Saturday, May 1, 2010

The River in Winter by Matt Dean

“WHO is now reading this?
May-be one is now reading this who knows some wrong-doing of my past life,
Or may-be a stranger is reading this who has secretly loved me,
Or may-be one who meets all my grand assumptions and egotisms with derision,
Or may-be one who is puzzled at me.”
-Walt Whitman *

In my quest to find books that rise above the ordinary and worth our precious reading time, I perused the list of nominations for this year’s Lambda Literary Awards. (They are given out on May 27th). Since 1989, the Lambda Literary Foundation has presented awards to “the finest lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans literature available in the United States.”

To be nominated as a finalist means that a book has gone through a rather rigorous examination process, in effect, those that make the finalist category, are considered to be among the best.

With that in mind, I looked at all of the works listed in the category of Best Gay Fiction, and chose
The River in Winter by Matt Dean (Queen’s English Productions, 2009). I did this for several reasons, but mostly because I was taken by the title and more so by the information I found on the author's web site

As I read this intriguing and very well written novel, I began to like it more and more. Matt Dean has a wonderfully fluid style. I also found that it was hard to put down, and I cared about what was going to happen next. This is a good thing.

The story is about a journey taken by the main character, whose name is Jonah, and it is a deeply personal and oftentimes anguishing one. He is a man filled with self loathing, sadness, and self doubt. He has lost his lover Tom, who apparently was a man so unhappy with his life that he drank himself to death. This appears to be the biggest wound in Jonah's life.

Having Jonah as the main character’s name had to mean that there should be some parallel to the biblical Jonah. Is it because the Jonah in The River in Winter eventually believes he is a sinner (because he is homosexua)l? Does he feel he is considered by others to be the Jonah who brings bad luck to those around him?, Or, is he “swallowed up” by the circumstances of his increasingly more miserable life, needing to have that life die in order to be transformed? The answer, my friends, is yours to discover.

Quite by accident, in the opening chapter of the book, as he is commencing yet one more journey on the river he loves, Jonah meets Spike, a man he does not know. This meeting results in a rather strong sexual encounter, and begins a relationship that encourages Jonah to seek a self he did not realize existed. He soon engages in a series of increasingly more dangerous physical and emotional encounters with others. In fact, he is driven to do so with practically every man he meets.

The next relationship that begins to take hold of him is with a man named Eliot, a counselor who immediately senses Jonah’s turmoil. He not only befriends him, but Eliot soon becomes the one person Jonah begins to trust above all others. Ah, but should he?

We always know how Jonah reacts to other men. Seemingly simple encounters in Jonah’s mind quickly turn into lustful fantasies. Handshakes are warmly felt, a body in close proximity generates heat that is felt and sexualized. Clothing conceals what is desired. In fact, we sometimes remember the other characters in the story more by Jonah’s carnal feelings for them than by their other attributes.

As the story moves forward, it becomes more and more obvious that Jonah desires and  needs to be forgiven for his “sins”, both real and imagined. He eventually discovers that perhaps what he needs most is for someone to take care of him, to love him without strings attached. Who will that be? Will it be the ex-porn star Spike or the seemingly compassionate counselor? Or will it be the one person Jonah falls in love with but cannot have? Or, pray tell, will it be himself?

One of the interesting aspects of The River in Winter is that music becomes an important through line, but not just any music. Special attention is given to the String Quartets of Beethoven, specifically the sixteenth, as well the Grosse Fugue, which was originally intended as the final  movement for quartet No. 13. We also discover that Jonah is musical, and has written music for poetry he has been collecting over the years. Eventually he sets out to add music to a set of poems written by a “friend” who was grieving the loss of his brother through Aids. . This is the friendship that eventually becomes the most significant one in the book, and it is fascinating how the author draws us into the hope of its consummation. (BTW, I would love to have heard this music, especially the one called f**k)

Not everything in this book is comfortable, nor is it meant to be. One of the more unsettling themes is the desire to subvert ones homosexual leanings through a belief in God and the power of prayer. Come to find out, the author had this conflict at some point in his life. Hopefully, he did not experience the same betrayal as Jonah did. It would be interesting to see how you feel about it, and its effect on the story line.

All in all, The River in Winter is a very satisfying read, and one that I feel will stay with you long after you turn the final page. Let’s put it another way, after The River in Winter, I am really looking forward to what comes next from Matt Dean.

Please let me know what you think about this book or about my commentary by writing me at .

Next week’s book is Songs Without Words, a new lesbian romance by Robbi McCoy.
Until then, I wish you a week filled with good reading.
Robert Jaquay,

* this quote is found at the beginning of The River in Winter and comes froms the Calamus section (#16) of Leaves of Grass

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