Our book today is Alex Jeffers’ 1995 gay novel Safe as Houses, here given a very nice reprint by the good folks at Lethe Press, who are smart enough to know a novel worth preserving when they see one and brave enough to reprint a ten-year-old work of fiction in these perilous publishing times. Lethe Press is to be congratulated for the venture, and Safe as Houses can be savored all over again.
It’s a melancholy kind of savoring, as so many gay novels feel compelled to be. This is the love story of Allen and Jeremy, but Allen is dying of AIDS, and the illness – and the sad innovations and adaptations it eventually forces on everybody around Allen – gradually envelopes the book. Jeffers is excellent at portraying this slow process, but still, I can’t help but wish it weren’t a skill so many gay novelists felt compelled to master.
In flashbacks and pages from imaginary journals, Allen paints a kaleidoscopic portrait of his life, and he freely moves his imagination into the interior lives of other people, most especially Jeremy (tall, gentle Jeremy is by far the book’s most fully realized character, even thought it’s poor dying Allen who’s onstage front and center the whole time), whose boyhood experimentations with gay sex (and gay love) are drawn in vivid, honest colors:
Jerry had not questioned the necessity of being homosexual – queer, a fruit, a faggot, a fairy. He resigned himself to it the way he resigned himself to being an artist or freakishly tall and skinny. Relatively certain that Andy was queer too, he thought that they might be in love with each other in a way, a romantic friendship that did not encompass desire. Sex with George [an art class model] – if it had been sex, necking, frottage, mutual masturbation – hadn’t been especially illuminating. He felt no strong urge to repeat the experiment, not with George, not with Andy, but in the dry hot shade of the almond orchard he regarded his friend with a tender, veiled curiosity. “Andy,” he said, “sit still for a while. I want to draw a picture of you.”
The love story of Allen and Jeremy is at the heart of Safe as Houses (yet another deplorable book-title to add to the heap, an already-outdated British idiom that will require its own footnote in another fifty years), and although Jeffers isn’t shy about complicating that love story, he’s fairly scrupulous about throwing only respectable obstacles in its path. There’s family drama (Jeremy’s trouble marriage to the mother of his son Toby, for instance, and Allen’s equally troubled relationships with his own people), there’s job-and-friend drama, there’s the over-arching drama of serious illness, but the standard-issue pan-shallow cattiness that’s so common in contemporary gay fiction is entirely absent, replaced by a developing quite touching depiction of love as it grows older:
If I disengage myself, get up out of bed to pad, naked, across the bedroom and the living room to piss, he [Jeremy] will groan and shift in his sleep; when I return I’ll find him sprawled on his back snoring lightly. I will draw the sheet off him and kneel beside him, this man, this man of thirty-six with his long hair tangled around his head in the white puddle of the pillows, hair that is still mostly back but whose texture has changed over the last few years so that it reflects more light; the neat beard with its thing white stroke, like the stroke of a paintbrush, at the left corner of his mouth, the stubble rising on his cheeks and on the neck; his chest, so broad and deep, so hairy, that beside him I appear an adolescent; his taut, expansive belly. He has thickened since I’ve known him, solidified, become more substantial; underneath the beard his jaw is soft, the hard wee of bone masked by flesh as well as beard; he buys trousers a size larger now. He is a man, fully a man, a man who says hello whenever he notices me as though I were still a surprise to him, says Hello, Allen, with a kind of savor and delight and astonishment, or, sweetly, Hello, boy.
The echo here is a rather oft-used one from the 1991 Robin Williams movie “Hook,” and of course there should be a moratorium on the use of ‘pad’ as a verb, but the passage nonetheless shows Jeffers’ persistent device with Allen: he’s a watcher, a natural observer (this makes the gradual loss of his eyesight to AIDS all the more poignant). Time and again in this wonderful, sad novel, Jeffers will effortlessly take the reader past the flat surfaces of things, into the past contained in every kind of present. At one point late in the book Allen is talking on the phone with Jeremy’s son Toby as he idly fingers an old framed photograph of happier days – and although Allen himself can no longer see the picture clearly, we can:
While Toby worked on that conundrum, I picked up the silver frame. Although the photograph was no more than a blur I knew it by heart, Jeremy’s portrait of me on an earlier trip … My back was to the sea and my head turned to the side so that Jeremy had had to tell me he’d snapped the picture. I remembered Jeremy in his leather jacket, a burgundy so deep it was nearly black. His turned-up collar slapped his cheeks in the stiff Pacific wind, raising a flush. He lowered the camera and came over to me. This was California, not Rhode Island, I was young an in that period when infatuation veers giddily into something else: I put my arm around his waist and leaned into his side, smelling the leather smell of his jacket, the musty, physical, sudden smell of his sweat, the salt and kelp smell from the beach below the cliff. I suppose it’s odd that I should first realize how much I loved Jeremy while visiting his ex-wife.
I’m glad to see this paperback of Safe as Houses, glad Lethe Press had the smarts and the courage to reprint it. Needless to say, there’s a long, long list of such reprints of gay fiction that could be made, not only to save imagination-starved young gay men from prowling poorly-lit back shelves in used bookstores (unless of course they have reason to like those back aisles, although I can’t imagine what such a reason would be), but because so many of those older novels deserve to stay in the sun.