Back Where He Started - Jay Quinn

Ladymol's Review

Jay Quinn’s first novel, Metes and Bounds, still remains one of my favourites, so this book came with enormous expectations that I really didn’t think could be fulfilled. I was wrong. This book not only blew me away as I read it, it left a lasting impression that has puzzled and challenged me.

We all have preferences in books, and mine tend to be men who, for all intents and purposes, could be straight, only they prefer to love and bed men. So, when Chris, the main character in this book, was called Mom by his “stepson”, I almost took the decision to stop reading. I just felt it wasn’t going to be for me. How wrong I would have been.

Chris meets Zack when he is 22 and Zack 10 years older, and very quickly he falls in love with the enigmatic stranger. Only when he’s invited home for the first time does he discover Zach’s mystery: he’s the widowed father of three children under 5 and he has chosen Chris to raise his children. Over the next 22 years, Chris becomes Zach’s “wife” and the children’s “mother”, having no life outside the exquisite and expensive home he creates for this family he is devoted to. It is unfortunate that our language has no ability to encompass changes that are happening in society. There is no description in our language for Chris’s relationship to the house or the children except for wife and mother, and I do understand why Quinn uses them. However, they’re still a major problem for me. Being a mother isn’t a nurture thing; after all, some mothers abuse and kill their children. To me, a mother is simply a gender thing—the female that raises children. A man, therefore, cannot be a mother, and to my mind it denigrates the very caring, nurturing nature of some men to give them this label. (I also find it very hard to believe that either man, Chris or Zach, would encourage or allow their children to refer to Chris as their mom, given the hard time they will have at school without that added confusion).

After 22 years, with his youngest just off his hands, Chris is given his marching orders by Zach in a particularly brutal way. Zach has met and impregnated a young female colleague, and Chris’s lack of formal status now rebounds upon him. However, the older son, Trey, forces his father to be generous, and with a hefty annuity, Chris moves to the banks of the North Carolina coast to start a new life.

And it’s here that the book took on a life of its own for me. I lived and breathed Chris’s coming back to life and into a sense of himself as a separate person to Zach and the family. I suppose his story is the story of all 40-somethings who have had to leave one life and face another quite different. Of course, Chris is cushioned by money; he’s not forced to take a job that will destroy his soul. Step by tentative step he begins to make decisions for himself as Chris and not as the kids’ “mom” or Zach’s “wife”. The setting on the North Carolina coast is beautifully depicted and just as in Metes and Bounds, you can actually taste the salt on your tongue as you read, feel the sand under your feet.

Chris’s characterisation is an absolute triumph by an amazing writer. Wrestling with these definitions of gender, Quinn manages makes Chris an appealing man. Described by others as beautiful, Chris seems to attract men to him who need the empathy and love he can give them, whilst still remaining a man. And of course, he does meet someone new, and his blossoming relationship with this man is so beautifully described, so erotic, so scary in its intensity that I spent the entire book on tenterhooks unable to believe that Chris could be so blessed.

And I use the term blessed deliberately. A very moving part of the story is Chris’s relationship with his church. He’s a devout Catholic and Quinn makes this book a moving testimony to how easily the churches could embrace people of all persuasions if only they had the true grace of God in their heats. I must be sounding a bit gushy by now, but honestly, this novel made me feel that way. Reading it was like sitting in front of a roaring log fire with your perfect children around you on Christmas Eve. It brought the spirit of God into me as I read.

This book is quite unique. If only the world could catch up to the message of love and redemption it offers.

The perfect read. Do not miss it.


Cerisaye's Review

Gay marriage is a hot topic.  Novels like Andy Barriger’s Faith series celebrate monogamous gay partnerships as near marriage as it gets where impossible in law.  Many gay people want to raise families like straight couples have always been able to do.  There is NO reason they shouldn’t be allowed one of life’s most rewarding endeavours, if that’s what they want. 

However the corollary to marriage is divorce, which gets messy, gay or straight.  This is the background to one of the most remarkable books we’ve read, perhaps the one I’ve found easiest to identify with because it’s set in MY world, predominantly domestic and family orientated. 

There’s a similarity about many gay themed novels, rightly tackling common issues dealing with coming out, self-acceptance, finding love, homophobia and rejection, etc.  Quinn opens new territory and blew me away.  I loved the novel.  Essential reading if you’re at all interested in contemporary gay life.  Even better a fine romance, beautifully written and sexy. 

It feels real.  Though set in the cosy milieu of the comfortably off, no post-marriage poverty that’s the usual lot of (primarily) women abandoned and left with woefully inadequate support payments and big gaps in the resumé . 

Chris Thayer, 48, has been married to Zack, 10 years older, a high-flying executive type, for 22 years.  Zack, widowed when his first wife committed suicide, had little time or inclination for nurturing youngsters so Chris had full responsibility for their upbringing and making a home: a traditional nuclear family in every way, except one.

Chris, by his own admission poor white trash from the Projects, has got used to the comfortable lifestyle, even if the spark left the marriage years before.   Zack is ‘situationally homosexual’ is how Chris shrewdly describes his ex, which makes sense to me.  He has thrown it all into the trash and replaced Chris with a career woman expecting their child.

Chris is a survivor.  Though initially he comes over a queenish bitch who values style over substance, as we get to know him we realise that’s not who he is at all. The proof is three well-adjusted children who stay loyal.  And he’s a dog man!  Banker Trey the eldest gets Chris a very good settlement.  He must find a job but can afford to take one that indulges his slacker lack of ambition, content to float along reading and thinking (yeah, I’m there). 

The novel takes us through the year following the break-up as Chris rediscovers his individual identity freed from the (willingly worn) shackles of marriage & family.  Any mother will see herself reflected in Chris, the way we give up the ‘me’ when we have children, putting our needs and often those of our husbands second.  Many marriages drift apart under the strain, if the husband feels jealous that the focus is no longer on him, just like Zack.  That Chris is a gay man is completely irrelevant.

What the book does best is redefine the very nature of motherhood.  I admit at first it was weird to hear Chris called ‘Mom’, but THAT’S exactly what he was- and is- to Zack’s brood, his life’s work- and quite the success he’s made!  Chris doesn’t regret those years, though he’s hurt and angry about Zack’s betrayal, that what he expected to see out his days was nothing but a pretty dream.  Now he wants to live his own life and though it’s hard he gets on with it- made easier by having a gorgeous home by the beach and pretty things bought on Zack’s credit card.

Chris dallies with sexy vet Heath, but it’s just sex.  Heath passes Chris on to gruff local fisherman Steve, 38, not who you’d expect Chris to make a connection with.  Their slow romance is the novel’s other highlight, two men who’ve experienced heartache finding love in middle-age.  No-nonsense Steve wants all of Chris, but Chris enjoys his freedom and isn’t sure he wants to risk rejection again, not now his life is taking a new exciting direction.  Will they/won’t they work it out?  What about local reaction to the idea of two men together, especially Steve’s extended family, in a traditional community in North Carolina’s Outer Banks?  It’s by no means certain they’ll overcome their difficulties; but oh boy the sex is good (hurray for lusty older men!) and WE know they’re made to be together. 

Chris continues to play an active role in Zack’s family, particularly with ‘baby’ Schooner, jealous of Steve’s role in his Mom’s’ life, seeing Chris for the first time as a sexual being, and making his own way in love.  They all cling to Chris because he has a mother’s knack of making those around him happy and secure, wrapped in the warmth of love.  Can Steve work his own magic and heal Chris’ wounds, making him believe again in lasting love? 

Quinn shows beautifully how marriage whether gay or straight isn’t about pieces of paper and elaborate wedding celebrations.  It’s knitting together two people, two halves of a whole but with seams left showing so neither feels owned by the other.  I felt the tension so bad I HAD to peek at the end to know its romantic outcome- I’ve been burned too often.  I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the novel’s religious element- Chris is a devout Catholic- and some things are resolved rather easily (a convenient hurricane for e.g.), but quibbles didn’t matter. 

The book’s final image is SO amazing you will NEVER forget. If you read only one title from many here, this would be an excellent choice.