Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Read of a Decade - for this writer!

(This review appears at the GLBT Bookshelf:

A Review of Purgatory by Jeff Mann
Genre: Literary Fiction
Edition: Kindle, Published by Bear Bones Books, Inc. 2012 
Widely available in EBook and Print editions.

A five-star review should be hard-earned, in order for it to carry weight. A really brilliant piece of literature displays the writer’s ability to perform a few acrobatic feats – this requires a real understanding of the technical aspects of writing. If a writer can do this, and do it in a unique fashion, the book will be inspiring, not merely a good read. With “Purgatory”, Jeff Mann has offered up a gourmet feast of a book for the discerning reader, the hopeful historian, the language-loving fellow writer, and certainly for this picky reviewer.

“Purgatory” is a story of and within the worst campaigns of the Civil War. It is a literary novel in the true sense, not a romance – the romance in the book, while central to the story and consistently engaging, is only a tool by which the author discusses deeper meaning about the human experience. The bloodiest battles of the Civil War took place in and around the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia: in 1862, during the early years of the war, southern general Stonewall Jackson waged a successful campaign to turn away Union invaders to the traditionally southern enclave, observing “If this Valley is lost, Virginia is lost.” But shortly after, the tide began to turn as first the north-western section of Virginia split off in 1863 (later to be called “West Virginia”) in order to disassociate itself from the Confederacy, and the North realized that the Shenandoah Valley was a major source of food supplies to General Lee’s troops. The campaign the North waged in late 1864 that burned, ravaged and destroyed the Valley, turned the tide of the war for good and sealed the fate of the Confederacy. Jeff Mann’s insightful, moving story tells the story of the hearts of the men who watched their farms and fields burn and their heritage disappear into ashes. These are poor soldiers, trudging almost blindly from one corner of the Valley to another, both fearing and anticipating encountering the enemy, subsisting on meager supplies and often little to no food (while Northern troops are federally supplied and eat well).

Young Ian, a farmer from the mountains of northern West Virginia, has watched the North invade and pillage his home and that of his relatives, for three years and for political reasons he hardly grasps. As the war nears its closing weeks – a fact of which he is of course unaware, as all they are – he finds himself still a soldier and weary of destruction and killing, beyond homesick. His commanding officer – his uncle Sarge – is equally weary and bitter to boot: as is the case with many of the straggling remaining soldiers of a once large company, his farm was burned, livestock shot, wife murdered. He nurses his anger by periodically capturing a Yankee soldier and torturing him slowly to death. Ian is routinely given the exalted position of nursing the victim, just enough to keep him alive for more torture - until either Sarge gets bored and kills him with his bare hands, or the man dies of starvation, his injuries, or exposure. Sarge means to “toughen up” his gentle, book-loving nephew by forcing his compliance in the torture and murder, but the challenge is even greater for Ian than Sarge knows: Ian is sexually attracted to men, and has found himself more than once attracted to a prisoner that was later killed. As the book begins, the nightmare is repeating itself once again: the newest prisoner, a young Yankee from Pennsylvania, quickly inspires the deepest of desires and emotions in Ian, and this time Ian is not willing to lose the battle of wills he will inevitably wage with Sarge and his cohorts.

As the days crawl by and the torture increases in its cruelty, as it becomes more and more difficult for Ian to heal Drew’s wounds and save his life, Ian realizes that the principles that once fueled his devotion to the Confederate cause are dimming: he will risk his own life and turn his back on his friends and culture, in order to save his lover and build a life for them – a chance at a life where two men can touch one another as they do in the stories of The Iliad and in Walt Whitman’s poems. These works of literature are the thing that Ian, and through him Drew, clings to as evidence that he is not some freak in the world – where terms like “gay” are not available. The author invites the reader into a world before mass media, where one’s circle of acquaintances was small, where religious tolerance was limited, where it was easy to think you were the “only one”, a freak of nature, God’s joke. The painful isolation these men feel screams from the pages time and again, and is heartbreaking.

Jeff Mann is a writer’s writer: he was first a poet, and it shows. The book is relayed in a first person, present tense narrative mode – something little attempted in modern literature, and terribly effective when so expertly done. It lends a sense of immediacy and intimacy that, combined with the author’s extensive use of historical detail, pulls the reader into the filthy, tired, poverty-stricken last days of a too-long war. Mann’s command of language is complete: it is luxurious but never overly-sentimental. A description of the climax of their first sexual contact:

"His thighs stiffen, his hands grip the back of my head, he heaves against my face, and my mouth floods with the milk of him, surge after surge I gulp down. He tastes like sarvis berries, marigold petals, prayer. If prayers were solids, not sounds, this is what God would taste, what God would learn to crave.”

Two metaphors are central to the story: the first is made up of religious imagery. Many times, Drew is described in Christ-like terms, as an innocent (despite his crimes as a Northern soldier against the Valley), as a wounded martyr to the fury of war-weary soldiers. As Drew trudges along shackled and tied to a cart, increasingly weakened by his torture, increasingly humiliated and demoralized, at one point forced to carry a log upon his shoulders like a cross, he is described as marching toward Calvary (the place of crucifixion) and fed hope by Ian that if only he can will himself to survive until they reach Mount Purgatory (Purgatory being the Christian symbol of second chances, of redemption from sin) they will run for freedom. These Christian images are particularly interesting because Ian has long-since ceased to believe in the faith of his childhood, and also because Christianity is used by Sarge and his thugs to justify torture and hatred, and disgust at “sodomites” – which is of course what Ian knows he is.

A second, and even more interesting metaphor has to do with mythology and the image of the Greek or Roman warrior, held in bonds, bleeding, yet physically perfect and still strong at heart. Tangled with this imagery is Ian’s sexual arousal at seeing his love object tortured: Ian is a small, wiry man (although given to fits of ferocity in battle), and wrestles with a part of himself that enjoys the power he feels at seeing a large, handsome, strong warrior of a man broken. His continuous fight with himself throughout the book to reconcile his love of Drew with his desire to see him tortured, parallels the human desire to see a stronger individual lose to oneself and the seldom admitted-to and common sexual link. The book has been described as an exercise in BDSM: but that cheapens its message. The torture in this book is non-consentual, and as it increases, the turn-on Ian feels decreases. At some point he recognizes it as just plain brutality and he wants it to end: he is in fact human not only in his demons, but in his compassion. The message is universal to us all.

At the book’s poignant end, as the two lovers discuss whether anyone will remember them and how they lived and fought, Drew imagines a near-unimagined future of tolerance:

“No, I mean the men who come.” Drew swallows hard, resting the butt of his rifle on the rock beneath us, “Who will come to be born. Men like us. Men who, well, touch one another like you and I touch. Like in the Whitman poems you read me. Like in The Iliad. It’s a comfort thinking that they are there, somewhere. That they might be there, long after we’re gone, they’re thinking of us. Looking back for us. From some more fortunate place.”

Ultimately, “Purgatory”, like the best of books, is about all of us – about the demons within ourselves of which we are ashamed, about loneliness and the terror of isolation, about a world that often presents unimaginable cruelties and how we each must decide how brave we are going to be – and what we will give up for the freedom to love.

- LC 

Read my interview with Jeff Mann for The GLBT Bookshelf! 

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