Friday, June 24, 2011

The Last Deployment by Bronson Lemer

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: University of Wisconsin Press (June 2011)
Pages: 221

How a Gay, Hammer-Swinging Twentysomething Survived a Year in Iraq

Bronson Lemer joined the National Guard during his senior year of high school as a way to help pay for his upcoming college expenses, but he also had a secret reason for joining. For years he had lived in the shadow of his more athletic brothers, and because Bronson was gay, he felt the need to do something dramatic to prove to his parents that he was his own man. He wanted to make the family proud of him. He chose the National Guard because he assumed he could do his one weekend a month and never be sent to war. He was wrong.

In 2003, after being trained as a carpenter and serving five and a half years in the North Dakota National Guard’s engineering unit, Bronson was deployed in Iraq for a year. He left behind college, his family, and a lost love. He found himself in a war zone that he and his fellow soldiers called ‘The Sand Box’ – living in tents, sand everywhere you looked, 120 degree temperatures, and constant apprehension about the impending dangers.

Bronson spent a year in and around Bagdad using his carpentry skills to help rebuild the city. He had a deep conviction to aid the Iraqi people, but the longer his deployment stretched out, the more he felt the US military was doing more harm than good. On a more personal level, he struggled because of a lack of support structure. He didn’t have the close family ties, a wife or long-time girlfriend that most other soldiers had. He felt a need to reveal his sexuality to his buddies, so that they would understand him. But, of course, he couldn’t do that. His only release was in the form of letters to his lost love.

The Last Deployment is a well-written, often provocative memoir of the author’s struggle to reconcile military brotherhood with self-acceptance.
If you are looking for gun battles and roadside bombs ripping limbs from bodies, then you should keep looking. The author never came under fire. This is a tale of internal struggle and the absurd nuances of a soldier’s life in the ‘Sand Box’. It is more about loneliness, fear and fitting in than guns and battles.

The author spent very little time talking about the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. I recall only one place where he summed up his views about it as: The policy creates an environment where it is OK to ridicule someone because of their sexuality because gay men and women cannot stick up for themselves or others without fear of being ostracized and outcast, and that is the last thing a soldier wants during a deployment. The policy reinforces ignorance and stupidity by forcing the people who are gay—the ones who would speak up and support gay men and women when others were ridiculing them—to keep their mouths shut. It also stifles a community that cannot grow, trust, or support each other because some of the members aren’t allowed to speak up or express who they are.

Being a gay man who spend four years in the navy, I was also surprised that Lemer didn’t talk about falling in love/lust with any of his fellow soldiers. That was one of the hardest things for me to deal with while in the military: feeling love for my buddies but being unable to divulge it in any way. What Lemer does express repeatedly was a feeling of not fitting in, mainly because he had to hide so much of himself. Now that was something I related to perfectly.

Lemer's chronicles of a soldier’s daily life in the ‘Sand Box’ make for an interesting and poignant read. It is also a strong argument why the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy harms morale, rather than doing any good. Regardless of how you feel about the war, this memoir is well worth reading. I can highly recommend it to all readers.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Traveling Light by Lloyd Meeker

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: MLR Press
Pages: 281

Ian McCandless is a gay hospice nurse in training to become shaman. On orders from his mentor, Ian goes home for the holidays to make peace with his estranged family. Ian’s brother, Will, picks him up at the airport, and the old conflicts bubble to the surface before they can exit the parking lot. On the way home, Will interrupts a convenience store robbery and is shot, dying in Ian’s arms. Ian vows to use his shaman powers to reap vengeance.

In 13th century Anasazi, another shaman apprentice, Ta-Kuat, is given the task of journeying through the spirit world, through time and space, to retrieve the magical Door Stone which will free his village from famine and will allow them to live and prosper.

As Ian enters the spirit world on his hunt for revenge – which is forbidden to shamans – he meets up with Ta-Kuat. Ian’s pursuit not only puts himself in conflict with the spirit world, but it also endangers Ta-Kuat. The two apprentices forge an unholy alliance in the spirit plane that has dangerous ramifications in the physical world.

Lloyd Meeker’s debut novel, Traveling Light, is a winner. This is one of the most delightful and imaginative stories I’ve read in years. This paranormal tale weaves time travel with dabbling in the spirit world, unique spirits who guide or hinder, and wise old shamans who expound spiritual wisdom without making it into a sermon. In short, it is a unique and absorbing read.

This is the story of two seekers who span both the spiritual realms and the physical world in order to find what they think will make them whole. Ian seeks justice for his dead brother. He searches for his brother’s spirit, and plans to harm his brother’s killer. What he doesn’t realize, and what his mentor must show him, is that, for a shaman, there is no such thing as justice. Ta-Kuat, on the other hand, seeks to save his people by finding the Door Stone. He travels time and space searching for something that doesn’t exist, because it was conjured in the mind of an impure soothsayer.

The two meet on the spirit plane, and are drawn together by a need to help the other, but then both are pulled into a growing love that spans supernatural dimensions. And yes, they manage to make love in both the physical and spiritual planes. “He couldn’t bear his own ecstasy, yet knew it without effort, just as he knew Ta-Kuat’s. They formed one being, one matrix of power, one undulating wave on the vastness that lifted them, drowning them. “

It is a complex plot played out on several levels. Between bouts of lovemaking, the apprentices must help each other unravel riddles and mysteries. They must battle internal emotions gone mad, and evil shamans. By the end, they uncover universal truths that each of us, in the empty and lonely parts of our lives, must confront. I walked away from this book feeling a little wiser. I don’t see how anybody wouldn’t.

My one minor issue is that I wanted the author to spend more time developing the supporting characters who appeared in the physical world. I was particularly keen on having both shaman teachers, Ang and Chiyuskanek, take a larger role in the story and reveal more of themselves.

That one issue aside, I felt this was a delightful and mystical journey, both for the characters and the reader. Utterly enjoyable. I can highly recommend this book to all readers who like to tickle their imaginations.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Slant by Timothy Wang

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Tincture (an imprint of Lethe Press)
Pages: 211

James, an Asian college student, thought coming out of the closet would be his toughest task. What he couldn’t foresee, but experienced head on, was the discrimination inside Boston’s gay community. The road to love is never easy, especially for a geeky Asian inside a sea of white, round-eyed faces.

After months of failures, James catches the guy of his dreams, Stan, but can only hang on to him for a few precious months. Stan is a man who lives on the edge and goes through boyfriends as fast as he goes through clean socks. Once the relationship slides from lovers to friends, James begins dating a doctor who has it all – hot car, glamorous flat, money to burn – in order to make Stan jealous and lure him back. But as I said, the road to love is never easy, or what you expect.

A wonderful debut novel… I must confess that I’ve grown tired of coming out stories, but this is not your typical coming out story. It has true depth, grace, and vividly drawn characters that entice the reader into this beautifully crafted yarn. It delves into the racism that is rampant in the gay community, and also of one person’s struggle to assimilate. The emotions and concerns are genuine, and carry the reader along.

The first half of the story focused more on discrimination Asians experience within the gay community. For James, this leads to self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy, and then grows into self-hate. The second half deals more with relationships and the needs of partners with a relationship.

What struck me even more than the insightful observations was the superlative writing. Timothy Wang tells a simple yarn with an unrivaled voice. Wang writes with the refinement of a seasoned professional.

I did have two minor issues with this story. The first came when James, after complaining bitterly about the discrimination directed at him for being Asian, shows that he is equally prejudice against rice queens – older men dating young Asians. As a gentleman of some years, I found James’s age discrimination a bit distasteful and thoroughly hypocritical.

My second issue is that I felt the ending fizzled. Wang kept both the tension and my interest high until the last ten pages, and then I closed the book feeling slightly let down. I’m not sure I would have preferred a different ending, but perhaps a bit more thought into what was gained and what was lost would have made the ending more satisfying.

Those two minor issues aside, I can highly recommend Slant.