To mix serious fiction with laugh out loud humor is a difficult
task, but William Jack Sibley has succeeded in doing just that
in his first novel, Any Kind of Luck. The story begins
in New York, when Clu, our protagonist, receives a late night
call from his brother saying that their mother, whom he has not
seen in six years, is dying of cancer. Clu and his long time lover
Chris decide to pull up roots in Manhattan, and move to Clus
tiny hometown of Grit, Texas to be with his mother until her death.
Needless to say, Clu is not savoring the prospect of returning
to his rural roots, or the small-minded attitudes he expects to
encounter. The situation is both better and worse than he expects.
Clus mother is disapproving of Clus homosexuality,
while Clus sister is downright homophobic. Everyone else,
though, from neighbors to old friends, to the preacher of a tent
church, seems accepting of Clus sexuality. Despite this,
Clu grows progressively more closeted and paranoid, causing a
strain on his relationship with Chris. Tensions are exacerbated
by the arrival of a hunky gardener who has his eyes on Chris.
At first, Clus mother remains able to care for herself,
leaving Clu with enough free time to be roped into directing a
modern, Texafied, version of Agamemnon called Agamemnon
yall, produced by a group of local eccentrics. A lot
of the comedy in the book centers around Clus difficulties
in getting actors to fill the roles, and a space to stage the
play. Chris is actively involved in the play, as is the flirtatious
gardener, and the growing chumminess between them leads to meltdown
of Clu and Chris relationship.
Clus mothers health begins to deteriorate, and eventually
she dies, although not before marrying the preacher of the tent
church, with whom she has fallen in love. The scenes between Clu
and his mother are superb. Sibley is one of the few writers capable
of capturing the peculiar half-child/half-adult persona grown
children take on with the parents. In an early scene, Clus
mother experiences a violent coughing spell. Clu is paralyzed
with fear. Once she gains her composure, Clu responds, Mother...
I think maybe... you know... that was kind of scary for me.
To which his mother replies, How do you think I feel?
Another telling exchange takes place when Clu becomes upset at
learning that his mother has switched churches. Weve
always gone to the First Baptist church, he insists, to
which his mother responds, I didnt realize you were
such a devoted follower.... What was the name of your Baptist
church in New York? Clu has to admit he does not go to any
church, although he lamely asserts that he listens to the Harlem
Baptist choir on Sunday morning radio. What Sibley conveys so
well in these exchanges is the adult childs need for his
parent to be a constant, unchanging presence, curator of the museum
of his childhood memories. What also comes through is the toll
this takes on the parent whose life is not circumscribed by their
childs occasional visits. It is only when Clu is able to
see his mother as a person with dreams at aspirations outside
of being his parent that he is able to make peace with her.
While Clus mother is the most memorable character in the
book, she is not the only one. Some of the secondary characters
are priceless, like the ninety-year old Texan who Sibley evocatively
describes as a vintage peckerwood. After telling a
hilarious story about a burlesque act he once saw, the man quips:
Hell, we cant all be godly, churchgoing family men
- whod run the goddamn beer joints and whorehouses for the
self-righteous sons of bitches? Another unique and well-drawn
character is Myla, one of Clus high school friends. During
the course of a telephone conversation with Clu, Myla asks sweetly,
Whos that pretty man you were with? He your boyfriend?
Clu expresses dismay at how easily she guessed his sexuality.
Her response is dead on:
I just figured youre what - thirty-seven, youve
never been married, youve hidden away from us all these
years, youve kept your looks and your bod... and youre
not pushing strollers through the mall. I mean, hey - it was
a wild guess on my part."
Later, when Clu says she did the right thing by staying
in Grit, she responds,
What you call the right thing was the only
thing we had available. What opinions did we have - robbing
banks and turning tricks? Jesus, maybe Id have loved to
sail to Tahiti and opened a titty bar - but I didnt. I
Despite strong characters and inspired dialog, Any Kind of
Luck does have its weaknesses. The premise is a bit forced
there is no reason why Clu and his lover have to quit their
jobs and abandon their rent-stabilized apartment in Manhattan
for what could turn out to be a brief sojourn. Another problem
is that the dissatisfaction Chris develops towards Clu after their
arrival in Texas is never adequately explained. While Chris complains
about Clus closetedness and the intensification of certain
unattractive aspects of his personality since his return home,
these temporary problems are not a serious enough threat to a
long-term relationship that surely has weathered worse storms.
Nevertheless, the scenes showing the deterioration of Clu and
Chriss relationship are painfully real, and devoid of melodrama.
Most importantly, the suspense as to the fate of the couple is
maintained to nearly the last page.
A more distracting problem is a series of lectures about gay
rights that turn up throughout the book. One of these is a four
page speech Chris gives to a church audience that covers everything
from its not a choice, to interpreting the bible,
to debunking the myth that gay people are child molesters. While
the speech is eloquent in places, it is far too long for the limited
dramatic purpose it serves. More importantly, the message Sibley
tries to convey is better expressed as pan of natural conversation.
He does this well in a scene in which Clu faces disapproval from
old friends when they learn that he and Chris met in a bathhouse.
Clu counters by pointing out that one of the straight couples
present met on a nude beach. To send the point home, this entire
conversation takes place in a hot tub where all the participants,
gay and straight, are naked. The message is all the more effective
for being subtly woven into the fabric of the story.
I am looking forward to Sibleys next effort, where hopefully
he will lose the polemics, and focus on his marvelous ability
to create believable characters facing trying situations with
dignity and humor.
JULIET SARKESSIAN'S FIRST NOVEL, TRIO SONATA,
CONCERNS AN UNCONVENTIONAL RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN A STRAIGHT WOMAN
AND A GAY MALE COUPLE. IT WILL BE PUBLISHED BY SOUTHERN TIER EDITIONS
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