Thursday, November 8, 2012

On 'Second Chances' - By T.A. Webb

     I know many professional writers, artists, film-makers, and creative people, and also a ton of amateurs. In today's world, the old publishing and creative models are morphing into new forms, such that even competent beginners can get a film made, a graphic novel produced, or an e-book out, ready to be downloaded via digital means (or print on demand). It is both a wonderful and distressing time, as there are gems out there that wash ashore from the oceans of mediocrity, but one has to be a true treasure hunter to stumble over them. There are so many shells on the beach and only a few will speak secrets into your ear.

     I read books like I listen to music-appreciating the favorites that touch upon my older synapses, making them purr or wink, yet I always look for an unheard voice or song that moves my more mature sensibilities while arousing my mind to make new connections within itself. There are genres and types I tend to be tractored into, but also classifications I float away from due to my personal tastes and realized pallette.

     Some books (and writers) leave me cold or dry, and sometimes, just feeling measures of tedium and disinterest-even anger or anxiety at subjects not to my appetite. Very few of those stay with me in any meaningful way, but in rare times, one does present itself as rose and thorn combined-like a pebble in the most pleasing shoe I have. I've just read one of those, and even days later, I'm settled and unsettled, comfortable and uncomfortable, with my brain working out the inner reasonings to its reactions and responses.
     What helps and doesn't help is that I am well acquainted with the author, as he is my older brother, T. A. Webb.

     Tom started a blog a while back (A Bear On Books), where he reviews gay erotic literature, a genre in which I found myself fairly ignorant. I followed it here and there and found some of the excerpts and stories not really to my liking, and for a number of reasons-the biggest of which is that romance as a genre and as the main story point just doesn't interest me, and male/male erotic romance surely does not. Tom is gay, so he has a familiar dog in the race, but I'm not a fan of the whole track. Still, his blog was and is interesting and entertaining and offers a look into stories, lifestyles, and sensibilites that are different from my own. I found it surprising that most gay romance is written by straight women for straight women, even though the niche audience varies.

     Tom fell into friendships with some of the writers of the books he reviewed, and with their urging, became one himself. His first shorts appeared, and he co-scripted a book with an established author, and I was curious about the work, but not ready to commit to a read in that genre. His proposal for a novel was accepted by Dreamspinner Press and I was happy for him, as first novels are always exciting, but I was also a little fearful for him, as they are also scary-it's the first time a writer really throws his colors on the wall for all to see and be judged, and hopefully, appreciated, rather than scourged.

     First novels are often semi-autobiographical, perhaps because the inner dialogue in a writer must be written out and broken through to clearly free up the words that will surely follow that beginning effort. From the ad synopsis of the book, that seemed like it may be as such. Along with what I knew of his writing journey and the story, my interest level was ramped to the point where I looked forward to reading it, regardless of my personal aversions to the genre.

     He sent me a galley proof before the publication date, and I sat down and started it. He warned me it would be graphic, but joked that I could just skim over those parts. I ended up reading it in its entirety in one sitting, mainly because I had a rare, clear notch of time in which to do so, and also because I was anticipating the read. I often analyze the writing, style, and structure of a book in the background of my mind while I'm reading it, and if I know the author, that backroom noise will somewhat spill into the foreground. If I recognize events in the story and can see the shift from reality into fiction and back again, I take note of the transitions and how they are handled, but I try to have an unbiased experience, and keep my relationship with the writer separate from what I'm reading. It can be tough.

     I found I had many reactions and responses while reading the novel, and when I finished, I was honestly unsure what my final feelings were. For myself, there is a line at how much gay is too gay, and my line was crossed early in the read-so much so, that I did indeed skim some of the later, more graphic scenes (and I loathe skimming a book) and picked up the story after the erotica. Being a straight man, I was open to the context of the story and genre, but not in general to the content, even though the writing committed me to the story. The graphic nature of parts of the book wasn't to my taste, and wouldn't have been whether it was a male/male or a straightforward male/female erotic story. 

     The first thought I had was that this book shouldn't have been written in the graphic erotica form, as it seemed the very genre held this novel back from its truth-but its truth was somehow also wrapped inside that genre-and it was a real conundrum to me. After all, it hit me viscerally in the nut sack, but I felt it didn't have to describe them. That enigma, the plot elements I recognized, and also the walk into an unknown territory, left me a bit overwhelmed. Bothered. Comfortable and uncomfortable with it at the same time.

     It took some time for my reaction to the gay themes to disperse and for the work to stand out. I won't lie-I still have a part of me that is a deep south male that emits an occasional gasp from inside the old stereotype box I thought I climbed out of years ago. I revisted parts of the novel later on, and brushed up on sections that appeared vague to me on recollection. I soon realized I missed some of what I had read because of the delayed and sustained reactions I was having while reading it. Days later, the book settled in my mind and left me with my final call on the novel.
     Inside its genre, I have no doubt this book stands out, as it repeatedly rises above the genre before falling back into it. It suggests (without saying so) that many gay sensibilities are vastly different from the straight perspectives, but some are as mundane and just as closely remarkable. It was the differences that threw me, as it was a walk into another room where I recognized nothing in the furnishings, but everything on the walls. It is a journey into the life and relationships of a gay man that spans ten years and offers a unique tale of that entire room-using both subtle lighting and the natural starkness of full sun. It is about love, anger, hope, and the need for second chances. It is not for everyone, but it does have an essence that is for any adult.
     I have no informed reference in which to critique the novel inside its genre (and have no desire to give a review), but I can speak on craft and context. I found parts of it funny, warm, compassionate, and of depth. At the same time, I also found it humorless, angry, unsentimental, and unforgiving-and all of these used well in the context of the narrator, who is the main character. Some books give you everything concerning that context, and others give you just enough to care. This one gifts you with something in-between, allowing the reader to somewhat engage him or herself into the work while thinking for themselves, without knowing all of the motivational stew-and it mostly works.
     The literary devices shown are not overused, in fact, most are underutilized. A portion of the book is loosely based on real events and real people, but done so in a fairly good fictionalization of reality. I can see myself, my family, and Tom's relationships in the story, but mainly as a reference for the characters rather than being the characters themselves. The book is in turns curious, devastating, and insightful.

     What comforted me about the book was its theme and the thematic workings in relation to the story and also being able to step into this world and relate to the strangers inside of it. What I found uncomfortable (aside from the dominant male homosexuality) was the turn in the story from romantic realism to romantic fantasy, like a hell of an unplanned car ride that suddenly turns into a jaunty plane trip over the ocean with a fixed GPS. Personally, I was waiting for the plane to crash, but then, it wouldn't have been erotic gay fiction-it would have been something else.
     As I was reading Catcher In The Rye some years back, I remember thinking only a sociopath could begin to relate to it. When I finished it, I realized that at the time it was published, psychological narration was a new storytelling device for drama and it was written like that for a reason. It had one genius paragraph in it that finally connected the reader to Caufield and the story (the allegory of the rye field, and the only explanation as to the title) and that lifted it up and made it a classic to some, rather than a study in banal sociopathy, and created a new genre of hardboiled socio- and psychopathically narrated books that exists to this day-but it was that paragraph that bound all reader perspectives into one and made it relatable. Of course, most English professors would argue me on those points.
     I bring that analogy up because gay literature has existed for years, but mainly as quick fix pulpy and lurid romance or porno, with only a few outstanding novels coming out of it, and most of those-only recently, and mainly because of the changing publishing model. Second Chances has moments in which it transcends its genre, and begins to look outside of it for a new one, before falling back into it. It has enough of those moments that I can see how Tom's future novels can possibly leap fully outside of it into a newer and more modern fusion of dramatic gay literature. My conundrum was exampled in that I was reading good literature that was chained to those pulpy roots. To be honest, had Tom not been the author, I never would have read it, and I would have missed out on a small gem masquerading as an unbearable (to a straight guy) hot mess of gay.
     Any book that churns and provokes these kind of turns for me is worthy of a perusing. I would offer this novel to any straight male who may wish an uncomfortable and new perspective, any female that gets all randy and curious at the same time about the other side of male, any gay friend that may just find a haunting new voice for themselves, and anyone who is touched by romantic tragedy and the need for a second chance. Also, all homophobes-just stay away-you have enough on your plate from the current election without any further strains on your sensibilities.



  1. Thank you for loving and respecting your big brother as much as I do do

  2. Lon, I think you hit the nail right on the head. Tom signed my copy in Albuquerque when I bought it off the table and I began it during our recent conference. I finished the rest on the plane on the way home but something amazing happened in between. At lunch the last day of the conference, sitting next to Tom, I told him that the big jerk had me crying first at the dedication and then again at the acknowlegements. He chuckled and I said to him, "dude my first novel was an autobiography too, just about gay man not a gay man trapped in this straight woman's body." Good point Lon. My first novel, "Leather Nights" was also severely close to the factual me.

    Tom looked back, smiled his famous loving smile and said, "you noticed that huh? Well, except for the cheating and dying part, there is a lot of that in there."

    Tom shares himself quite openly in our mutual forums and I felt much like Lon did, walking into a room that I knew so well and surrounded by people I also knew. Regardless of the fact that I know Bear and his story (well, the parts he makes public), Second Chances had me crying and laughing too and, as you said Lon, really frickin uncomfortable.

    I think it's awesome brotherly love that you forced yourself to go there (amongst the hot mess of gay...LOL)and that you came out somewhat unscathed except when Tom wanted you down and scathed to the max.

    Here here!