About the Book
Publisher: Sense Publishers
Author: J.E. Sumerau
Length: 250 pages
Release Date: 1/17/17
Imagine the terror and exhilaration of a first sexual experience in a church where you could be caught at any moment. In Cigarettes & Wine, this is where we meet an unnamed teenage narrator in a small southern town trying to make sense of their own bisexuality, gender variance, and emerging adulthood. When our narrator leaves the church, we watch their teen years unfold alongside one first love wrestling with his own sexuality and his desire for a relationship with God, and another first love seeking to find herself as she moves away from town. Through the narrator’s eyes, we also encounter a newly arrived neighbor who appears to be an all American boy, but has secrets and pain hidden behind his charming smile and athletic ability, and their oldest friend who is on the verge of romantic, artistic, and sexual transformations of her own. Along the way, these friends confront questions about gender and sexuality, violence and substance abuse, and the intricacies of love and selfhood in the shadow of churches, families, and a small southern town in the 1990’s. Alongside academic and media portrayals that generally only acknowledge binary sexual and gender options, Cigarettes & Wine offers an illustration of non-binary sexual and gender experience, and provides a first person view of the ways the people, places, and narratives we encounter shape who we become. While fictional, Cigarettes & Wineis loosely grounded in hundreds of formal and informal interviews with LGBTQ people in the south as well as years of research into intersections of sexualities, gender, religion, and health. Cigarettes & Wine can be read purely for pleasure or used as supplemental reading in a variety of courses in sexualities, gender, relationships, families, religion, the life course, narratives, the American south, identities, culture, intersectionality, and arts-based research.
Purchase on Amazon: http://a.co/5bsI4v2
Book website: https://jsumerau.com/cigarettes-wine/
This is the fourth or fifth book I’ve read in less than a year set in the 1990s, and I still have two more ahead. A lot of late Gen X-ers are writing about our own coming of age years, perhaps feeling the pull of our age and the need to tell our stories, to connect our parents’ generation with our children’s. These were the books I needed as an introverted, confused adolescent struggling to see myself in mainstream fiction. The characters are the people I longed to know but was afraid to find. Although this book, and others like it, are written for teens and new adults, they are also written for us. They are for the youths we were, growing up just after the awakening of Gay Liberation but being raised under the looming presence of the Religious Right.
In Cigarettes and Wine, the main character is never named. The novel has a memoir-like feel to it, and we’re treated not only to the narrative of their young adult years but also their philosophical musings about the experiences. Sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, it is an absorbing read and an eye-opening look at small-town Southern life during that era.
This is not a romance, but there are many kinds of love contained in the story. The narrator has more than one romantic love, but they also have strong bonds with many friends. On page, many people come in and out of their life. Some remain to become lifelong friends; others drift away. There is a brief part where the narrator ponders how incorrect we can sometimes be about the importance of someone we meet. I think this is almost the overall tone of the whole story, discovering who the important people are.
There were many things that I found myself nodding along to, experiences the narrator details which match my own. But emotionally, I actually related most to their years-long boyfriend, Jordan. Although first-person narration leans toward the unreliable, I found the main character to be refreshingly honest about their feelings toward the other characters. Whether these were close friends, lovers, or people they disliked, all were drawn as fully human, whole people rather than the narrator’s caricatures of them.
One thing which surprised me was not to see any mention of HIV/AIDS at all. I’m not sure if this is a function of the narrator’s relatively sheltered upbringing, and it isn’t something to be criticized. It’s only notable because there are other key events of the 1990s which do come up, including Matthew Shepard’s death. In all other ways, so much of that era will resonate for anyone who lived it, and it will be interesting to see how young adults coming of age now perceive the climate of twenty years ago.
In true literary fashion, there is a lot of foreshadowing for the last quarter of the book. I had a feeling I knew where the story was going from fairly early on, but that did not detract from my enjoyment. Instead, it helped me both to see the rich history of my near-age-peers and to view the story as metaphor. This is a classic example of the shattering of innocence and the often painful slide into adulthood, especially for those of us who were not fully accepted or integrated within our churches, schools, or communities.
While I am now at a stage where I prefer happy or hopeful endings to ambiguous or tragic ones, I still found so much to enjoy and appreciate here. This is a highly skillful story which I hope is widely read. Ideally, adults who lived through this era would have the chance to read and talk about it with today’s young people. Even now, many lgbtq+ youth are almost forced to raise themselves with far less guidance than straight kids. A book like this, and the stories contained in it, could bridge the age gap and help us to understand one another.
For a solid story, a book full of wise words, and characters who stick with you beyond the end, this gets 10/10 fountain pens.
About the Author
J.E. Sumerau, PhD is an assistant professor of Sociology, a novelist, a public sociologist, and the director of Applied Sociology at the University of Tampa. Ze holds a PhD in sociology from Florida State University (2012). A proponent of arts based and mixed methodological research, teaching, and activism, ze has published over 50 articles, book chapters, and essays concerning intersections of sexualities, gender, religion, and health in academic journals, edited volumes, and public blog formats. Ze regularly writes about issues related to life in the academy, bisexual and transgender experience, and the social and educational aspects music at Write Where It Hurts (writewhereithurts.net), Conditionally Accepted (conditionallyaccepted.com), Insider Higher Ed (insidehighered.com/users/conditionally-accepted), and the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction Music blog (sssimusic.wordpress.com). In 2016, ze received the Early Career Gender Scholar Award from Sociologists for Women in Society South. For more information, please visit jsumerau.com or follow zir on twitter @jsumerau and @writewherehurts. –This text refers to the Hardcover edition.