3 min

Fairies fall down dead

Self-hatred stalks academe

Credit: Xtra files

Meet Manny Masters, closety high school teacher and aging student of drama at New York University. Manny’s miffed. Not only has he just reluctantly completed his thesis to deter his “typical” Jewish mother from her hypochondriac manipulations, but he’s been forced to endure the endless irritations of an academic colleague and former squeeze, Leslie Sexton, whose pet theory is that Peter Pan author JM Barrie had an erotic relationship with his adolescent adopted son, Michael.

Manny’s got a nasty bee in his prim and very tight-fitting bonnet. It’s the bee of suppressed queer desire, and he has no intention of loosening his chapeau to let it escape. He’d much rather endure the continuous sting of self-imposed sex panic. In fact he’s written a book about Barrie and his adored young Michael as an elaborate proof of the fatal results of promiscuity and the life-affirming benefits of “blocking” erotic desire.

Manny comes to us, in all his pathetic and quite convincing vainglory, through a new novel by Sky Gilbert, titled An English Gentleman. James Barrie (or Gilbert’s re-imagined version of him) is the gentleman in question, a lifelong abstainer from sexual relations, and the adoptive father of five boys orphaned when his dearest friends, Sylvia and Arthur Llewelyn Davies, die young.

The boys had already been Barrie’s de facto nephews. Now he could dote on them full time. Michael, his favourite, had served as the inspiration for Barrie’s phenomenally popular stage play about the magical fairy boy who refused to grow up. Tragically, Michael himself never got the chance to grow up. In 1921, while a student at Oxford, he drowned in a local swimming hole along with a school chum, Rupert Buxton.

That’s the history, the springboard for both Manny’s and Gilbert’s speculations on the fires of desire. Is sex (as opposed to lasting love) life-affirming, or is it a vortex leading to dissolution and death? If this sounds to you like a question bristling with phobias and prejudices that cry out for analysis, then you may find Manny Masters a fascinating example of fear-and-loathing in the nether reaches of academe – or you may just want to pummel him silly with an old Jeff Stryker dildo.

Gilbert’s story is driven by a series of (fictional) letters be-tween Barrie and Michael during Michael’s student days at Eton and Oxford. Manny’s estranged pal Leslie has possession of 56 of these letters, which he stole during an interview with Michael’s sole surviving brother at age 86. Manny gets hold of the letters after Leslie’s death from AIDS, and uses them to fuel his unsupportable theory that Michael’s drowning was a suicide, the result of a surrender to destructive passions, namely, his erotic obsession with Rupert Buxton.

Manny is a ghastly and highly convincing old closet case, openly gay yet imprisoned by self-loathing, utterly unaware that he’s lost in his own maze of sociosexual theorizing. Gilbert structures the novel as a love story within a love story, both tales about a moralizing middle-aged prude and the hapless neophyte at his mercy. The letters themselves are often quite touching, largely because Gilbert successfully captures the voices of a doting but misguided patriarch and the vulnerable young man who gradually sees that his own intuitions are a far better guide to passion than the admonishments of a man who admits he’s never had sex. Manny’s earnest, wrong-headed analysis of the love between Barrie and Michael increasingly reveals the morass of delusion and self-denial he’s constructing. It’s as if he’s digging a grave for his own stony heart and terminally ill libido, even as he contrives more and more “evidence” that sex itself is the ghoul we must fear.

Like Barrie, Manny too once had his own “lost boy,” Alan, a small-town kid whose untraumatic “molestation” at the age of 10 is used by Manny to further his monkish anti-sex agenda. Alan finally escapes his schoolmarmish daddy, just as young Michael eventually finds more stimulating and sympathetic company hanging out with notoriously queer Lytton Strachey and the Bloomsbury set.

Of Gilbert’s four novels, this is decidedly the most ambitious. His extensive research is lightly worn; the letters between Michael Llewelyn and James Barrie have the ring of authenticity, both in their distinctive voices and the deeply subverted emotions they describe. Manny’s voice feels just as authentic, but the sad old nag of a hobbyhorse he spurs on through page after page is finally a bit much to take. By the time he says, near the book’s end, that “sex is a drug, and all drugs are oblivion, all drugs are death,” we’re already well past any hope that he might redeem himself. Fortunately, young Michael gets the last word.


Sky Gilbert.

Cormorant Books.

262 pages. $29.95.