Title: Two Natures
Author: Jendi Reiter
Publication Date: Septermber 2016
Publisher: Saddle Road Press
Categories: Historical, gay fiction
Two Natures is the coming-of-age story of Julian Selkirk, a fashion photographer in New York City in the early 1990s. His faith in Jesus helped him survive his childhood in the Atlanta suburbs with an abusive alcoholic father, but the church’s condemnation of his sexual orientation has left him alienated and ashamed. Yearning for new ideals to anchor him after his loss of faith, Julian seeks his identity through love affairs with three very different men: tough but childish Phil Shanahan, a personal trainer who takes a dangerous shortcut to success; enigmatic, cosmopolitan Richard Molineux, the fashion magazine editor who gives him his first big break; and Peter Edelman, an earnest left-wing activist with a secret life. Amid the devastation of the AIDS epidemic and the racial tensions of New York politics, Julian learns to see beyond surface attractions and short-term desires, and to use his art to serve his community.
I have to admit, this is a really tough read. Not because it isn’t well-written—it is indeed stellar in that regard—but because it is so stark and unflinching. Content warning not because it’s explicit (many of us have read books with far more graphic content) but because of the heaviness of the subject matter. Anyone old enough to have lived through the early 1990s, and lost loved ones during that time, needs to be aware that the middle of the story is about the death of one character from AIDS-related illness. You have been warned.
This is a difficult book for me to review. On the one hand, despite its length, it’s surprisingly fast-paced. There isn’t a lot of wasted space; everything has a purpose, so it doesn’t feel as though it’s lagging anywhere in terms of moving forward. The writing style is superior, in the style of the best literary fiction. At the same time, my reaction to it is very much along those lines—I’m not here to be entertained by this book. It’s not a feel-good love story or a tale of tragedy-to-triumph. It’s meant to be appreciated mainly for its historical value and technically skilled craftsmanship. For a number of reasons (the heavy topics, the highly literary style, the depth of the psychology), this is one to read with a group for the purpose of discussion.
There’s a lot covered in this novel, and the title says it best. Everything in Julian’s life is split, and he spends most of the story trying to make whole the things he sees as fractured. Despite the fact that there’s a sub-thread about the religion of his youth, it actually doesn’t factor in much beyond his musings until near the end. However, his broken trust in his faith and family of origin drive nearly every other relationship he has. It’s vital for people of faith to read this with the understanding of how religious institutions create and contribute to the oppression specifically of the LGBT community.
On a personal level, I found this hard to read. For one thing, those were my coming of age years as well. It’s Peter, rather than narrator Julian, to whom I relate most—his idealism is different from mine, but I understand him. Several times while reading I had to put the book down because although I had a much more sheltered existence at that time, I certainly do remember those years. Reading this certainly puts into perspective why achieving marriage equality is not merely a sign of assimilation and imitation of heteronormativity, and also why it’s too little, too late.
Beyond that, I did find this sometimes frustrating to read. Julian is spectacularly unlikable until closer to the end, and his friends aren’t a whole lot better. They read to me as self-absorbed, and the only time they appear to break out of that is when caring for their dying friend (which, by the way, is just about the most excellently written part of the entire thing, despite it being so profoundly heartbreaking). Outside of that, they treat each other terribly. In particular, I couldn’t stand the way Julian talks about and to Ari. None of them seem compelled to take a whole lot of responsibility for their behavior, and I don’t mean with regard to sex. I wanted to see Julian grow and mature a bit more, I think. In some ways, we do get that, and there are flashes of it when he finally stands up to a person who has been using and lying to him. I suppose I just needed more.
Ultimately, I could probably talk for days about this book because it’s impossible to capture everything about such a dense read in a short review. My own personal grievances with the characters aside, I do think this is a phenomenal work, and I highly recommend it. It should be required reading if for no other reason than that we’ve already forgotten what life was like in those days.
For top-notch writing, gritty realism, and historical value, this gets 10/10 fountain pens.
The chandelier above the stage of the Amato Opera House ascended on a cable over our heads. The little theater on the Bowery looked like someplace the stagecoaches would stop in a spaghetti Western, and indoors, their special effects were just as creaky. Sitting in the tattered red velvet seat next to mine, Richard Molineux hummed a melody I didn’t recognize. No one who watches TV can avoid learning a few arias, at the risk of forming indelible associations between “La donna è mobile” and spaghetti sauce, or the “Ride of the Valkyries” and Bugs Bunny. Richard’s tune was in a minor key, a meandering sequence that never resolved on the expected notes. He noticed me listening and his steel-gray eyes brightened.
“Do you know it?” he asked, in an amused voice. I shook my head. His thin lips upturned slightly.
“That is Britten.”
Though Richard’s English could betray him at times with an odd turn of phrase, I concluded that he was talking about a composer I’d never heard of, rather than a country I had, and I nodded as if he’d told me something useful. His arm, in his crisp gray suit jacket, pressed against mine on the narrow armrest. Some would call opera a queen’s cliché, but if this were true of Richard, it was only in the way that two dozen long-stemmed roses and a diamond ring are cliché. In other words, sign me up.
The house went dark. On my other side, Cheryl Kingston continued retouching her face powder with a compact mirror that included a tiny flashlight bulb, one of the promotional items from her Revlon gift bag. I do believe in being versatile, but this object struck me as particularly silly, unless one needed to do a line of coke during a power outage.
White spotlights bathed the stage. A full-throated soprano voice was amplified through the theater, keening an Italian aria over a pounding techno soundtrack. Richard’s nose flared as if he had smelled something unpleasant. He muttered a comment to Marcia, his wife, who sat between him and my boss, the photographer Dane Langley, with her pencil poised over her notebook. I heard little of her response, in her tobacco-husky Long Island voice, except the words “with the times,” but it made him chuckle.
Marcia Molineux — fortyish, flat-chested, tall as a man, with close-cropped chestnut hair and a fondness for olive green pants suits — was the publisher of Femme NY, the dollars-and-francs foundation of Richard’s castle in the clouds. People with a romantic imagination claimed that he had named the magazine for her. It couldn’t be an accident, though, that his long slim fingers kept brushing the back of my hand. My mind spun through a series of calculations with too many variables: self-interest times pleasure divided by risk.
Cheryl offered me a piece of her chewing gum, which I accepted only to be polite. It was thanks to her, after all, that Dane had brought me along. Since my promotion to second assistant — my predecessor, Vince, having launched an illustrious career photographing silicone-injected blondes for For Him Magazine — Dane had gone from slighting me because I was unimportant to slighting me as a potential competitor. We worked well enough together, but for invitations to New York Fashion Week and other places where my presence wasn’t strictly necessary, I had to lean pretty heavily on the fact that I’d kept Cheryl from falling into the Central Park duck pond during a feature shoot for Mademoiselle.
I chewed for a few seconds before the unpleasant taste alerted me that it was Nicorette — a complete waste, smoking being one vice that had never tempted me. I thought of asking Cheryl if she had any gum that tasted like married men, but decided that this was inappropriate to say at the opera, even if there wasn’t any opera going on.
What there was, on stage, was a parade of runway models showcasing the designs of Anton Fische, whose suddenly-trendy logo (a jagged F resembling a lightning bolt) was displayed in black against the silver backdrop. The theme of the show, according to our programs, was “Les Pêcheurs de Perles”. That might explain why one of the girls wore a wetsuit with a ballerina skirt, while another sported a fin-like hairdo spiked with gel above a turtleneck dress made of chain mail. Over the synthesized backbeat, the diva sang a sequence of inhumanly high notes, sharp as icicles dropping off a roof.
“Controlled excess,” Richard said, apropos of nothing, or everything.
“That makes no sense, honey,” Marcia said, scribbling in her notebook.
“Exactly,” Richard replied, and they both laughed lightly. Dane laughed too, though they hadn’t been talking to him. The Femme NY editors threw a fair amount of work our way, but I got the sense that they didn’t personally care for my boss. The womanizing, the drug rumors, the chest hair — it was all very 1980s, too many shots of beauty queens on beaches. It’s hard to be ironic in Florida. He knew that I knew the score, so we both edged our way in on either side of the Molineux’ conversation, while Cheryl, miffed at not sitting next to Dane, chewed her gum loudly, and hardly anyone remembered to look at the clothes.
A woman with silver bands across her chest walked downstage, her collar frill rising above her head like a clamshell. I thought Fische had outsmarted himself with the setting. Next to the theater’s gilded plaster curlicues and red velvet, the models looked like Martians who had crash-landed in a Wild West bordello. I ventured to say as much to Richard, who replied, “It is to be memorable, that is the new beauty.”
“So’s a bus accident,” Marcia quipped. One might think she was putting him down, except for the fact that Dane’s latest feature for them had had an earthquake theme. Models clinging to collapsed windowsills with their lacquered fingernails, swinging their high-heeled boots over a chasm of rubble. We had staged it on the site of an elementary school in the Bronx that was being demolished. Smells of chalk and bubble gum, and probably asbestos, were set free by the wrecking ball, undetectable in the picture. I found an unbroken red crayon in a pile of sand and Dane turned it into a moment of pathos, the girl holding it up to her smudged face like a child playing with her mother’s lipstick. That was our favorite shot, but Richard took it out.
“But yes, the shock of what you do not understand, the wrong thing in the wrong place, that is what takes you — beyond,” Richard went on.
“Like the music?” I asked.
“No, the music is merely terrible.”
The show came to a close, much to the relief of Richard’s eardrums, and the models all returned to the stage with Fische to share in the applause.
“You know I used to model swimsuits for him in Miami when he was still Tony Fusco,” Cheryl said to the group at large.
“So you’ve said,” Marcia responded, at the same time as I said “No.” Lately I wasn’t sure how much to believe Cheryl’s stories. The one about the Italian underwear model in the hot-air balloon was somewhat plausible, but that business with the polo team sounded anatomically impossible. A cry for help, my sister would have called it, but she was a sophomore psychology student at NYU and thought it was a cry for help when I ate a foot-long hot dog at Gray’s Papaya.
Jendi Reiter is the author of the novel Two Natures (Saddle Road Press, forthcoming 2016) and four poetry books and chapbooks, most recently Bullies in Love (Little Red Tree Publishing, 2015). Awards include the 2011 James Knudsen Editor’s Prize in Fiction from Bayou Magazine, the 2011 OSA Enizagam Award for Fiction, second prize in the 2010 Iowa Review Awards for Fiction, and first prize in the 2008 Chapter One Promotions International Short Story Competition. Her stories have appeared in The Iowa Review, American Fiction, The Adirondack Review, Words + Images, and The Wordstock Ten Anthology, among others. She is the editor of WinningWriters.com, an online resource site for creative writers.
What inspired you to write this story?
There are many ways to answer that question—personal, political, literary—but your word “inspired” reminds me that it all started with the Holy Spirit. In 2006 I attended the Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing with a friend who was then my evangelical Bible study teacher and writing mentor. The keynote speaker on the last evening was Lutheran pastor and novelist Walter Wangerin Jr., whose books had taught me about God’s unconditional love when I was growing up.
Wangerin was battling cancer, so his address was charged with a special urgency to pass on the sacred gifts he’d been given. He spoke about the power of stories to bring order out of the chaos of our feelings, like God creating light from the formless void in Genesis. He said that a tale told truly from the heart could revive a despairing soul, like the ravens that fed Elijah in the wilderness.
This way of envisioning my vocation finally allowed me to break through my fear of not knowing how to write the “perfect” novel. God could still use my sincere, humble efforts. Though Two Natures bears little resemblance to that first page I wrote at 1:30 AM in a Grand Rapids motel room, my prophetic encounter at the Calvin College conference gave me the faith and openness to write with honesty and empathy about lives different from my own.
Is there a character you feel especially connected to?
After a decade of working together, Julian, my narrator, has become my alter ego and imaginary best friend. We have similar interests (Jesus, sex, and clothes) but are different enough that I gain wisdom from checking in with his perspective. Where I might over-intellectualize, he leads with his heart. Where I might be cautious or cynical about people, he is grateful when they exceed his low expectations.
What was the hardest part of writing this?
Losing the religious friends and community who couldn’t accept that a book about gay sex could honor God. Facing my fears that they are right about God’s judgment on my choices, which brought me new understanding of my family trauma history and how it’s impaired my ability to trust that divine attachment figure in the sky. Daring to believe that personal experience and my creative process have as much authority as the Bible to show me where the Holy Spirit is leading me.
Choose a favorite line or short passage. What do you like about it?
What had happened to us, to me, that there was nothing inside? We could even now be appearing in someone else’s tourist photos, two golden boys holding hands on the terrace, the perfect face of the White Party. I recalled the abstinence lectures that were forced on us in Sunday school: the two cardboard hearts pasted together and peeled apart and pasted together again, over and over, until they were tattered and smudged, as unattractive as we couldn’t bear to be. But wasn’t the heart made of muscle, didn’t muscles get stronger with use?
In this chapter, Julian and his first boyfriend are at a circuit party, and Julian is worried that they’re falling out of love. I like this because it reveals Julian’s core preoccupations as an artist and a lover: the tangled relationship between appearance and reality, the use of humor to deflect pain, and the conflict between Christian purity culture and his natural inclination to open his heart (and his zipper) again and again.
Tell us a little about any upcoming projects.
I’m working on the sequel, Origin Story. The main character is Peter, the man whom Julian loves and tries to win in Two Natures. (No spoilers—read it and see if he succeeds!) While working as a mentor in a transitional home for at-risk youth, Peter collaborates with a teenage bi-gendered artist on a gay superhero comic, whose themes start to parallel traumatic memories he’s unearthing. Peter’s controversial discoveries challenge Julian to confront beliefs he’s internalized from his Southern Baptist upbringing, such as the “ex-gay therapy” myth that homosexuality is a curable disorder caused by abuse. There will also be a lot of bondage scenes and pie.
What subjects would you never write about?
I would not write extended scenes of graphic violence—I don’t need those images in my head. I occasionally enjoy reading “hard SF” (science fiction that goes into great detail about physics or technology) if there are also fully developed characters in it, but I don’t have the technical background to write it. The only thing I remember about college physics class is the day our professor accidentally crashed through the classroom door on a golf cart during a demonstration on momentum.
Are there topics or issues you wish were more common in books?
In M/M and gay literary fiction, I would like to see protagonists with more diversity in terms of age, ethnicity, gender presentation, and body type. They don’t all have to be macho 20-somethings with WASP-y names and six-pack abs. Yes, it’s “fantasy”, but not everyone has the same fantasies! I’m interested in stories about being GLBT in a non-Christian religious context. In all fiction, we need more characters with disabilities and neurodiversity who have normal careers and sexual lives, as opposed to the usual “inspiration” or “too miserable to live” stories. (In other words, I want Heidi Cullinan to write 10 sequels to Carry the Ocean!) Lastly, I’m fed up with books that feature a trauma or child abuse storyline without a realistic portrayal of PTSD—both the complexity and long time horizon of recovery, and the fact that healing doesn’t have to culminate in reconciliation or forgiveness.
What is one subject you would really like to tackle in a story?
I spent seven difficult years trying to conceive and then adopt a child, and as John Goodman’s homicidal salesman says in Barton Fink, “I could tell you some stories.” But I need some more distance from those events before I can write fiction about them in a way that follows the characters’ needs, rather than my own need for catharsis. Perhaps Julian and his true love will try to become dads in one of the Two Natures sequels…
- What’s a charity/cause you support: Soulforce (http://www.soulforce.org/#!what-we-do/clm2) combats spiritual violence against LGBTQ people and other minorities through loving nonviolent resistance, and promotes theology that affirms the dignity of all people.
- What genre (other than your own) do you like to read: Poetry, queer theology, mystery novels, science fiction anthologies, comics/graphic novels, psychology and trauma studies.
- Do you have any body art: When I finished Two Natures, in October 2015, I treated myself to a lion tattoo on my left leg. It represents God’s love (Aslan from Narnia series) and my inner masculine power.
- In school, were you more academic, artsy, or athletic: In high school I was so academic that I wrote an 80-page paper on T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets for my own entertainment, over the summer.
- What’s your wake-up routine: Turn off alarm, snuggle husband, oversleep 15 minutes, check my daily Tarot card iPhone app (http://www.gaiantarot.com/shop/gaian-tarot-app/), get dressed and go “on duty” with my 4-year-old son.