A densely plotted, gay coming-of-age novel starring the talented Erik, whose lengthy history is half hard-boiled Jim Thompson mayhem and half Martha Grimes youthful fantasia, heavily laden with crime, war (both international and domestic), alcoholism and, ultimately, personal triumph.
DuVal’s debut begins in 1928 with an identity change for shadowy Klaus Altman, whose ties to the Philadelphia mob forces him to go undercover as Max Anders, protector of Galena Baldwin. No angel herself, the promiscuous 14-year-old Galena finds herself pregnant. She blackmails sexually ambiguous Max into marriage and they run away together, largely to escape the unwanted attentions of her stepfather and the Mafia, and live unhappily ever after. When Erik is born, his red hair instantly sours any maternal feelings Galena might have had; she loathes her child on sight, as he is a constant reminder of the man who raped her. For a time, a boozy calm ensues as Max, Galena and precocious Erik negotiate various forms of a separate peace. And there’s music, by way of Erik’s eccentric grandmother. But then the sordid past catches up with them; sexy, sinister Trouper Pete, another of Galena’s ersatz protectors, makes things more difficult, as does the charmingly evil Det. Weakly. Bodies turn up and liquor, lies and debauchery take their toll. As Erik’s home life disintegrates, his sexuality burgeons; he takes up with wise young Allen at university and even more complexities of the sexual, familial and social sorts arise. Ultimately, in an utterly unbelievable (but delightful) twist, Erik’s dream to become an orchestra pianist/conductor comes true while he serves in the Army during the Korean conflict, via yet another change of identity. Though duVal’s incredibly intricate plotting and frequent narrative shifts require close reading to follow, his loving concern for even the most troubled of his characters and their twisted relationships are the real payoff; Galena may be a manipulative harridan, but she’s a fascinating wreck whose every action enthralls. And son Erik could charm the pants off, well, anyone he likes.
A rollicking, complex read.