Writing about AIDS in a post-apocalypse gay society poses a particular trap for a gay writer, in that by reliving the past he could be accused of ignoring the exigencies of the present, which has its own immediate and pressing problems. The past is dead and buried.
Yet there is a distinct danger in forgetting the past, and the sacrifices and hardships endured by those in firing the crucible that shaped our modern gay world. We can never take any form of liberty for granted, for then we will never appreciate its true value. Especially if it is taken away again.
Of course, the AIDS crisis is of specific significance to the gay community in the US, which is vastly different to that in the Middle East and elsewhere in Africa, for example (where people are still dying and suffering for what many First World, European gay people take so for granted).
What I loved about A Horse Named Sorrow is that Trebor Healey tells a story about the mythical gay utopia of San Francisco, and the black pall that falls upon it, and turns this into a universal tale of love found and lost.
I defy anyone, straight or gay, to read this dry-eyed, and not to fall in love with Seamus Blake and Jimmy Keane (and not to be turned on by their wild love). To qualify this last comment: I happened to be reading The Lost Library by Tom Cardamone at the same time, in which Michael Graves comments that “amply described blowjobs and anal scenes may stigmatise gay writers”.
Healey has written a deeply gay novel, drenched in gay aesthetic, and all sorts of other fluids, both bodily and spiritual, but at the same time it can be read quite comfortably by non-gay people, particularly those who are squeamish about the mechanics of gay-male sexuality.
Healey is deliberately vague in the ample sex scenes, but imbues them with copious amounts of love and masculinity. (There is also a deeply subversive riff on Christianity, and how the pure love shown by Christ can be an exemplar for the pure love between two people – of whatever gender or orientation. Love, compassion and humanity are all that matter).
This is basically an anthem to love and loss. Seamus meets the love of his life, and loses him too soon to AIDS. Jimmy’s dying wish was to return to from whence he came, and Seamus vows to retrace his soul mate’s journey from Buffalo to San Francisco, via bicycle, with Jimmy’s ashes in a bag on the handlebars.
Yes, it sounds as quixotic and as faintly ridiculous as David Lynch’s The Straight Story (only a much gayer version), but Healey uses this simple framework to build a deeply affecting and unforgetting story.
The writing here is luminous. At one point Healey deliberately references Tom Spanbauer, and I think this is very much a homage to the lushness of Spanbauer’s ‘dangerous writing’. What is important about this novel though is that it goes far beyond an account of dealing with the grief of losing a loved one.
Seamus meets Eugene on the road, and falls in love with him because he reminds him of Jimmy. Seamus, of course, is ashamed at his body’s needs, and conflicted by the love he felt for Jimmy, which he thought precluded feeling anything for anyone ever again. His journey towards final redemption, and the end of his epic quest to see Jimmy safely home again, is both heart-breaking and deeply spiritual.
The weird commingling of pain and joy of reading this was so intense and contradictory at times that I had to put the book down at several points. I am so glad I persevered though, for this is a truly great novel that deserves to be embraced and loved back by a much wider audience.