Thom Vernon has crafted a wonderful and compelling novel that is both difficult to put down, and at times, emotionally painful to endure. Vernon hails from Arkansas, but currently lives in Toronto.
If this book is a marker for what is to come, queer fiction literature, as categorized by both Vernon and the publisher, will be much the richer. CanLit, that ever-nebulous field of writing, is also much the better for it.
The novel takes place in a small town in northeastern Arkansas and focuses on four characters. Julie is forty-six and an expectant mother who cannot stand the thought of being pregnant again. Charlie, her husband, does not want to help Julie cope with her complex emotions and is in the final days of an affair with his best friend, Wilson, a woman who works at the local Singer factory.
Charlie’s affections have become focused on a new subject, a pet calf. Wilson, if you’re still following, is no longer infatuated with Charlie, but is in love with her childhood friend, Dol. She is a trans parent of two who desperately wants to make the transition to female but can’t afford the financial costs of the transition.
Vernon has chosen to tell the story in the first person with each main character narrating the events that unfold over the course of one evening. The narrative unfolds chronologically with chapter headings detailing the character and the time at each chapter’s beginning. There are some temporal overlaps from chapter to chapter with several flashbacks skillfully interwoven into the larger story.
There is great intimacy in the way that Vernon crafts the novel – it is very easy to climb into the minds of each narrator. The entire novel has a feeling of claustrophobia, as the characters can never seem to avoid or escape each other. They cannot seem to find any space for privacy within the small, closely-knit town. This lends great effect to the dramatic events that unfold over the evening.
In this excerpt, Julie and Wilson discuss womanhood. Wilson took a pointed sip of her beer. ‘We’re right back where we started. You don’t think much of what a woman is.’
‘Oh no. I have the utmost – I know what it is. To be a woman. Getting. The equipment. That’s the nothing part of a woman, look at your … friend. He can do it in his bathroom. Nah, it’s the stuff your mama teaches you. How not to take up space. Look away when a boy gets a look at you. Spend every minute of every day of your life thinkin’ about how other people see you, every minute of every mucking day thinkin’ what somebody else needs, and when you get an extra minute to yourself, you can just think about how that’s affectin’ other people!’
At times, the book may prove to be challenging, and occasionally frustrating for some readers to follow. Vernon’s text is not meant to be skimmed, but should be savoured for its richness and depth. Charlie’s chapters are particularly interesting in that his white, straight, male privilege affords him the ability to communicate to the reader without punctuation and explicitly flout rules and customs that are oppressive to others in the novel.
Several of Vernon’s characters are flawed and unlikable in many ways, thus lending some stark realism to the novel. This rawness is a strength of the novel. One small criticism is that it comes to a quick close with little if any denouement. I am sure that Vernon will address this in his future writing and it does not seriously diminish the overall quality of the book.
While the themes of identity, gender, sexuality, infidelity, love, job loss, health care and animal rights are all explored in Vernon’s novel, there is never a sense that he is proselytizing. This book offers wide appeal and could serve as a gateway to readers who have never read a title from the genre of queer fiction.
Thom Vernon has written a fine first novel and I believe that many, if not most, of you will be moved or possibly even changed, at least in some small way, by its power.