The Cool Part of His Pillow by Rodney Ross is one of those novels that transcend their subject matter to become a universal statement, in this case about death and loss. But it is about so much more: regret, the inexorable march of age, the power of memory.
There is a wonderful scene towards the end where Barry Grooms undresses before a mirror for a merciless (re)appraisal of his mid-forties physiognomy. At this stage he is involved in a rather torrid but sexually satisfying (and, needless to say, short-lived) affair with a 24-year-old. “I stare at the beauty that comes automatically bundled and unappreciated with youth. I can’t be this anymore.”
What a brave and beautiful thing to say. It is probably a revelation as fraught with self-discovery as coming-out is in the first place. Sadly, it is also an epiphany that a lot of older gay men fail to experience.
There is another evocative scene towards the end when Barry discovers that his older friend Shorty is gay, from a generation where “men couldn’t always live openly together”. By the time the gay 90s arrives to sprinkle everyone liberally with fairy dust, people like Barry are already in their 60s. “An old man who likes other old men just makes people nervous.”
The book begins with Barry’s long-term partner being crushed to death in his parked car when a crane collapses at a nearby construction site. At the time he has their two pugs with him in the car. It is a macabre touch that allows Rodney Ross to explore the random, often baroque ordinariness of lived experience.
It is also the lead-in to a key scene at the end – just why was his partner parked there at that particular time? The (older gay) reader automatically thinks he was there for some kind of lurid pet-friendly assignation, and Ross certainly plays on this stereotypical perception. The truth, however, is far more prosaic and shattering. It is a delicate, pitch-perfect scene that had me crying like a baby.
You have to be careful when you write about sadness and loss: too much, and it quickly becomes maudlin; if the author is too flippant, it can become equally grating. Ross strikes a perfect balance, detailing Barry’s painful journey towards acceptance of his irrevocably altered life. There is one particular event that shapes this journey: when his mother becomes ill, and Barry realises she was already sick when he himself was grieving, but had wanted to spare him this additional worry.
Tender and painful at times, but always heartfelt and brimming over with the sheer unalloyed joy of being alive, this is a truly special book.