Jack of Hearts - Joseph Hansen
I read this one right after Hansenís other book, Backtrack. Itís set earlier than that one, this time in 1941. The date is critical, because this is a depiction of an America that was soon to disappear forever after Pearl Harbour.
The hero of the story is Nathan, seventeen. Only child of elderly, rather eccentric parents, Nathan wants to be a writer. The book opens with him tentatively approaching his college newspaperís offices with some stories heís written. The novel ends only a few months later with Nathan having undergone a painful yet necessary rite of passage.
Homosexuality wasnít even talked about in 1941. Nathan doesnít know what it is, he only knows that when he fantasises, itís to images of boys, not girls. Itís so hard for us to imagine a world with a total dearth of gay culture, nothing to read, look at or listen to that would explain such feelings. His writing leads him to make friends with a group of would-be thespians who are trying to set up a local theatre. These people are all older and more sophisticated than Nathan and he picks up titbits of information, pieces in the jigsaw of life heís trying to make. His parents are no use to him; the traditional role of child and parent is reversed for Nathan looks after them. Who can he turn to? By the skin of his teeth, and by his own genuine good nature and common sense, he avoids the seductive trap of becoming too involved with a local man who is rumoured to like naked boys swimming in his pool.
His experiences in the theatre are almost all disappointing, but they are life-experiences, and he grows, becoming more confident in his speech and actions. Itís a wonderful portrait of a young man coming of age.
Considering this book was written in the 1940s, itís not too coy about sex. The sex is actually more graphic than anything in Brandstetter, which was set some twenty years later.
If you are a student of gay history, then this one is a must. If you just want good writing, then donít miss this either.
LadyM and I both wished Hansen had written about Dave Brandstetterís early life, after all heís already early 40s when we meet him.† Well reading this novel story set with perfect period feel in 1941 maybe wasnít exactly what we wanted but I couldnít shake the feeling Nathan IS young DaveÖthough on reflection I wonder if in fact heís really Joseph Hansen himself.
I had trouble believing any 17 year old could be quite as precocious and perfect as Nathan Reed. Honestly, heís the son every mother wishes she had!† He even does the laundry, in fact all housework, because his feckless parents are in effect children and heís the responsible one.† I suppose however as an only child of older parents Nathan would be mature beyond his years even without his unconventional upbringing.† The family uproots from Minneapolis when Alma inherits a ramshackle house in Fair Oaks, California.
Father Frank is a failed musician moving from one demeaning job to the next, who has given up on life and everything in it apart from his son.† Nathanís mother Alma is a fortune teller who makes a precarious living never quite managing to pay bills or accept responsibility for raising her son.† Nathan turns out well despite neglect because Frank and Alma love him.† ††
Nathan is a very bright boy who wants to be a writer.† When the story begins he lands a job writing sketches for a local newspaper, impressing colleagues with his perception and lack of sentimentality.† Soon Nathan is hanging out in local diner Moonís with journalists and academics from the college he attends. Nathan is working on a play so itís a Godsend when heís roped in to do carpentry work at a small theatre though Nathan with Adonis looks is told he should be an actor.†
Written in Hansenís distinctive understated style with an eye for detail and a way of creating colourful characters brought vividly to life in just a few lines, the story follows Nathan as he moves from boy to man.† Itís no coincidence he gravitates to theatrical folk.† Men like Desmond Foley who likes to fill his house with good looking schoolboys who swim naked in the pool.† Nathanís father warns him to keep away from Ďhis kindí.† Of course Nathan is drawn to him precisely because of what he is.†
Then thereís sad lonely Leonard Stone, a teacher rumoured to be a Nazi spy who tells Nathan the war spells the end of the Old World, of civilisation.† America hadnít yet entered the conflict but boys Nathanís age face the draft.† Nathan falls ill and nearly dies.† Most 17 year olds think theyíll live forever.† He has faced death and is sceptical of the attitude that war is proof of manhood.
Nathan isnít interested in girls.† But heís scared of the implications, denies his true desires.† Old friend Gene unsettles Nathan with a surprise visit looking to resume adolescent fun and suddenly itís not something he can ignore.† Men and women alike fall in love with beautiful, clever Nathan whose life becomes so complicated he yearns to be a child again.
Hansen weaves the threads of his story with a deft touch in a coming out/coming-of-age story different to the usual.† Like the Brandsetter books, it makes fascinating reading as a portrayal of gay life long before Stonewall when men who loved men faced prison and ruin, bunched together with spies as a threat to society.† Nathan Reed like Dave Brandstetter is a guy to fall in love with. Itís a real pity Hansen died having written only three of a projected 12 volume series.