A gay Vietnam veteran’s buried trauma provokes much turmoil in this novel.
It’s 1986, and Robb Jorgenson, a 40-year-old Seattle biology professor, has a terrible secret. It’s not his gay sexuality: He is semi-out and has a relationship with Bart, a high school drama teacher. His problem is his experience in the Vietnam War, the memory of which is causing nightmares and insomnia, an Ativan habit, and a persistent sense that he “really didn’t feel he existed at all.” Robb’s anguish leads readers to expect a war crime in his past, but that’s not quite the case: While serving as a military clerk in Saigon, he was a passenger in a jeep that had a hit-and-run collision with a female bicyclist. It’s not clear whether the woman was injured or which vehicle was at fault, but he feels guilt-stricken for not reporting the driver, Mason, for leaving the scene. Compounding his unease is Mason’s hotness—“that tan, that back, those pectorals glimpsed in the windshield, bright with sun”—which leads to a sexual encounter that gets curtailed when he upbraids the man for the accident. My Lai it’s not, but the incident gives Robb panic attacks that get him discharged. Years later, it provokes hallucinations of flaming bicycle wheels, spiraling addiction, paranoia, suicide plans, and finally rehab. Robb’s breakdown draws in loved ones dealing with their own issues. His sister, Olivia, also in recovery, tries to stabilize him while her marriage to a psychiatrist frays. Bart is coming out to his own family and confronting his mother’s projection of her homophobia onto his father.
Alley (The Dahlia Field, 2017, etc.) is a skillful writer who draws realistic characters and crafts well-turned comic vignettes—a grandmotherly nurse gives Bart an overly explicit safe sex tutorial—along with moving scenes of the gathering AIDS epidemic. There’s a psychological frankness to the novel, with many pointed discussions as characters internalize the lesson that they must take responsibility for their own lives. Counterpoised to that realism is a giddy sexual lyricism. Robb swoons over studs, from the “tanned runner…his blonde hair radiant as a sunflower” to “that god…in the black lycra tights, his butt almost busting.” Odes to the healing power of man-on-man touching blossom throughout. A massage that Robb receives from a handsome physical therapist sparks a Proustian sensual epiphany, as he finds “himself entering into Tyler’s very bone and sinew, as though their bodies were fusing, the anguish seeming to be like a flower, opening like a bud…with his brain instantly shooting itself back into the backyard of a childhood friend; the friend and his sister were wading with him in a little pond, below a rockery of heather and carnations.” Unfortunately, Robb is not a captivating focus for the book’s lubricious energy. He’s a morose, self-absorbed, ruminative man whose depression and PTSD feel unearned and whose recovery, complete with a brief turn away from gay sexuality that is dropped before it gets interesting, seems perfunctory. Readers may wish that Bart would dump him and take up with one of the more intriguing characters in this hit-and-miss story.
A knotty, lyrical, but sometimes overdone tale about a gay vet’s recovery.