Ben C. reviews the short story collection The Abominable Gayman

3.15.11 | | 5 comments

Wm says: Ben Christensen was kind enough to submit this review, which takes a look at another entry in the interesting sub-genre of “Mormon literature that is also gay literature.” And what’s really interesting is that he does so by comparing it to John Bennion’s novel Falling Toward Heaven, which is about sexuality, but that of the hetero- variety.

Ben Christensen used to blog at the Fobcave. Now he lurks on other people’s blogs. And submits the occasional guest post, apparently.

Title: The Abominable Gayman
Author: Johnny Townsend

Reviewed by Ben Christensen

Note: Ben received a free review copy of this book from the author.

“I used to think,” says Elder Anderson, the narrator and protagonist of The Abominable Gayman, “that the goal of perfection meant we all had to become the same, but here in Italy, I’d seen new flowers, tasted different foods, spoken a different language, and I realized that the best, most perfect rose could never inspire the exact same feelings as a perfect hedge of five-pointed star jasmine.” Elder Anderson, you see, is a gay Mormon serving a mission in Rome, and is only starting to consider the possibility that perhaps becoming straight is not a necessary step on his path to perfection. In the process of figuring out where this collection of short stories fits in gay Mormon literature—whether nearer Jonathan Langford’s No Going Back or Tony Kushner’s Angels in America—I realized it doesn’t necessarily fit among other gay Mormon-themed literature. But it is definitely Mormon literature. The most appropriate comparison, I believe, is to John Bennion’s Falling Toward Heaven. Both Falling and Gayman tell the story of a young man who, by normal Mormon standards, is doing everything wrong, yet somehow finds himself stumbling into a better understanding of himself and a closer relationship with God.

Another commonality Bennion’s and Townsend’s works have is in their themes of love and sex. Falling Toward Heaven starts with Elder Howard Rockwood breaking one of the biggest taboos a missionary can break: before going home, he has sex with a woman he had met in one of his areas. Presumably no relationship founded in such sin could become more than that—at least that’s what Howard’s family seems to think—but Howard and Allison’s initial sexual encounter develops into an enduring relationship. Elder Anderson, on the other hand, doesn’t ever break that rule, but he does spend much of his time obsessing about sex. He fantasizes about men constantly, and hates himself for it. At one point he compares himself to a married man who had asked him for a blowjob: “Did I want to lead a pitiful, shameful life like Brother Mangiapia did, propositioning strangers in a dusty, dark room?” For Elder Anderson, homosexuality is filthy and disgusting, clandestine encounters and illicit affairs. Later, when Anderson meets a gay couple, he realizes there can be more: “These men apparently had talking, friendship, and sex.” Both Elder Rockwood and Elder Anderson gain a complete picture of love only after they get beyond the taboo of sex.

Some of the strongest segments of Falling Toward Heaven are those in which the roaming third-person narrator hovers over Allison. Bennion switches between the male and female points of view flawlessly, developing a fuller representation of the relationship between Allison and Howard. In The Abominable Gayman, Townsend sticks with a single first-person narrator, but nonetheless the strongest parts are those in which Elder Anderson gets outside of his own head and speculates on the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of those around him. One story in particular, “A Wife of Whoredoms,” stands out as one in which the narrator moves beyond self-pity and obsession with his own concerns to consider others. The story focuses on his relationships with sister missionaries and female members of the branch he’s serving in, and throughout he ponders the idea of marrying heterosexually.  He thinks of Sister De Feo, and how if he had to marry a woman, she wouldn’t be a bad choice. Then he stops himself: “‘Had to marry,’ I thought with a shudder. What an insult to any woman to phrase it like that.” In this moment of clarity, Elder Anderson thinks beyond what he needs to do to save his own soul, to how such actions would affect others. If only all twenty-year-old men showed such maturity.

John Bennion once told me his theory on why the television series The Simpsons is so successful: not just because of its hard-edged humor, but because of its sweet aftertaste. Each episode ends on a sweet note, with the family back together and things as they should be. Bennion follows this model inFalling Toward Heaven, putting his characters through hell and then ending at a nice spot, Howard and Allison cuddled up and pondering their future. The Abominable Gayman also follows this model, perhaps to an extreme. Speaking of his struggles as a gay Mormon missionary, Elder Anderson says at one point, “The constant awareness of my completely alien nature was like a continual oppressive weight, suffocating me.” This is an apt description of the first ten stories of the book. Honestly, there are moments that are painful to read, steeped as we become in Elder Anderson’s self-hatred and the constant onslaught of homophobia from his fellow missionaries. In the second half of the book, though, Anderson slowly emerges from the muck of self-pity. He has a companion who genuinely loves him, and before long he begins to love himself. The final story, “Transfer Cookies,” ends just like Falling Toward Heaven or an episode of The Simpsons—on a sweet note. The sense of relief as Anderson comes to terms with himself and with God makes the tension of the earlier stories worth it. And if that isn’t the pinnacle of Mormon literature, I don’t know what is: Without knowing misery, Elder Anderson wouldn’t know joy. And so Elder Anderson fell, that Elder Anderson might be, and Elder Anderson is, that he might have joy.

Publisher: Booklocker.com, Inc.
Genre: Collection of Short Stories
Year Published: 2010 (many stories collected therein were previously published between 1991 and 2009)
Number of Pages: vii; 409
Binding: Trade Paperback
ISBN13: 978-1-60910-118-3
Price: $18.95
Available from BookLocker.com and other sources.

Thanks, Ben!

5 comments: “Ben C. reviews the short story collection The Abominable Gayman

  1. Wm Morris

    Total side note, but I completely agree with you, Ben, about the “hovering on Allison” bits being some of the strongest and most interesting parts of Falling Toward Heaven.

  2. Titus

    Wm says: yeah, I should have expected this but let me make this clear — I’m going to have a tight rein on this discussion. Please keep things focused on literary discussion rather than personal or doctrinal discussion. There are plenty of other places on the web to debate the church’s stance on homosexuality. I don’t care if someone is for, against or what.

    I should add that no one should read in to this editorial comment my own personal views. I would do (and have done) the same thing whether the subject was immigration or Brandon Davies or whatever liberal or conservative or libertarian or socialist etc. blah, blah, blah. Thanks, everybody.

  3. Jonathan Langford

    A good review. It puts this book higher on my to-read list (which sadly is glacially slow-moving…)

  4. Jonathan Langford

    I should also add that I applaud the notion of comparing this to other non-gay-themed pieces of Mormon literature. I’d like it if we could reach the point where being gay was *not* the automatic headline characteristic for a character in Mormon fiction, but rather simply part of a complex of elements that helped to constitute a character in the specific circumstances of the story. In other words, not all fiction featuring gay Mormon characters should necessarily be about their gayness, odd though it may seem for me of all people to say it.

  5. Jonathan Langford

    Okay, another comment:

    I was looking at the title of this post, and realizing that the stories Ben describes don’t fit my expectations from the collection title. To me, “The Abominable Gayman” sounds, well, camp. Or at least flippant and superficial. But that’s not the impression I get from Ben’s review (or from Townsend’s writing that I’ve read in the past). I’d welcome other people’s thoughts on this, though. I’m quite willing to discount my opinions about titles, covers, etc., as uninformed at best and quite possibly simply wrong, or at least idiosyncratically different from those of other readers.

    By the way, this collection and Johnny Townsend’s other works are available from his website, http://johnnytownsend.com/index.php.

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