If you were to ask me which literary subgenre I could happily forsake for the remainder of my days, I would have to answer with some regret the gay coming-of-age story. Maybe I’ve just read too damn many of them. The ingredients feel prearranged to me now, virtually pre-digested: sensitive adolescent outsider; hostile parents; first glimmerings of pubescent rapture, quickly snuffed out by hateful community; sadder-but-wiser boy emerging from the wreckage and walking boldly into his queer future.
And as I read the opening pages of Anthony Giardina’s novel, Recent History, I was battening down for more of the same. The book’s protagonist, Luca Carcera, is twelve years old when his father mysteriously leaves home, only to re-emerge on the other side of town in the company of another man. (A baffling choice of man, too: a gruff-looking, hard-drinking groundskeeper with three daughters of his own.) Pretty soon, Luca is spending his weekends with the two men, and for company, he brings along one of his classmates, an obvious flamer named Andrew Weston, locally notorious for once popping a boner in the boys’ shower. The two lonely boys gradually draw closer together, and one day, during an outing in the woods, Luca reaches for Andrew’s hand.
“He looked at me with a different look,” Luca later recalls, “one that terrified me, a look that had in it a bottoming-out softness and invitation that repulsed me, yet that I knew I was somehow responsible for. He dropped my hand and came close to me. I knew that if he came any closer I could not escape what I had started. It was like looking directly into the heart of someone else’s most secret, needful place.”
We recognize this, surely: it is the language of sexual awakening. But if you’ve made it this far, you will recognize it as something else: one more double-edged passage in a fine and complex and subtly subversive novel. For young Luca, it turns out, isn’t falling in love with Andrew; he’s acting out his rage against his father. And Recent History isn’t about finding your sexuality; it’s about losing it somewhere along the line, losing it perhaps irretrievably.
Luca Carcera grows up to be a nice, middle-thirties high-school teacher in a New England clapboard town. He’s been married for the past twelve years to an attractive wife, and the sex is decent every time he enters her, he utters “a low, satisfied grunt.” By all rights, by all appearances, they should be having kids that’s what married couples do, isn’t it? But something’s holding Luca back. It may be the example of his father, who left his wife after twelve years of marriage. Or it may be the persistent memories of Luca’s own gay encounters. That teenage flirtation with Andrew, for instance, and a brief, ruinous college fling with his freshman-year roommate: “Eric’s body sidling in next to mine filled me with excitement. I liked the warmth, the sense of being desired. I wanted this to have nothing to do with my waking life; that is, I wanted to go on dreaming vaguely of girls, of the life to come. But I also wanted him to come to me like this, to feel his breathing against me, the closeness of his skin.”
Fifteen years later, these reveries have left Luca wondering: Is he a closet homosexual? Or a heterosexual manqué? “Something stayed with me,” he admits. “That I was capable of that. Capable of some kind of feeling with a man. I know I should have accepted that by now. It’s ridiculous that I haven’t. But I haven’t. I just keep asking, Is this a real life? Or just some fake thing I settled into?”
He’ll have to answer those questions soon because his self-imposed isolation is driving his wife to the brink of separation. And so when he’s invited to Provincetown for the funeral of his old friend Andrew, Luca uses the occasion to stage a risky gambit. He will reunite his long-estranged parents for one last evening, and he will decide once and for all whether his father could have should have stayed married. And once he knows this, he believes, he will know whether to stay in his own marriage.
Recent History dwells in a region that most of us don’t know well even if we think we do: the region of bisexuality, which, as any self-anointed expert will tell you, is just the transitional stage between hetero and homo, a face-saving rubric we can use until we’re capable of saying outright, “I’m gay.” (At least it served that function for me.) But Anthony Giardina knows better. He understands that the compass needle of sexual orientation can be swung by the magnetic fields of other people . . . that it can oscillate for years without ever settling on a single course. And he understands something that, in context of our post-Freudian culture, seems almost revolutionary: Our sexual history is not always worth the importance we assign it.
The book’s final showdown struck me as a trifle theatrical and overarticulated, but when it comes to monitoring the fever chart of sexual response, I don’t think Giardina makes a false step. Every emotion and detail and behavior in this book feels unalterably right, whether it’s Andrew Weston’s tragically absurd funeral or the way Luca’s mother sits virtually silent in her ex-husband’s presence or the brief, moving vision Luca entertains of his wife as she ponders the future of their marriage: “She’d sat on that pier and smoked cigarettes and thought a long time . . . Finally, though, she’d gotten cold. That is why marriages last, I think. Not because of great decisions or even, most of the time, because of the persistence of great passions but because at some crucial moment someone gets cold, and needs to come in.”
Louis Bayard and Nerve.com, Inc.