(Minneapolis, MN: Squares & Rebels, 2018)
In the final chapter of Dan Callahan’s intriguing debut novel the narrator, Bobby Quinn, reflects on his transubstantiation into adulthood as he crosses over that auspicious threshold of thirty, which happens to him in “the mid-aughts.” That phrase, ‘the aughts,’ has always come across to me as a fussy intellectualization to refer to the 2000’s – the two-thou-sands – one too many syllables when you sound it out, right, hence the need to cut out a beat or two. It occurred to me, as I worked at resolving this dissonant note, that Bobby would now be forty, only eight years younger than I am, which means he’s a touch too old to be a member of the millennial tribe – and his Gen X proximity, to a degree, forgives his voicing a term that I’ve personally never heard spoken in regular conversation to refer to what a historian might call the near-history. I am pretty sure I have a point here: the use of the phrase evokes the challenge endemic to the mythmaking we all engage in as we attempt to make peace with our psychically disruptive formative experiences. Bobby underscores the essential nature of this human need with his question that ends the novel: “So why am I still so certain that something else occurred?” I very much like this final line, in part because it’s distinctly not ‘post-ironic’ – meaning a collection of words that fronts as being genuinely earnest, literal, yet we have to think about the intended meaning, as we are not entirely sure that some sort of language play isn’t occurring right under our nose. Rather, Bobby’s line affirmatively plays on Callahan’s declarative title: That Was Something (as opposed to the dripping irony of, ‘Well, comma, that was something, exclamation point’). The title affirms that real experiences did occur, and they were of some significance. When we take them together, the title and the final line, we contemplate how difficult it is to nail down impermanent memory, how we can never have full understanding. And here’s for me the novel’s most essential point: we don’t always have to decry our more harrowing of life experiences, as they are, or can be, what we use to calibrate whatever truths we are able to understand about the universe. After all, as anyone with a humanist bent knows, we must lose innocence to gain wisdom. It’s a zero-sum game. Our saddnesses and joys push and pull on each other in equal measures.
Along the way Callahan deconstructs the love-triangle motif, a shape that paradoxically refers to what we were all taught in geometry class as the most stable of structures, even though the vectors of sexual tension make this construct, in human terms, inevitably temporary. Typically, this means one person, A, likes two people, say B & C, who both like A – B & C associate and rebuff like two positive magnets attracted by the same negative charge – or a variation on this theme: A likes B who likes C who likes A, and so all three are drawn together in a vortex of unrequited desire, spinning, spinning, spinning… Callahan places his authorial hand on this notion and flattens it out into a line, a spectrum where a gay boy likes a (mostly) straight boy who likes a (mostly) lesbian woman, who herself is flighty and inscrutable, and only interested in Bobby as an intellectual companion, a fellow binger of art house film fare. But, don’t get me wrong here, there is overt sex in the novel – a lot of it. So much sex that I easily exhausted my lexicon for sexual behavior – humiliation sex, cuckhold sex, sadomasochistic sex, public sex, stranger sex, group sex, chicken/chicken-hawk sex (hat tip: had to ask a friend about this last term). And then there is the ever and ever more nuanced nomenclature for the categories of identity, which these days allow for mutability and variability (questioning, curious, flexible) and complexity – amorous attraction no longer necessarily congruous with physical attraction. The novel’s forward narrative momentum is largely generated by these tensions, especially the three-way tension between Bobby, his NYU straight tease, Ben, and Ben’s fascination, his “complicated pussy” as it were, Monika. A less ‘woke’ treatment might move on the expectation that this love triangle tension will be consummated, the dénouement capturing the fallout, as in Chasing Amy, in which a younger Ben Affleck ultimately can’t deal with the title character’s experimental past, which I bet Callahan would find ridiculously simplistic. He is fundamentally concerned with the messiness involved in an honest reflection on intent and consent, how understanding our sexual motivation is core to our affirming the whole of our beings – and then we are better able to deliver and accept the delicious morsels of kindnesses the universe time-to-time serves up through us, which are all the sweeter because of their ephemeral nature. Nothing lasts forever. And do we want it to anyway?
In his personal cosmic journey Bobby explores the body as currency, sex as a transaction, which moves onto sex as performance. Bobby feels his sexual apotheosis when go-go dancing, realizing that embracing being “gay and energetic and drunk and trashy” was greater than this “straight and embarrassed and reserved…Playgirl centerfold with his beautiful body.” And then when the rush of achieving his erotic potential fades, Bobby discovers a higher truth. “Sometimes I have felt I care about nothing but sex and the pursuit of sex, yet I care almost nothing about the sexual act itself,” he says before providing a thunder rumble of profundity:
I don’t fall in love with straight guys anymore. I have lost that kind of idiot hope. You give up the idiotic hopes, and you give up the large-scale hopes, and you give up the small-scale hopes, and you do without hope entirely.
Yes. Oh yes. When we resolve the distinction between sex and romance, between romance and romanticism, we are, if we’re lucky, left with the strength to live without the illusion of faith. And that, I’m sure Callahan would agree, is something.
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Trevor Payne teaches English at Radnor High School in suburban Philadelphia.