank Christian, fellow student and star pupil in his writing class at Columbia University.
At one time Ben had been a little boy, scorned by his father, bullied by his sister.
At one time, Ben was married to a coed at Idaho State University.
At one time, Ben had become blood brothers and lovers with Ephraim on the reservation.
Then there were all those other times, with other men and women.
And after he was diagnosed with AIDS, Ben had a relationship with Ruth, who was a student and devoted caregiver — at one time.
“I Loved You More” is breathtaking for its audacity. Spanbauer is unflinching as he looks at physical need and carnal desire. The book is punctuated with graphic sex and disturbing hallucinogenic trips. It is laced with frustration and profanity — including some truly crackerjack lines that cannot be repeated in this newspaper.
On the other hand, the author also conveys the simplicity of kindness and the wistfulness of emotional want — the “broken voice saying it is I who am broken, and it is human to be broken, and we are all broken….” Spanbauer captures the flutter of first attraction, and he nails the heartbreak of final rejection.
But “I Loved You More” is not only about living and loving. It is also about writing. Spanbauer, who runs Portland critique groups and writing intensives under the moniker “Dangerous Writing,” has much to say in this book about writing as an “unfair unjust beloved torment,” a practice of speaking “a truth so real it wasn’t spoken yet. We’d carve language so deep into our living hearts….”
He certainly does plunge into territory that many writers would not dare approach. And while he runs the risk of having readers interpret his work as exhibitionism, Spanbauer probably would argue it would be more outrageous still not to acknowledge that such complexities exist and deserve to be considered.