Brandy Wine - John Ahern
This gay Western romance goes down real easy. It brims with sights, sounds and scents of the wild frontier, covering a vast swatch of territory, from South Dakota to San Francisco, a time mid-19th C when huge buffalo herds yet roamed the Plains. Contemplate eating rancid badger or prairie dog on skewers; no grooming or bathing for months; trying to sleep, aware of hungry wolves hovering; months crossing difficult terrain, flats to mountains, enduring ferocious storms and debilitating thirst.
I looked up historical maps to trace the epic journey undertaken by partners, Brand and Henri. While I was at it I checked to see whether there really was a talented young writer sending tales of his travels to his editor back in Prairie La Crosse, and his beautiful part Native American companion. Sadly, no, they’re fictional creations. But I take that as the sign of a good book, characters so real you want them to exist in the flesh.
The opening of the novel is high impact. Brand, only 16, is callously thrown from a wagon and left, naked, battered and bleeding, by a stream, predators circling, catching scent of weakness and death. Luckily, nearby is half-breed Sioux Henri, who finds the boy and attends to his severe injuries, nursing him back to health.
The most captivating section covers the strangely idyllic time Brand and Henri spend entirely alone during harsh winter months when they take shelter to await return of easier conditions. The story loses something when action shifts from love nest to the West coast settlement by circumstances I won’t reveal.
Ahern stretches our faith in Brandy and his motivations. His way of showing how Brand grows and matures beyond the physical serves to make the ending more convincing. He’s only 18, and likeable for all his faults, so I made allowances while he sowed salutary wild oats. Brand is driven by vengeance, to hunt down snake oil salesman Thermoniculis, responsible for the attack that nearly killed him, while Henri sagely cautions not to live life full of hate that leaves no room for love.
The sex parts feature underplayed description that leaves you scratching your head trying to work out exactly who’s doing what, and if he really means what you think. Love scenes between Brand and Henri are erotic, intensified by their harsh environment so union provides warmth and companionship for survival as well as bodily release. There’s a slow build to their first time together as lovers that’s worth the wait.
Two very different men are bound together so undeniable mutual attraction causes friction. Henri accepts his own nature, while Brand doesn’t know what he wants, traumatised by an experience that leaves emotional scars. Henri is tender, considerate and amazingly patient. Brand hesitant, sorely wanting yet scared by his desire, until the enormity and emptiness of the land drives him to seek shelter in Henri’s arms, like a frightened animal. Henri represents his people, gentle, respectful of the land, taking only what he needs to survive. Brand bears the white face of intruders intent on ownership and usurpation, yet asks to be dominated. Henri faces suspicion and hostility from strangers, Brand easy acceptance wherever he goes. Can they find lasting love based on equality and racial harmony?
Speech patterns used for Henri, French speaking Native American, and Germaine, the mischievous dispatch runner who falls for Brand, add charm and colour. Beware racial slurs used to convey entrenched contemporary attitudes we find offensive.
Maybe this isn’t great literature, but, shoot, it doesn’t pretend to be. Realistic romance with a fascinating backdrop, where lovers struggle with inner conflict and external pressures threatening their relationship. I enjoyed it, and I think you will too, especially if you’re drawn to the history of the West and the men who made it..
The cover of this book has just the title and then the words “A Gay Western”. It set me to thinking about gay issues far more than I usually do. Normally I don’t read fiction for any other reason than I enjoy a great story. I read gay fiction because I find relationships between men more moving and more intense than between men and women. But by stating (admitting? boasting? warning?) that this is a gay western, it seems to me that John Ahern was nailing his colours to the door and challenging us with his revisionist history of the west. Do you know that feeling when you hear a new word for the first time, and then seem to hear it again and again in preceding days? That’s how I felt reading Brandy Wine. Suddenly all the books we’ve been reading have been telling us that we’ve been conned by historians, Hollywood, and anyone else who has peddled an old view of the west where young men and busty young virgin women forged a new life and settled down to heterosexual bliss.
For every one woman, there were thousands of young men—trappers, soldiers, explorers—opening up the west of America. Even if you take away the sexual connotations of the word, it was clearly a homosexual (single sex) world. And you just know that the sex wasn’t taken out. All those lonely trails? All that hard living and hard playing? It’s a truth of the settling of America that’s been totally revised by history. There are a few brave writers like Ahern, Iversen and Dakota showing us this truth, but their novels are often not even in print these days.
Brandy is the slightly effete, sheltered, sixteen year old son of a notorious prostitute, who takes the offer of travelling preacher to go with him to California. Brandy wants to be a writer and sees himself as a roving reporter, sending back the first accounts of the new world. On the trip, the preacher savagely rapes Brandy (his injuries are so appalling, internally and externally, that it takes him weeks to heal). Attempting to cover his crime, the man dumps Brandy unconscious and naked off the wagon, knowing he will die in the wilderness.
Brandy doesn’t die; he’s found by a half-breed trapper called Henri.
Brandy has only one thought in his mind: revenge. He pursues this revenge to the exception of all else, particularly Henri’s growing love for him.
Nature and living in the wild are beautifully described in this book. It’s lyrical in its descriptions of the land, and this sparse beauty of language extends into the depictions of the relationships in the book.
It’s quite frank in parts, and more openly “gay” than the Dakota series or Rezo Strange. Neither Dakota Taylor or Rezo really see themselves as different; they are hard men living in a hard land. Brandy, however, sees himself as a cut above the average, and chooses to wear outlandish, dandy clothes. I overlooked this flaw (he’s still so young, even at the end!) as the story is just captivating.
It’s a great companion to the other gay cowboy novels we’ve read. Highly recommended.
Brandy Wine by John Ahern Paperback (April 1989) Publisher: Knights P, US ISBN: 0915175290
Buy from Lambda Rising Booksellers in the States
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