Dilettante's Diary

MAY 27, 2024
Home
Who Do I Think I Am?
Index: Movies
Index: Writing
Index: Theatre
Index: Music
Index: Exhibitions
Artists' Blogs
Index: TV, Radio and Misc
Restaurants
MAY 27, 2024
Nov 3, 2023
Aug 2, 2023
July 4, 2023
Apr 21, 2023
Feb 10, 2023
Jan 24, 2023
Jan 11, 2023
Dec 2, 2022
July 26, 2022
July 4, 2022
June 2, 2022
March 25, 2022
March 11, 2022
Feb 14, 2022
Nov 19, 2021
Oct 2021
Sept 16, 2021
July 21, 2021
July 15, 2021
June 11, 2021
Apr 23, 2021
March 12, 2021
Feb 13, 2021
Jan 5, 2021
December 2020
Autumn Mysteries 2020
Aug 12/20
May 25/20
Apr 30/20
March 12/20
Dec 6/19
Jan 29/20
Nov 10/19
Oct 24/19
Sept 30/19
Aug 2/19
June 22/19
May 26/19
Apr 22/19
Feb 23/19
Jan 15/19
Dec 20/18
Dec 3/18
Oct 3/18
Sept 9/18
Aug 9/18
July 19/18
June 2/18
May 14/18
Apr 23/18
Feb 22/18
Jan15/18
Dec 13/17
Nov 22/17
Nov 3/17
Oct 5/17
Sept 21/17
Aug 3/17
June 16/17
Mar 21/17
Feb 26/17
Feb 9/17
Jan 30/17
Dec 19/16
Dec 11/16
Nov 20/16
Sept 17/2016
Aug 21/16
July 17/16
June 29/16
June 2/16
Apr 23/16
Feb 28/16
Feb 1/16
Jan 27/16
Winter Reading 2016
Dec 15/15
Nov 19/15
Fall Reading 2015
Oct 29/15
Sept 16/15
Sept 4/15
July 29, 2015
July 1, 2015
June 7/15
Summer Reading 2015
May 19/15
Apr 30/15
Apr 19/15
Spring Reading 2015
March 23/15
March 11/15
Winter Reading 2015
Feb 20/15
Feb 8/15
Jan 29/15
Jan 20/15
Highs 'N Lows of 2014
Dec 19/14
Dec 2/14
Nov 10/14
Oct 29/14
Fall Reading 2014
Sept 17/14
Summer Reading 2014
Aug 22/14
Aug 8/14
July 11/14
June 16/14
May 28/14
Apr 30/14
Apr 16/14
Apr 2/14
March 21, 2014
March 13/14
Feb 11/14
Sept 23/13
Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
July 18/13
Summer Reading 2013
June 19/13
May 30/13
Spring Reading 2013
May 10/13
Apr 18/13
Mar 29/13
March 14, 2013
The Artist Project 2013
Feb 25/13
Winter Reading 2013
Feb 7/13
Jan 22/13
Jan 12/13
A Toast to 2012
Dec 19/12
Dec 16/12
Dec 4/12
Fall Reading 2012
Nov 17/12
Nov 6/12
Art Toronto 2012
Oct 23/12
Oct 4/12
Sept 28/12
Summer Reading 2012
Aug 26/12
Aug 8/12
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2012
July 14/12
June 28/12
MIMC
May 27/12
May 20/12
May 4/12
La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
Apr 21/12
Apr 6/12
Mar 22/12
Mar 9/12
The Artist Project 2012
Academy Awards Show 2012
Feb 26/12
Feb 11/12
Jan 23/12
Jan 15/12
Jan 7/12
Dec 20/11
Dec 12/11
Nov 27/11
Nov 18/11
Nov 7/11
Art Toronto 2011
Oct 22/11
Oct 17/11
Sept 30, 2011
Summer Reading 2011
Aug 11/11
July 28, 2011
July 19/11
TOAE 2011
June 25/11
June 20/11
June 2/11
May 14/11
Apr 29/11
Toronto Art Expo 2011
Apr 11/11
March 24/11
The Artist Project 2011
March 11/11
Feb 23/11
Feb 7/11
Jan 21/11
HIGHS 'N LOWS OF 2010
Jan 17/11
Dec 21/10
Dec 6/10
Nov 11/10
Fall Reading 2010
Oct 22/10
Summer Reading 2010
Aug 9/10
Aug 2/10
TOAE 2010
July 16/10
The Shack
June 27/10
June 3/10
May 5/10
April 17/10
Mar 28/10
Mar 17/10
The Artist Project 2010
Toronto Art Expo 2010
Feb 22/10
Feb 3/10
Notables of '09
Jan 11/10
Dec 31/09
Dec 17/09
How Fiction Works
Nov 24/09
Sex for Saints
Nov 11/09
Housekeeping
Oct 22/09
Oct 6/09
Sept 18/09
Aug 23/09
July 31/09
July 17/09
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2009
Toronto Fringe 2009
Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
June 28/09
June 6/09
Myriad Mysteries 2009
May 10/09
CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
April 14/09
March 24/09
Toronto Art Expo '09
March 1/09
The Jesus Sayings
Feb 8/09
Jan 26/09
Jan 10/09
Stand-outs of 2008
Dec 24/08
Dec 4/08
Nov 16/08
Oct 27/08
Oct 16/08
Sept 26/08
Sept 5/08
July 21/08
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 08
July 5/08
June 23/08
June 4/08
May 18/08
May 4/08
April 16/08
March 26/08
Head to Head
Feb 26/08
Feb 13/08
Jan 30/08
Jan 17/08
Notables of 2007
Dec 30/07
Dec 8/07
Nov 22/07
Oct 25/07
Oct 4/07
Sept 18/07
Aug 29/07
Aug 8/07
Summer Mysteries '07
July 20/07
June 28/07
June 8/07
May 21/07
May 2/07
April 14/07
March 23/07
Toronto Art Expo 2007
March 8/07
Feb 16/07
Feb 2/07
Jan 24/07
Notables of 2006
Dec 27/06
December 11/06
November 28/06
Nov 8/06
October 14/06
Sept 22/06
Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
Sept 6/06
August 12/06
July 18/06
June 27/06
June 9/06
May 23/06
Me In Manhattan
May 2/06
April 12/06
March 17/06
March 9/06
Feb 16/06
Feb 1/06
Jan 11/06
Dec 31/05
Dec 12/05
Nov 25/05
Nov 4/05
Oct 24/05
Sept 7/05
Sept 16/05
Sept 1/05
Aug 10/05
July 21/05
Me and the Jays
July 10/05
June 15/05
May 18/05
April 27/05
April 18/05
April 8/05
March 21/05
Feb 28/05
Feb 21/05
Feb 4/05
Jan 28/05
Jan 19/05
Jan 5/05
About Me
Dec 20/04
Dec 5/04
MOVIES
BOOKS
RE-READINGS
MYSTERIES/CRIME books
VIDEOS and DVDs
PLAYS
OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

REVIEWED HERE: SECRET SEX (Short Stories); MODEL CITIZEN (Memoir); LATE LOVE (Short Fiction); CHALLENGERS (Movie); THE WREN, THE WREN (Novel); TREMOR (Novel); WE SHOULD NOT BE FRIENDS (Memoir)

Secret Sex (Short Stories) edited by Russell Smith, 2024

I’d heard nothing about this book. It called out to me from the library’s “new and recommended” shelf. (Perhaps I’m not the only library patron who would be lured by a title like this.)

The book turns out to be a selection of 24 pieces of short fiction by Canadian authors. Their names are given at the front of the book but none of the writers is identified as the author of any piece. Why might this be?

Well, in his preface, editor Russell Smith says that he was editing a couple of novels in which the authors had gone all coy and discreet when it came to scenes depicting certain kinds of sex. The acts were veiled in metaphor, allusion and euphemism. When he asked the authors why they did this, they said something to the effect that they didn’t want family members to know that they, the authors, might have had sexual experiences like these.

So Mr. Smith began to wonder whether it would be possible for writers to produce well-written stories that did include graphic sex. By way of a kind of literary experiment, he invited several writers to contribute to this compendium. According to the bios at the back of the book, all of the writers are accomplished and well published, but only about six of the 24 names were familiar to me.

The book proves two points: 1) graphic sex can be handled with fine writing; and 2) writers can be imaginative, sensitive and even humorous when talking explicitly about sex. Most of us have probably thought, until now, that writing about sex in a graphic way had to be dreary, repetitive and gross. Not so – as these writers amply demonstrate.

The first story in the book – one of the most amusing – describes a sexting session. The two participants are playing roles that get them excited, but every now and then they interrupt each other to say what’s working for them and what’s not. They’re like two actors giving each other signals in an improv exercise.

In one of the most unusual stories, a woman has her naked man stretched out on a bed, gagged and blindfolded. What she wants is to get pieces of his flesh in her mouth – any part of his body will do. She’s not hurting him, not biting him, just tasting him. This is one of those situations that a reader might never have thought of but which has an idiosyncratic charm.

One of the most imaginative stories – in a sci-fi context – is about a scientist who has sex with various young women in his lab. But who is the narrator? Eventually we find that the witness who’s telling us about this is a pair of human eyes and a brain in a jar on a shelf in the lab.

Probably the most sexually detailed story – the most ‘pornographic’ if you want to use that word – is about a flamboyant gay man who is walking through the streets of Montreal after partying late on New Year’s. Desperate for a bathroom, he knocks on the door of a friend’s apartment and soon finds himself immersed in a gay orgy. What’s most remarkable about the story isn’t the sexual acrobatics. It’s the fact that the young man, while all this sex is going on, is thinking about things that are bothering him. There’s the question of his academic thesis and how he’s going to finish it. He’s also wondering whether he should leave this life of promiscuity and settle into a more conventional life. Wouldn’t this be what his mother would want for him? The author of this piece thus shows that you can portray someone involved in sex as a real, thinking human being, not just some sex machine.

Several other stories include thoughtful self-awareness about sex. One woman narrator tells us how she felt when she realized that the man having sex with her was thinking about someone else: “... I am only the receptacle of his desire and not the object.” A woman who’s had several men since her divorce has learned that there’s always an element of fantasy involved; the man doesn’t want her as she truly is; he wants some version of her that he has in his mind.

One of the most erotic stories, for my money, is about the sex between two women who meet at a juice stand in a mall. Another story about lesbians was less satisfying. That’s because the author wasn’t clear from the outset about what kind of relationship we were dealing with. The narrator was telling us about a recent divorce from some very desirable woman but, for a long time, we didn’t know if it was a man or woman talking to us. Maybe that was the author’s point: we didn’t need a label for the sexual identity of the characters. But I’m enough of an old-fashioned reader that I want clarity about such matters up front in a story.

It’s probably inevitable that, in a book like this, some of the stories would be somewhat distasteful to certain readers. A young man’s description of sex with an older woman who has a prosthetic leg, although sensitively described, wasn’t a scenario that I enjoyed. Another story, one that included creative and evocative writing, didn’t appeal to me – a reader who generally shuns fantastic material – because the narrator turned out to be a vampire.

One story that was somewhat puzzling – in terms of the book’s premise – was about an Anishinaabe man hooking up with a woman lawyer he meets at a conference on Indigenous issues. When it comes to the sex between them, this writer falls back on the kind of evasion that Mr. Smith was questioning in his preface: we get a flurry of belts and shoes, but not much physical detail. However, the story does have redeeming qualities. It gives some hint of the Indigenous man’s ambivalence about being a spokesperson for his culture; he seems to wish that he didn’t always have to be dishing out the wisdom of the elders. And the interplay between the two characters leading up to the sex is skillfully dramatized. Even if the concluding sex scene lacks explicit detail, the writer has fun referring to the intercourse in terms that evoke inter-racial negotiations and political strategizing, ending it all with a resounding sexual pun.


Model Citizen (Memoir) by Joshua Mohr, 2021

If you catch a tongue-in-cheek tone in this title, you’re off to a good start. Joshua Mohr is definitely not the kind of man you’d want to bring home to mother. Much of his life has been a riot of drunkenness and drug addiction, including a wide variety of frightening and dangerous escapades. And yet, in a way, he could be considered a “model citizen” – in that he’s now trying to lead a decent, sober life, trying to be a good father and husband with all that those designations imply.

Confronted with this book, however, you might wonder whether you really want to spend time with another alcoholic’s “drunk-o-logue” (as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous). If you’ve read one, haven’t you read them all? Maybe so. But there are special reasons for reading Mr. Mohr’s take on the genre. First, his life hasn’t exactly been dull. Not only is he an accomplished novelist but his exploits make the rest of us look like we’ve spent our lives in Sunday School. Most importantly, though, he’s a terrifically good writer. The story forges ahead with tremendous verve; there isn’t a dull sentence on any page. Although Mr. Mohr jumps around in time and place, he – like any compulsive talker – makes adroit transitions between topics with phrases like “that reminds me” and “you have to understand that ...” He even sometimes says that he doesn’t want to tell you what he’s going to tell you.

Merciless in his self-castigation, Mr. Mohr never stoops to blame any of his misbehaviour on a blighted childhood. However, the seeds of a troubled life were there. By the time he was in grade five, he was regularly polishing off wine that had been left around his home in Phoenix, Arizona. His mother’s not noticing might have been due to her own excessive drinking. Joshua’s dad, a Lutheran minister, had de-camped to California where he started another family. Joshua loved his dad so much that he was deeply hurt by the dad’s leaving. It was only later in life that he learned that the dad had to get out of town because he was having an affair that was about to ruin his career as a minister.

When it comes to the author’s more serious boozing and drugging, a few episodes stand out. Such as the time he tried to have sex in a restaurant washroom but the sink that the woman was sitting on fell to the floor in smithereens. Then there was the time he and a girlfriend got away with robbing a liquor store only because the cop who stopped them didn’t bother to look for the hidden gun in their getaway truck. One time he and some buddies, after a night of carousing, tried to play golf with grapefruits on the front lawn in a residential neighbourhood. Oh yeah, they were naked and festooned with staples that they’d been shooting into their bodies.

Having been sober for nine years, as of the writing of this memoir, Mr. Mohr doesn’t hide the fact that he’s been sorely tempted to start drinking again. Time and again, it’s the thought of his wife, Lelo, and their little daughter, Ava, that has pulled him back from the brink. In fact, Mr. Mohr goes to some lengths to show us how much he loves his child. Maybe not every male reader can fully appreciate another man’s cute father-daughter antics, but one interaction between Mr. Mohr and his daughter did delight me: when he drops her off in the yard at day care, they kiss each other through an opening in the fence.

One thing that may be unique in the writings of recovering alcoholics is Mr. Mohr’s admission that, at times, he’s sick and tired of sobriety, that he finds it hard to stay on the wagon. This, in spite of his appreciation of his family life. These admissions come in long passages presented as speeches he’s giving at an AA meeting. I don’t know whether they’re meant as speeches that he did actually give but they’re rivetting; they could stand up against any speech that anyone has ever given at any such meeting. They’re some of the best passages in the book. In some of the other outstanding passages – for instance a fantasy about bicycling, as a boy, all the way to California to see his dad – the author treats us to some brilliant creative writing.

Near the end of the book, an element of suspense enters when Mr. Mohr’s trying to decide whether to tell his wife about a mistake that he’s made. The book goes on for about thirty pages while he wrestles with this quandary. Health is another thing he struggles with throughout the book. He’s had four strokes and is likely facing more. Surgery has sort of fixed a heart defect, but maybe not. So the book ends, not on an exultant note, not with a triumphant cry that everything is perfect, that it’s clear sailing. The point is that it’s still going on.

In the book’s final scene, he and Lelo, his wife, are visiting an art exhibit that consists of a room of many mirrors. Suddenly, he sees his whole life in all those reflections. He realizes that we’re disparate, wrecked pieces, a symphony of broken instruments “... but once we acknowledge that these different versions are all there, inside of us, that’s when we get to stand in this mirrored room and bask in the dignity of our complexity.”


Late Love (Short Fiction) by Joyce Carol Oates; The New Yorker, April 22 and 29, 2024

It’s hard to tell exactly how old these lovers are, but they’re not young. They’ve both been married before. The woman’s first husband died. The man she’s with now had divorced his first wife but now she, too, has died. He’s a professor of history, a genial, cordial gentleman, much respected and admired. And yet, he’s frightening his new wife with terrible nightmares that bring on shouting and kicking. When his new wife tries to waken him and console him, he gets angry at her. In the daytime, he refuses to admit any such upheaval in the nighttime. As this goes on and on, night after night, the wife begins to worry about what can be causing his turmoil; her thoughts lead her into dark places where she begins to imagine all sort of sinister possibilities.

In a brief note like this, it’s impossible to describe all the intriguing avenues of thought and feeling that the story wanders down. The writing shows all the superb qualities you expect from Joyce Carol Oates – the insight, the catchy phrasing, the minute observation. The story takes a turn that I found somewhat gruesome but maybe you have to expect that in Ms. Oates’ world view. In any case, it didn’t bother me too much, because that element isn’t crucial to the understanding of the story.

The main point of the piece appears to be that it’s so hard to know exactly what’s going on in someone else’s inner life. So much about relationships is mysterious. However, I think there’s another meaning hidden between the lines. And that’s the message that a mature woman, even in today’s world, will do almost everything she can to please her man, to comfort him, to placate him. In other words, her life is all about him. One way this comes through is that, although the story is told from the wife’s point of view, we find out almost nothing about her life, her work, her history before this second marriage. Ms. Oates doesn’t comment on this, she doesn’t tell us how we should react to it, what we should feel about it. She just shows it to us and lets us draw our own conclusions.


Challengers (Movie) written by Justin Kuritzkes; directed by Luca Guadagnino; starring Sendaya, Mike Faist, Josh O’Connor

For starters, two confessions.

1) If I hear about a movie that sounds promising, I usually don’t read any reviews of it before seeing it. Since this movie was about tennis players, I didn’t think there was any chance of my seeing it, so I read Justin Chang’s review in The New Yorker. He made it sound worthwhile. Then, on attending the Met HD Live production of Madama Butterfly, I noticed that Challengers was playing at my neighbourhood cinema. That was a surprise, given that we get mostly blockbusters at that location. Seemed like a good opportunity to catch my type of movie.

2) Which Challengers is not. In fact, I had so much trouble “getting it” that I should not be reviewing it. This, then, will not be an actual review. Instead, it will be a report on my encounter with a certain movie, giving a brief overview of it and some of my impressions.

Challengers is about three tennis players – two men and a woman – who are aiming for top-level championships. At the beginning of the movie, they’re in their early 30s but we flash back several times to when they were younger. The two men have a long-standing friendship that borders on rivalry. When the young woman’s career as a player is hindered by an accident, she becomes a coach for one of the guys. Throughout the movie, there’s a lot of jockeying for position in terms of who’s in love with whom, who’s the better player and so on.

At least, I think that’s what it’s about. I could understand very little of what was going on. That’s partly because I know virtually nothing about tennis. It was impossible for me to discern what was happening in the fragments of tennis matches that are thrown at us. Also, the chronology of the movie is quite jumbled; it keeps jumping back and forth in time with the result that this viewer couldn’t grasp the significant development in the progress of these matches. What made matters most difficult for me was the fact that it was hard to decipher much of what the characters were saying. Like so many actors nowadays, they mumbled most of their lines. I guess you’re supposed to be tuned-in to the culture well enough that you can intuit what’s being said. (Subtitles would have come in handy.)

I would have liked to understand these people. They were attractive and interesting. Patrick (Josh O’Connor) was the brash and out-going one, a good-times sort of guy. Art (Mike Faist) was quieter, but his slightly ingenuous quality didn’t quite hide a keen competitive streak. Tashi (Zendaya) was forthright and plain-spoken. I gather that the character was meant to have a smouldering sexuality – one of the guys said she was the “hottest” woman ever – but she was utterly charmless except in the early days when she was getting to know the two men. I was enjoying getting to know the threesome at that stage too. All the more disappointing when the rest of their lives was impenetrable to me.

One thing that I could appreciate was the cinematography. Come the final match – which is ostensibly going to resolve something between the two men – we’re treated to several minutes of slow-motion drops of sweat falling from foreheads, balletic jumps into the air filmed from below the jumpers, rackets poised like the sword of Damocles about to decide the fate of the world in one swipe. Then suddenly things are speeded up, the camera is swinging around wildly, the tennis players are bounding like rabbits while a propulsive musical score is pushing frantically to the movie’s end.

And how did that match settle the relationship of the two men? I don’t know. The spectacular ending of the game was meaningless to me.


The Wren, The Wren (Novel) by Anne Enright, 2023

Here we have the thoughts and feelings of two Irish women: Carmel, a middle-aged single mother and Nell, her adult daughter. Nell is trying to make a living with her skills in communication and marketing, meanwhile struggling to maintain supportive relationships. Carmel is mostly thinking about her past, worrying about Nell, and longing for her visits. You don’t read a book like this for plot; hardly anything happens apart from Nell’s comings and goings. But you come away with a deep appreciation of what life feels like for two women.

A man whose persona looms large over the proceedings is Nell’s deceased grandfather, i.e. Carmel’s father. He was a well known poet of romantic, nature-focussed poems. He left Carmel’s childhood home when the family was quite young. Travelling the world, enjoying the life of a literary celebrity, taking up relationships with several women, he always professed to love Carmel as much as ever. In a poem dedicated to her, he pictures her as a delicate wren quivering in his hand. Both Carmel and Nell think a lot about him, sometimes remembering or re-watching his tv appearances.

You might say, in fact, that the question of men – what to do with them, how to handle them, how to live with them, how to understand them – is the overriding theme of the novel. While Nell is often wondering whether she’s trading on her grandfather’s celebrity, her more immediate concerns are about a certain Felim, her boyfriend. He seems very nice for a while – funny, considerate, gentle – until he isn’t. Long after the relationship has gone bad, Nell is still thinking about him. Every new man who comes along somehow prompts Nell’s thoughts about Felim, as though she is comparing everybody to him. As for the man who was Nell’s biological father, he seems almost incidental, inconsequential in Carmel’s memory. She has a lot more to say about an affair that seemed nice enough until it petered out more or less by attrition.

A reader familiar with Anne Enright’s work may begin to detect a certain tone here that’s characteristic of her writing. It would be too much to say it’s ‘bitterness’ or ‘sourness’ or ‘anger.’ It’s something like a fatalistic shrug. A sense that things never work out very well. Sex is never what it’s cracked up to be. Life is never as glorious as you dream it might be.

Which is not to say that there aren’t insights, wise observations and epiphanies along the way. Carmel sums up a woman’s fate: “You could nod off, wake up beside some strange man who was now yours to mind for life.” At a certain point of crisis, Carmel feels she was “a painting by a man whose name she could not remember.” And the book isn’t without perceptive social analysis. One entertaining scene has Nell and Carmel explaining to a young Englishman how the Irish and the English express themselves so differently.

In an Anne Enright novel, you expect to enter an Irish world that has some of the traditional ambiance. Since Nell is still in her twenties, however, the passages about her are crammed with email and the social network, apps, slangy language, sentence fragments, references to fads and trends that obsess young people. That melange can make the reading a bit tricky for a reader who isn’t perfectly fluent in the tropes of that world. But you’ve got to hand it to Ms. Enright, a woman in her sixties, for so credibly re-creating the world of a younger generation.

Quite another era comes to life in a snippet of memoir from Carmel’s father, the poet. He talks about his rural childhood in an evocative way that reminds a person of the poetry of Dylan Thomas. There are allusions to a boyish infatuation with a beautiful girl, but his memoir ends with a grisly description of the boy’s enjoying some game wherein a dog is pitted against a badger. Perhaps this is to show that the man, in spite of his kindly, romantic poetry, had a thirst for cruelty.


Tremor (Novel) by Teju Cole, 2023

A quick skim through this book shows you that there’s virtually no dialogue in it. Can that be possible in a novel?

Yes, as it turns out.

If, however, you want a book to provide you with a compelling narrative, one that satisfies you with story-telling, this is not the book for you. On the other hand, if you want a book that offers some thoughtful, careful writing, that takes you places you might not have wandered into on your own, then this book is worth looking into.

The narrator – in so far as there is one – appears to be a man who is teaching photography at an American university. His family background is Nigerian but he was raised in the U.S. Apart from that, you don’t learn much about him in a biographical way. I eventually came to understand the novel as a sort of journal that’s mostly about the narrator’s thoughts and concerns. Sometimes, the slightest reference to some incident will set him off on a long pondering on some subject that matters a lot to him. He’ll spend a lot of time thinking about, for instance, the mistreatment of Indigenous peoples by settlers in America. Or about the horrors of slavery. Or the crimes of serial killers. In a less agonizing mode, he’ll rhapsodize at length about certain kinds of African music that he has discovered in his travels. In these passages, it feels like the writer may be telling us about something he feels we should know more about.

Still, I found it hard not to try to make some sense of the book in narrative terms. One chapter proved especially exasperating in this respect. People were talking about life in Lagos. But the voices seemed to keep changing. About three-quarters of the way through the 50-page chapter, I realized that there was no continuity – except for the subject of life in Lagos. These were the voices of many different people, talking about their lives in the city. You certainly come away with a vivid picture of that teeming metropolis, even if you didn’t know who was speaking at any time.

In the final chapter, the narrator reverts to a somewhat more conventional style of fiction, in that he tells us about various things that are going on in his life, and what’s happening with friends and associates of his. These stories are all mixed up. You jump from one to the other, and then back again. But that’s okay. Life is like that.

Along the way, the author – still very much the thinking man – offers some striking perceptions. Regarding a friend who is enduring cancer treatment, he says that none of us can be ready for suffering: “We believe that there will be sufficient warning so that we can either save ourselves or at least minimize the shock. We want to think we can avoid suddenness, we want to think that we can prepare ourselves for suddenness. Then the ground opens up.” If that isn’t bleak enough, the narrator talks about how he’s viewed by the people he works with. He says his personal reality is quite different. “And then there’s the secret one that is as dark as the blood beating in my veins, a cold river flowing undetected far from view, a place of uncertainty and premonition. Something is moving there that does not need me for its movement and that is taking me where I cannot imagine.”


We Should Not Be Friends (Memoir) by Will Schwalbe, 2023

In his junior year at Yale in the early 1980s, Will Schwalbe was surprised to be invited to join a more or less secret club that met for dinner regularly. Will, being openly gay, doubted that he’d fit into the group. But the group, consisting of about 15 male and female students, made a point of including a diverse cross-section of personalities. Will soon found himself enjoying the group except for one member who particularly irked him: Chris Maxey. This guy, known to everybody as “Maxey” was loud, boisterous, a wresting champ and a show-off, who didn’t seem to take study very seriously. Given Maxey’s spectacular success on the heterosexual front, it seemed unlikely that he and Will would become close friends.

But they did. (Mr. Schwalbe explains that, while the writing of this book is all his, he discussed all these memories with Maxey and they tried to verify facts wherever possible.)

What may have launched the friendship in a subconscious way was a spontaneous gesture. After the group’s weekend bash at a country home, Maxey offered Will a ride back to campus. A severely hungover Will wasn’t keen to ride on the back of Maxey’s Yamaha 850. Would he have to wrap his arms around Maxey? (Will had an aversion to physical contact with people.) And would that make Maxey think he was coming on to him? But if he didn’t wrap his arms around Maxey would that make Maxey think that Will was afraid that it might look like he was coming on to him?

In spite of all this dithering on Will’s part, Maxey wouldn’t let him refuse the ride. As the motorcycle screamed down the highway, the ride was so terrifying and exhilarating that Will stopped worrying about who he was and what was going to become of him: “I was just a guy on the back of a motorcycle piloted by a daredevil jock who wanted to push his machine to the maximum but didn’t seem like he wanted to die.”

The connection between Will and Maxey became more explicit when Will gave the group his ‘audit.’ This was a scheduled discourse after supper when a group member told all the others about his or her life and feelings, fears and hopes. After Will’s talk, Maxey told him that, having heard about Will’s being ‘boy crazy,’ Maxey could understand that it was much like his own being ‘girl crazy.’ Responding to Will’s story about homophobic bullies trying to hurt him, Maxey promised Will that “if anyone ever gives you a hard time, tries to hurt you, or even looks at you funny, you just let me know – and I’ll kick the shit out of them.”

Through their remaining time in college, there were many opportunities for the friendship to deepen – usually in long, beer-fuelled sessions. As Will’s and Maxey’s lives turned in different directions after college, frequent letters helped to keep the connection alive, even though they might not see each other for several years. Maxey spent six years in the Navy Seals and Will became established in the writing and publishing business. (He’s well known for his book The End of Your Life Book Club in which he tells about reading to his mother during her terminal illness.) Will made visits to the school that Maxey and his wife established in the Bahamas; it was to give teenagers a deep immersion in nature that would inspire their environmental concerns. By then, Will had a husband but, not having children, he enjoyed getting to know Maxey’s kids. Will and Maxey supported each other through major illnesses, accidents and family upheavals. None of that prevented the two men from having many adventures, not least of which was Maxey’s persuading Will to try sitting in an underwater trench in the ocean and holding your breath for as long as you could.

No matter how trusting and confidential their friendship, something had been bothering Will since their days back at Yale. One night at the group’s meeting place, Maxey, in one of his most boisterous moods, was hurling the insult ‘homo’ at guys he was sparring with. What about Maxey’s vow to defend Will if anybody bullied him about being gay? But Will had never felt able to confront Maxey about the ‘homo’ taunting. Many years later, though, Maxey told Will about a journal entry he’d made the morning after the ‘homo’ insults. “I was furious with myself,” Maxey said. “I wrote that wrestling achievements don’t matter and that failures don’t matter either. What matters is being a good person.”

One question kept coming to my mind throughout the book: didn’t Will have any sexual feelings for Maxey? After all, Maxey was an attractive, charismatic guy. Doesn’t the title of the book suggest that there might be a problem in that department? In fact, Maxey once touched on the subject, late in their friendship. He pointed out that he always signed his letters to Will with “Love” and he often told Will that he loved him. Yet Will never used the word. Will’s explanation? He was afraid it would sound too gay coming from him. He didn’t want to take the risk that it might sound like he was “in love” with Maxey.

On looking into the book a second time, I find that Will states early on that Maxey wasn’t his type. Maxey was classic “all-American preppy;” Will went for more exotic types. Let’s take Will’s word for it, then: there were no sexual vibes between them, no matter how much a reader might be thinking otherwise. And maybe that’s the point of the book: things don’t work out the way we expect. Human relationships can take all kinds of unexpected shapes. The book raises many ideas about what friendships mean. But maybe some of them aren’t amenable to a lot of deep analysis. As Maxey says when the two of them, pushing sixty, are mulling over their time together: “I guess we are just two middle-aged shallow guys who are pretty frickin’ lucky to be here.”

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com