"Everybody else had a childhood, for one thing--where they were coaxed and coached and taught all the shorthand. Or that's how it seemed to me, eavesdropping my way through twenty-five years, filling in the stories of straight men's lives. ... Until I was 25, I was the only man I knew who had no story at all. I'd long accepted the fact that nothing had ever happened to me and nothing ever would. That's how the closet feels, once you've made your nest in it and learned to call it home. Self-pity becomes your oxygen."
So writes Paul Monette in Becoming a Man, his monumental 1992 memoir of growing up gay and closeted in the 1960s in New England. His is the story of living in the shadows, of denying half his identity, of living a lie out of a pervasive fear that he'd be found out. That's what Monette suffered through, and that's exactly what Daniel Edgecombe endures in Michael Parker's new novel Virginia Lovers, a bold and troubling story of hatred and self-deception, of familial disintegration and senseless brutality. In the end, though, Parker's story is also one of love, trust, sacrifice, self-discovery and some measure of redemptive healing.
Set in 1975 in the rural backwater of Trent, N.C., a town that "was unanimously acknowledged as one sorry excuse of a place to grow up," Parker's novel tells the story of the Edgecombe family. Thomas, the father, is editor of the Daily Advance and husband to Caroline, who works at the local social services office. Their marriage has become one of convenience and shared recrimination, for neither of them really knows what to do to help their two sons navigate the vastly different but equally treacherous waters of their lives.
Daniel is the paragon of perfection and pursuer of the prestigious "Carmichael Scholarship" who struggles with his sexual identity while trying to figure out why he's so driven (something his father believes is a good thing, his mother not), and biding his time until he can escape the stultifying confines of Trent. Pete, the younger son, has slid down the slippery slope from a "curious and introspective kid who dreamed his life so vibrantly that even his parents thought of him as somewhat ethereal" to the misunderstood, dissolute, apathetic, pot-smoking wastrel we find as the novel opens. He is a constant source of concern to his parents and the cause of most of the conflict in the family. However, it is the murder of Brandon Pierce, a troubled, flamboyantly gay high school friend of Daniel's, which sets in motion a series of tragic but ultimately cathartic events that lead to the revelations and self-discoveries necessary for the family to heal.
Though he sometimes paints the inner workings of his characters with an uneven brush or supplies interpretations that a subtler hand would have left to the reader's imagination, Parker's storytelling is nonetheless true, resonant and direct. He tackles some of the most pressing issues of teenage life in the 1970s, and today, with a sensitivity and passion born of experience. His descriptions of rural, small-town North Carolina, from the "porch-sitters" who eyeball the long-haired pot-smokers to the Glam-A-Rama, "the southern point of a paved triangle that drew half the county's teenagers into a tedious but perpetual orbit," are filled with the specific and intimate details of one who has lived there.
This important story has to be told--over and over again--so that teenagers of today like Paul Monette, Brandon and Daniel won't have to live in the suffocating nest of the closet. Instead, they will be able to live as their heterosexual classmates live--open and in the light of day, free from the prejudices that plague and marginalize them.
Michael Parker will read from Virginia Lovers on Thursday, June 3 at 7 p.m., at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham. 286-2700 for details.