Native - William Haywood Henderson
A strange novel about a cowboy called Blue, fighting his yearnings to be gay. He lives in a homophobic community where coming out is not an option for him. He meets two men who shape his life: Sam “the new hire” on the ranch, and Gilbert a Native American, trying to recreate the old tradition of the Berdache. The Berdache were seen as the perfectly normal, legitimate “third sex” of the tribe. There’s a great article on the Berdache tradition here: http://www.geocities.com/WestHollywood/Stonewall/3044/berdache.html
I had high hopes for this novel based on the premise describe above. However, the book isn’t really a narrative. It’s not quite stream of consciousness, but it’s not far off it. I found it to be rather like “Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall”: all about everything but what you want it to be about. I ploughed through it trying to work out what was happening, waiting for something to happen, then not quite sure what had happened when it did.
I didn’t really enjoy the novel as a novel, but I do think it has an important place in the history of gay books. Worth trying for that alone, but if you prefer strong narrative and plot then you might, like me, find this hard going.
A book you’ll either love or hate. I was stunned by it though I have reservations. It’s a first novel and I think the writer simply tries too hard. But Henderson’s characters engage on a fundamental level that shakes you up. Which means it’s something truly special.
It’s a Western romance about cowboys in the high country of Wyoming. Story comes out of the landscape, beautiful but harsh, with people to match. Isolation breeds insularity, and violence is never far from the surface. A place where men are men and women to make babies and keep the home fires burning while their menfolk attend to work and survival. Male bonding is acceptable but violent homophobia prohibits same-sex relationships that go beyond friendship and camaraderie. When the story is set is never made explicit, but I’d guess probably 30 years ago. Repressed passion is its signature note.
23 year old Blue is a hardworking ranch foreman, much respected in his small Wyoming mountain town. We see him one night out with the boys. Sam, a young greenhorn from Ohio recently hired by Blue, gets drunk with Derek, a volatile character. Blue has his mind on the cow camp up in the high country where Sam is to spend the summer. When an Indian fancy dancer takes interest in the pair, he unleashes unstoppable forces. Blue is mesmerised by this strange man Gilbert who touches a guy as if he didn’t know he could get hurt. He wonders what it would be like to take what you want. Gilbert shows Blue another world where the male squaw or two-spirit had spiritual power. Then the white man came, twisting what was natural, and ‘berdache’ became ‘faggot’.
With a moodily hypnotic, dreamlike quality, the book reminded me of Jim Grimsley’s Dreamboy. I gave up trying to understand fully what was going on and allowed the flow of words to transport me into Blue’s circumscribed world. I was swept away by the power of a reading experience emotional and spiritual yet grounded in hard reality. Use of present tense narrative conveys breathtaking immediacy that’s intense, shocking and very moving. I didn’t so much read this book as live it. And that’s rare.
So, a deep book that repays setting aside a quiet day. Not one to pick up after work between chauffeuring children, fixing dinner and doing the housework. If you think too much you get lost, so best to reflect later. The complex narrative structure confuses, inclined to wander in time and space. We begin and end with uncertainty, but in the middle share the lives of two lonely souls who struggle to reach out to each other. I fell in love.
In the high country eagles and cougars prey on the weak, life a battle for survival. Blue sees the mountains as hope and refuge. The cow camp a place where he can be with Sam. But men like Derek, fighting his own battle with forbidden desire, show raw violence more cruel than any natural predator. Blue’s almost pathological fear of being outed to the town as a lover of men might appear exaggerated or even incomprehensible. His story is fictional. Several years after publication of this novel and Annie Proulx’ Brokeback Mountain, 22 year old gay student, Matthew Shepherd came out of a bar with two men in Laramie, Wyoming. He was driven to a field, tied to a fence, savagely beaten and left for dead in freezing cold. He later died in hospital. Hate crimes are a fact of life. Here in the UK two young gay men have died just in the last few weeks.
Proulx’ novella with its brevity and stripped down prose covers very similar ground, and succeeds better for that. Henderson has space to show what makes men who they are, which gives his book its own power. But you have to work harder and over-literary style weakens the impact. I wanted to cut heavily descriptive side-story and get back to Blue and Sam. Also, Gilbert, such a marvellous creation, is under-used.
We like to think love transcends circumstances. Blue knows what he wants, a man who shares his thoughts, free together under the stars. There’s unlikely eroticism in scenes of tender loving care that break your heart, rare moments of contact alleviating intense longing so real I felt the ache. Sam comes to Blue with maps & books, looking for somewhere he can find more than fumbles in the dark with men ashamed of what they do.
I had flashes of illumination but the picture is fragmented and shadowy. Blue’s father brought them to Wyoming then went off, never returning for more than a week. His mother hates the oppressive mountains and longs for the sea, escaping into books that offer alternate realities, another place. Gilbert tells Blue how life ought to be. It’s about possibilities, and I think the ambiguous ending reflects that…but I’m not sure. Maybe that’s the point. We write our own stories. Read and make up your own mind. You won’t regret it.
Very hard to find book - you might want to try your local library.