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Lambda Book Report  
September
2001
     
  Chelsea Cowboys
  by Juliet Sarkessian
   
  Any Kind of Luck
  by William Jack Sibley
  Kensington Books
  ISBN 1575667665
  Hb $23.00, 288 pp.
   

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 Clu’s 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. Clu’s mother is disapproving of Clu’s homosexuality, while Clu’s sister is downright homophobic. Everyone else, though, from neighbors to old friends, to the preacher of a tent church, seems accepting of Clu’s 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, Clu’s 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 y’all, produced by a group of local eccentrics. A lot of the comedy in the book centers around Clu’s 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.

Clu’s mother’s 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, Clu’s 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. “We’ve always gone to the First Baptist church,” he insists, to which his mother responds, “I didn’t 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 child’s 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 child’s 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 Clu’s 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 can’t all be godly, churchgoing family men - who’d run the goddamn beer joints and whorehouses for the self-righteous sons of bitches?” Another unique and well-drawn character is Myla, one of Clu’s high school friends. During the course of a telephone conversation with Clu, Myla asks sweetly, “Who’s 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 you’re what - thirty-seven, you’ve never been married, you’ve hidden away from us all these years, you’ve kept your looks and your bod... and you’re 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 I’d have loved to sail to Tahiti and opened a titty bar - but I didn’t. I stayed.”

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 Clu’s 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 Chris’s 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 Sibley’s 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 IN 2002.

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© 2001 Lambda Literary Foundation
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