Book cover

(This is a copy of a review posted on Goodreads.)

I wavered between assigning A Single Man four stars or the benediction of the full five, but I think it’s going to stick with me. It succeeded on so many levels that I had to give it my full endorsement. I may have just come to it at exactly the right time. I picked it up as a mood-setter in preparation for my trip to revisit our home in Baltimore 20 years after meeting my first partner and 17 years after his sudden death. I found that, at 42 and getting to know the aches and pains of middle age, I had many more connections with George than I expected. It brought home that I really am, slowly and surely, moving into elder statesman territory. A Single Man paints a deeply-moving picture of a day in the life of the newly-bereaved, but it also gives a rich tapestry of George’s experiences of aging, of friendship, of his relationship with his community and culture. Knowing in brief what it was about, I worried it would be a festival of post–50s angst over the repressive society and the isolation of the closet, and was glad to find it was hardly that at all. A great many of the people around him know he’s gay, and he suspects most of the others suspect. It’s barely an issue. His anger in that direction aims more at politicians and evangelists than any of his neighbors. He leads an open, fulfilling gay life, one which, from talking with friends who were in California in those days, I know is more accurate than what people today often imagine. The pain of his loneliness and disconnection isn’t rooted in a secret life as a gay man. It’s from his membership in the secret fraternity of men and women, gay and straight, who are walking day after day inside the death of their spouses, while everyone around them walks by obliviously, their lives still charging full-steam ahead. That’s much more realistic, and it brings George to life as a human being, not as a symbol of queerness.

That said, George gives a look at inner gay life which is happily undated 51 years later. I might suggest it to straight friends as an insightful entry point into the gay perspective on the world. His descriptions of postwar craziness were an interesting echo of stories from Coming Out Under Fire. They made me think of my own experiences and hope that the current mainstreaming and absorption of gay culture into the larger culture doesn’t completely rob the next generations of the excitement and fun aspects of being part of the tribe, of the sly grins and winks and inside jokes. I was especially struck by George’s relationships with women, which are emphasized to a surprising degree. I was concerned from the movie trailer that George would turn out to be bi or to experiment in the face of his loss, and was glad to find a more complicated scenario which rang truer to what I’ve known. George is absolutely sexually disinterested in women, which, as I can confirm, can raise its own set of tensions with those who won’t fully believe deep down that it’s entirely true. George’s attitudes towards women sometimes skirt the borders of misogyny, but more from “Why can’t we just be friends?” exasperation than actual dislike.

Something I found conspicuous in its absence was George’s circle of gay friends. Where were they? It’s impossible to imagine that after 15 years in Los Angeles, George and Jim hadn’t cultivated a queer social circle.

A book which follows a single character rises or falls on that character, and I found George complicated, compelling, and convincing. He’s filled, at times, with ugly emotions, but recognizes them for what they are and where they come from, and tries to do his best. The relationship of George and Jim is drawn in small, masterful touches. It’s great and terrible and far from perfect, and ultimately as loving and fulfilling as any marriage. Weaving in and out are all the tropes of the “Mad Men” era, from conformism to suburbia to the bomb, giving roots of time and place to what’s really a timeless story.

I’d recommend this to anyone, both as a doorway into understanding what it is to live with grief and what it is to be gay. One caveat is that it’s quite sexually explicit at moments, but those passages are a very small part of the text — just be forewarned that they are there. I listened to the audiobook narrated by Simon Prebble, who was fantastic, as always.

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