Pretty Dead Boy - Joseph Hansen
This book arrived the day its author, Joseph Hansen, died, which seemed unbelievably poignant. Hansenís own life would make a wonderful book in itself. He married, had a daughter (who later became a man) and lived in wedded bliss until his wife died, carrying on quite happily his very active gay life. Added to all this, he was black. Black and gay in a time when neither of these were acceptable in the States, he nevertheless managed to draw on all of this to produce wonderful books. Weíve already reviewed the whole of the Brandstetter series. This one, Pretty Dead Boy, is a standalone novel, set in the 1960s, and a very enjoyable read.
The author distances us from the action early on the novel by telling us that the hero, Steve, returns one day to find his lover, Coy, dead (hence the title). At first I found this device annoying. Where lies the interest in a novel if you know itís going to end in death and separation for the lovers? I should have had more faith. This novel has so many intriguing themes and twists and turns, that you really do need that detachment from the beginning. Steve is black, decidedly middle-class (if that distinction is quite the same in the States as it is for us in England), his father being a doctor and a would-be politician. Steve is only nineteen, a fact which is only given to us late in the book, but which explains some of his deep wellspring of passion and his occasional lapses of judgement. His worst decision in the novel is to get himself involved with a white-trash girl and get her pregnant. His noble resolution to marry her and make things right estranges him from his fatheróand his fatherís money, influence and position.
They make an initial go of the marriage, but Steve is driven by his true passions and soon finds himself involved with another man. This affair ends badly, but through it, he meets Coy. Although the book is in the third person, it is told very much from Steveís point of view. Thus Coy remains a very enigmatic figure. Only seventeen, he is something of a new-evangelist. He became a miracle worker and preacher as a child, is being sponsored through theological college by a fundamentalist preacher. But Coy is fundamentally flawed and immoral. For a start heís gayósomething I donít have a problem with, obviously. I do, however, have a problem with hypocrisy. Coy lies, cheats, steals, blackmails and f**** Steve with abandon all the while taking the money that is given to him by this fundamentalist Christian organisation. We know heís going to die, the question is, out of all his enemies, who got to him first?
This novel is deceptively simple, but youíd be wrong to skate over the issues it covers. There are some wonderful comments about race as well as homosexuality, which deserve study. I read it in conjunction with watching the movie ďFar from HeavenĒ, which coincidentally also deals with race and homosexuality in 1950s America.
I would think any students of the rise of neo-conservatism in the States in this Millennium would do well to study this book and film. They are both a truly frightening insight into the roots of American bigotry and fundamentalism.
Pretty Dead Boy is a tribute to Joseph Hansen, his own alternative lifestyle, and a celebration of the liberal society he so wanted to see.
Published in 1968, this novel is from the creator of gay detective Dave Brandstetter.† Apparently the book languished in obscurity until Hansenís† later mystery novels were re-issued.† Well I loved it.† The best elements of Brandstetter with more explicit sex.† Nothing too graphic, but very erotic.† A more overtly Ďgayí novel.
At 19 Steve Archer thought his life over.† Family, marriage, friendship, talent, promise.† All gone.† Then he met beautiful Coy Randol.† When the story opens Steve wakens with a fierce hangover in an unknown room with a strange naked boy and no recollection other than a fight with his wayward lover.† All Steve wants is to get back home to Coy to tell him nothing matters but being together.† When he gets there the police are waiting.† Coy has been brutally murdered and Steve is no. 1 suspect.
The story is told mostly in flashback, taking us into Steveís life to explain how he ends up in police custody.† A complex whodunnit that kept me guessing right to the end.† Hansen has fun playing with his readers, laying clues that point to several suspects leading to a series of false denouements before the murderer is finally revealed.† And no, I didnít get it right, though I was sure I had it sussed.
Steve Archerís girlfriend Lacey got pregnant and he did the decent thing and married her.† Itís 1966 and thatís what good boys did.† Except itís more complicated.† Steve has a yearning thatís gnawed at him since high school when his father caught him naked with best friend Smith Tyler.† Steve has high moral standards, so when landlord Pike makes a pass at him he resists, but not because he doesnít feel that need.† When the marriage fails, Steve goes after what he really wants.
Steveís hunger for men isnít whatís eating at him.† Heís black, only son of high achieving parents.† His father is a doctor, one of what was then a tiny black professional middle class, with hopes of a political career.† Archer senior has expectations of his son.† But Steve isnít interested.† His parents are ashamed of their roots and Steve resents that heís neither one thing or another:† white society expects him to conform to racial stereotypes and to black brothers heís an Uncle Tom.† Steve writes a play that uses his family history and causes no end of trouble.† After that, words fail.
Steveís got a chip on his shoulder about his colour.† Heís full of anger.† Weíre shown his jealousy and possessiveness.† He wonít share Coy with anyone.† But Coy leads a dangerous double life.† Heís at religious college on a scholarship, training to be a TV evangelist.† So heís good at lies and deception.† Coyís family are dirt poor and he wants to be rich.† This contrasts with Steveís belief that love is the thing most worth having in life.† Steveís obsession with Coy erupts into violence when his burdens overwhelm him.† Itís possible heís guilty of killing Coy because he loves too much.†
Hansen brilliantly combines taut detective thriller and intense love story to produce a book that sparkles from beginning to exciting conclusion. Itís also a fascinating study of daring† inter racial love in an era of inequality marked by segregation and discrimination.† More so because the black man is the white boyís social superior.† The tragic relationship between Steve and Coy is realistic and very sexy.† Hansen writes terrific dialogue and makes his characters live in the imagination. Itís all in the detail.† Steve, the tortured soul looking for love.† And Coy, the boy with the face of an angel and no moral compass.† Hansen is a close observer of human nature, and his characters have substance, capable of sweet tenderness and shocking violence in different circumstances.†
A classy tale not to be missed if youíve a taste for romance as a side-order to meat & bones mystery.† Hansen was a prolific writer, and I want to read all his books.† An aspiring writer would do well to study his accomplished style.†
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