Novels in which the main character is a novelist can tend towards self-indulgence. And I say that as someone who’s published one (The Closer I Get, since you ask.)
American Scholar goes one step further, in that the title is itself a book within the book. It is, as the kids say, very meta. But there’s nothing portentous about Patrick E Horrigan’s new novel. It wears its scholarly qualities lightly. It’s deeply felt and powerfully moving, but quick on its feet and witty with it.
The story begins in 2016 with James at the launch party for his new book, wondering if his lover Francisco will make an appearance since they had another argument this morning. Then it’s back to the early 80s and a time of personal discovery, against a backdrop of songs by The Smiths and sexual anxieties around AIDS. Young Jimmy falls for Gregory, whose depressive nature makes Morrissey seem like a ray of sunshine.
There’s talk of ACT UP and HIV tests, of safe versus safer sex, monogamy versus sexual freedom. Characters debate the issues raised by Michael Bronski’s landmark book Culture Clash, the meaning of gay sensibility, queer politics and socialism. Not forgetting the all important life lessons contained in Joni Mitchell’s Hejira album.
The story moves back and forth between the near present and the distant past, both periods in which the right is on the rise, most recently in the figure of Donald Trump. James is now in a “monogamish” relationship with Fran, and also dating a much younger man. But memories of the past keep snapping at his heels.
As the story unfolds we begin to understand his sense of guilt and why he’s torn between the idea of starting a family and his need to be free. He’s like a character from Hejira, with a strange boy in his past and his eye on the road, the land and the sky.
American Scholar is a big, ambitious, beautifully written book. It struck so many chords, I began to wonder if the author had access to my personal diaries or memory bank. There were times when it brought my forthcoming memoir to mind, most notably in the chapters set during the 80s.
But that’s the power of great story telling. We see something of ourselves staring back at us.