With his first novel, Vancouver writer Brett Josef Grubisic performs a remarkable feat. He has penned a dusty, thoroughly dated novel of gay self-denial wrapped in a satirical frame of academic lit-crit — and has made the package feel fresh and new.
A professor of English, AX Palios, finds a student at his door one day toting a Gap bag containing a “really cool” discovery: the pencilled manuscript of an anonymous author, found concealed within a hollowed-out 1958 home economics textbook. This long-lost tale, outlining the veiled and cryptic homoerotic life of Winston Wilson, high-school librarian, makes up about 200 of The Age Of Cities’ 240 pages. It’s a trip into a lost world.
Winston lives with his mother, Alberta, in River Bend City, a small town inland from Vancouver. They seem the best of friends. Grubisic’s probing exploration of their love is lovely to behold, largely because it doesn’t muck through Oedipal quagmires. The two connect on a cosy domestic level but equally in the realm of ideas. One of their recurring discussions is about the nature of humanity and our collective moral compass. Alberta thinks that despite all the usual horrors, we’re gradually becoming better beings as the centuries creep by. Winston holds the darker view. “Years ago, he’d read Alexander Pope’s couplet about mankind being born on an isthmus between two places — the feral and the angelic — and he still felt it was apt. The two qualities were intertwined, fatally entranced by one another like Narcissus and his reflection.”
Grubisic portrays schoolmarmish characters from the 1950s with delightful precision. Delilah Pierce, czarina of social studies, fluffs up her “disingenuous ruffled feathers” and chirps to our closety librarian, “I’ll deign not to answer your sarcasm, Mr Wilson…. You shouldn’t scoff.” I could almost scent the face powder — and a daring whiff of Tabu. There is so much lovingly rendered ’50s minutiae here that I wanted to quote much of what I read in the first chapters. But it’s the human observation that stands out.
Alberta has a keen sense of what Winston is missing due to his cocooned life. Sometimes she chides him. “Go out an make yourself some friends. It’ll do you a world of good.” But sporty guy-talk in River Bend’s beer parlour holds no appeal for Wilson. This begins to change when he must spend a day and night in Vancouver for a minor medical appointment. Feeling lonely in his hotel room, he heads down to the bar and within minutes is approached by a delicate gent with plucked eyebrows and a “radiant silk tie.”
Winston finds dapper Dickie amusing and strangely charming. Our hero’s hidden desires, now peeking through, are no surprise — but carnal revelations are not Grubisic’s style. Dickie later leads Winston to a velvet-papered lounge near the waterfront, and a banquette full of tart dandies. The banter feels authentic, while never tumbling into the self-hating “Oh Mary” clichés that peppered caustic ’60s bonbons like Mart Crowley’s The Boys In The Band.
Dickie and his pals are not depressing stereotypes, but something else makes them hard to swallow. These lounge ladies never let actual sexual banter escape their pursed lips. Not once. And Winston (whose inner life is the through-line of the story) never once lets an erotic suspicion cross his mind. We don’t hear a winking euphe-mism for a single body part or sex act, or even a clear reference to any romantic connections inside or outside Dickie’s circle of friends. What is Grubisic constructing here? A total masquerade?
Maybe. Winston returns to mum and his books in River Bend, but as Halloween approaches, he accepts an invitation to a Hollywood costume party at Dickie’s Vancouver apartment. Winston shows up to find Dick in Elly-May Clampett drag. He retreats to the bathroom to change into his Errol Flynn swashbuckling duds.
The party goes on for 25 pages, with the banter and behaviour still in unbreakable code despite gallons of disinhibiting vodka. Things get convincingly sloppy, yet even when presented with a nude scene of imminent queer intercourse, Winston seems no closer to recognizing that he’s among dick-lickers. His denial is total. Even when he later tags along to the park with Dickie and allows a cruising gent to suck him off, his thoughts on the encounter are weirdly neutral. Neither Grubisic nor Palios (in his aptly turgid scholarly afterword) bring us closer to fathoming Winston’s persona.
An incomplete protagonist may just be Grubisic’s point. Forty or 50 years ago it was hard, often impossible, for queer folk to build — or even imagine — an honest story of self. Maybe the anonymous fictional creator of fictional Winston Wilson, labouring under nameless fears, was only telling us as much as he knew, or what little he could face.