Timmy O’Kane, the protagonist of Anthony Giardina’s fourth novel, lives in suburban Massachusetts and works as a salesman for an academic publisher. He visits universities and tries to persuade professors to buy the firm’s anthologies, the most popular of which he calls ‘White Guys’:
‘White Guys’ sells in the hundreds of thousands annually. It is the text of choice at community colleges and for the less imaginative graduate assistants at the big state universities. It begins with an excerpt from Charles Brockden Brown and his 18th-century religious maniacs and ends with a story about a lovesick football coach in late 20th-century Albuquerque. Though it is not, of course, literally comprised of stories written only by white males, the bulk is still there: it is a testicular view of America, unquestionably.
Although no great reader, Timmy finds himself on the road, in motels, with nights full of empty time, so he acquaints himself with this ‘testicular view’. One story in particular strikes him: John Cheever’s ‘The Country Husband’. The force of it disorients him, he realises, because in twenty sad, brilliant pages it demolishes the allure of the things for which he most longs: ‘husbandhood and fatherhood and a certain kind of woman who attached to those concepts in my mind . . . the life I saw in the movies, in advertisements, in which a couple, still young, sit in a car full of kids’.
This is a good move: a nod to one of the masters of suburban fiction at the outset of a work of suburban fiction, a sign of the narrator’s awareness that he’s about to tell a kind of story told many times before. Yet the curious thing about White Guys is that, after this sly set-up, the narrator seems to lose sight of what Cheever and the other ‘white guys’ were trying to tell him, their ‘suggestion of the emptiness of suburban marriage, of lives like my own hanging by a thread of misplaced hope’.
It’s the 1980s. Reagan is cutting taxes. Wealth isn’t trickling down, it’s funnelling upwards, and Timmy is perfectly poised to capitalise. His childhood friends, all of them Italian boys from Winship, a ‘hard-scrabble’ town outside Boston, do even better than he does. They become big-shot retail developers, corporate headhunters, district attorneys. Their names suggest American middle-class innocence: Kenny, Johnny, Freddie. Only one of them, Billy Mogavero, is left behind. Billy went to jail for assaulting a cop, and now he is stuck in Winship, working as a clerk in a paint store. The lever of the plot tips when, years having passed, the group pays Billy a visit, and Kenny offers him a job, in an effort to lift him out of what they all perceive as an undignified position and into the attainable splendours of the roaring American economy of the 1990s. Charismatic, physically imposing, with a powerful streak of anarchic cruelty, Billy had been their ringleader and now stands as a rebuke to their strivings and pretensions. Timmy had always been closest to Billy. There is something about him that Timmy finds attractive; as the novel progresses we sense that above all else – above his hardness, his cruelty, his bluff pretension to a lack of sentimentality, which always masks the deepest sentimentality – the something in question is Billy’s sexual power. Timmy remembers Billy and his girlfriend Carol in adolescence:
They were legendary in the world of Winship High School. Billy had already come fully into his looks. His big, pouty, roundish face had matured without passing through any of the debilitating stages of adolescence. He had the look of sexual readiness before any of the rest of us. I was more than half in love with the sight of them together, his dark frame against the soft blondeness of her.
In a later set piece, Timmy seduces his future wife at Cheers, the bar in Boston made famous by the long-running sitcom. The bathos of this again seems to indicate an awareness, on the part of both Giardina and his narrator, of the prepackaged nature of so much of the middle-class experience described in the novel. Cheers, in the TV show, was ‘the place where everybody knows your name’; in the novel, it’s the place where everyone knows your game, an upscale meat market. Yet there is a weird moment at the end of this tale within the tale, as Timmy recounts it:
You cannot overwhelm this woman with your desire, though all you want to say is: No, no, you don’t understand a thing. So you rise and take her hand and lead her back in with no intention of ever letting go – you will ride in the trunk of her car, you will strap yourself to the side door – and as you clutch the hand of this woman you’d neither seen nor heard of until an hour ago, this woman who is the bodily impression of all the things you have so deeply longed for, you feel that you are finally and definitively overcoming Billy and all he represented.
Which raises the question: what does Billy represent? And what is overcome? On the surface he appears to be a thug, the bad guy girls always fall for, the sneering, bawdy contrast to the refined, circumspect lives lived by his old pals. Even after Billy begins to move up at Winerip, Kenny’s retail development firm, he insists on driving a beat-up old car; when Timmy and Billy double-date, he always takes them to slightly faded, out-of-the way restaurants, the kind with a tank of goldfish in the corner and a mounted marlin on the wall. Paula, the woman Billy eventually marries, is a tough, gritty child of the south Boston housing projects, the antithesis of the nipped and tucked, carefully coiffed women the rest of the guys fall for.
So he represents an unbroken attachment to their past. But for Timmy he also represents an unnameable, almost unthinkable thing: a continuing schoolboy crush. In the paint store, on the visit that springs Billy from his dead-end life, ‘the effect he had on us . . . was to make us more aware of our bodies’; seeing Billy with Paula reminds Timmy of ‘what it had been to be outside of Billy’s sex in the old days, to be sitting on a seawall knowing he was down the beach with Carol Casella’; Timmy remembers seeing Billy naked, ‘that image we had all measured ourselves against’; observing Billy and Paula together, Timmy feels as if he is ‘sharing . . . another’s sexual excitement – as if the feelings occurring in another person’s body are actually occurring in your own’; he ‘wanted to be with them in the making of the boy and girl’ they dreamed of; there are many descriptions of Billy’s ‘immense physical vitality’, ‘the easy way he moved, the lightness of his gestures’, his ‘thick, furry presence . . . very warm’; ‘though he wasn’t moving, I could feel him pushing the whole force of himself against me with his mouth and lips.’
In his previous work, Giardina has explored the homosexual impulse with great subtlety and grace, in a way few contemporary straight American writers have. His third novel, Recent History (2001), traced the life of an Italian-American boy coming of age in the early 1960s. Luca Carcera’s father abandons him and his mother for life with another man. Luca believes that if he can convince his father he has a crush on a schoolboy friend, his father will recoil, see the error of his ways, and return to the family. On a picnic outing he contrives to be seen holding hands with his friend. Later, at university, Luca sleeps with his handsome roommate, a tryst that haunts his sense of himself well into what should be a happy, conventional marriage. As he explains to his wife, ‘it was like somewhere along the line I misplaced my own sexuality, and anyone could come along and define it for me. You, him, whoever. The guy across the courtyard.’ It was as if, he says, ‘I had no will, or choice in the matter.’
I know of no recent American novel that explores the confusions of male bisexuality, if that’s what we can call it, with such sympathy and intelligence; its only rival on the subject is probably Cheever’s journal. Recent History is unhurried in its rhythms, unfussy and clear in its prose style, an under-known achievement of contemporary American fiction – which makes White Guys all the more disappointing. Timmy O’Kane’s absolute refusal to face the implications of his feelings for Billy doesn’t pass the plausibility test. This erotic secret remains so elusive, it’s difficult at first to ascertain whether it’s the narrator’s fault or the author’s. Does Giardina not have access to his main character’s consciousness, or does Timmy not have a very developed understanding of his own inner life?
Halfway through the book, Billy and his pregnant wife are shot in a rough neighbourhood in south Boston, apparently by a black assailant, and for a time the story seems to want to explore Boston’s abiding race problem. Giardina’s inspiration was the notorious case of Charles Stuart, whose pregnant wife was murdered in a dicey Boston neighbourhood in 1989. By a black assailant, everyone at first assumed, although the terrible truth of what Stuart had done eventually emerged. At one point Kenny says: ‘Look, there are two places in the United States where race relations haven’t moved a step forward since the Civil War. One is Mississippi. The other is Boston. Don’t ask me why.’ But this comment merely gestures toward the subject, as does the glimpse we get of Timmy in the bathroom at a cocktail party, flipping through a copy of Brides magazine, fantasising about the one black model in the whole rag: ‘I wanted to loosen my pants and unleash my already partially swollen dick and imagine those thick black lips parting to receive it.’ That’s about as far as Giardina goes in this direction, which is both too far and not far enough.
When Billy’s brother shows up at Timmy’s house with a gun he wants to dump, the novel appears poised to become a heart-of-darkness-in-the-suburbs story. Timmy buries the gun in his wild and wooded backyard, where a great deal of the remainder of the novel unfurls. Timmy forgets where he buried it; Billy comes looking for it; the two of them dig and probe but can’t find it; and so on, until the gun nearly goes off at the feet of Timmy’s oldest daughter.
Sex. Race. Crime. Suburban ennui. The straitjacket of class. The perils of upward mobility. The grab-bag of themes is just that: an overstuffed bag, evidence of authorial attention-deficit disorder.
Cheever’s journals, a haunting record of sexual confusion, describe a man almost losing his sanity under conditions not dissimilar to Timmy’s (leaving the nonsense of the gun aside): a man keeping up appearances, a genteel man in pale slacks, a martini in his hand, bird dogs crowding his feet, an unspeakable lust for men in his heart. But Giardina’s novel ends with Timmy, alone with his dog in the woods behind his big suburban house, musing about ‘that moment I have always treasured, to be standing in the dark looking up at a lit place, knowing that I can return to it but that I don’t have to, not just yet’. This neatly – rather too neatly – echoes something he said earlier: ‘I played a game with darkness, opening my net wide. I suppose I always believed I could escape if the actual thing came too near.’ Ah yes, he has passed through the heart of darkness. He has duelled with the devil and won. That would have to be the moral for a man who can say, with a straight face, about his sales encounters:
I was . . . aware that for years I had been selling not a book, but a life to my clients – at least the agreement behind such a life. In our conversations I could sometimes feel the actual force of that agreement: worldly ambition, academic excellence – these gave way to something else, to the shared memory of the first indescribably good sip of beer on a Saturday night, as the light fell and the coals glowed and you waited, staring into your thick woods, with a plate of salmon steaks to be grilled. To support such a moment, I had always been able to suggest, you didn’t need anything cutting edge: John Cheever would always do, or Hawthorne or Melville, or any of the men ranging through the pages of ‘White Guys’. Whatever the darkness in their stories, you always had the feeling that Cheever and Hawthorne and Melville knew the beer-and-woods-and-salmon moment, and that they secretly, guiltily affirmed it.
Sadly, I don’t think I share that feeling.