Thursday, August 11, 2011

Public Displays of Affection

Wounded (Graywolf Press, 1995) is the second novel I've read by Percival Everett; the first was Erasure (University Press of New England, 2001). Erasure had caught my eye in the library: it's about an African-American novelist who usually writes highly abstruse fiction, but after being offended by what he considers a stereotype-reinforcing novel of urban black life by a young woman whose exposure to such life consisted of a few days in Harlem, he writes a parody of the genre that becomes a best-seller and forces him to come to grapple with white American racism and African-American self-caricature. It was a good read but not enough to drive me to read more of Everett's work, until I heard somewhere that Wounded had a gay protagonist. The novelist in Erasure had a gay brother whom Everett treated fairly well, so my curiosity was whetted.

Maybe I misunderstood my source, because the protagonist of Wounded isn't gay. The protagonist is John Hunt, a widowed, fortyish black rancher and horse trainer who lives with his elderly uncle Gus in Arizona near the Red Desert. Hunt and his uncle are the only blacks in the area, but they've lived there a long time and the white community have apparently accepted them. But then a gay college student is murdered, the case gets national attention, some college students come to town to stage a protest about it, and a few local bigots begin flexing their muscles. There are threats against the Indians in the area, and various racial and gay-related epithets are tossed around.

Among the students who come for the rally are David, the son of Hunt's best friend from his college days at Berkeley, and his boyfriend Robert. Robert is scornful of the small town and has other issues as well; he's more defiant and even combative, and expresses it by small demonstrative gestures toward David -- pecks on the lips, holding hands -- that are interpreted by Hunt and some other characters as provocations. (I'll come back to that in a moment.) Meanwhile, Hunt becomes involved with Morgan, another horse-lover who had been a teacher but came home to care for her ailing mother. David decides to stay and go to work for Hunt, which leads to a confrontion with his father, Hunt's friend Howard, and Hunt sees a side of his friend that bothers him.

Now, I'm not sure that any of the characters who react negatively to Robert and David's public displays of affection represent the author's view of them. Duncan Camp, an old local friend of Hunt's, is one of them, and he turns out not to be quite the paragon of tolerance he thinks he is. John Hunt himself is bothered by the PDAs, but I think he begins to realize that his discomfort is related to, if not caused by, the cautious way he has learned to carry himself as a black man in a small Western town. Some might consider Hunt an oreo because of his Berkeley education in art history, to say nothing of his having attended Philips Exeter Academy before that, but he knows very well he's a black man in a white society, and when he comes up against racism he stands up to it. Despite the prominence of the gay strand in the story, Wounded is just as much about race.

It's the issue of affection between men in public that made me decide to write about Wounded here, though. I think that Everett's decision to make David's boyfriend Robert so unsympathetic generally loaded the dice. Same-sex couples must always calculate the risk they engage by doing what heterosexuals do freely: touch each other affectionately in public. Even many gays get their pants in a bunch over same-sex affection in public. As a result, those of us who do decide to hold hands or kiss lightly can't do such things thoughtlessly, unselfconsciously; we have to be alert to threats from the environment. Except in urban enclaves, even the most innocuous expression of affection is never pure: it's also an act of defiance. Because of this, heterosexuals are often easier about same-sex touching in public than most gays are able to be. It's the awareness of this fact that keeps me angry forty years after I came out -- not constantly, not disablingly, but ready to slap down bigotry whenever it rears its head around me. (There have been people who've accused me, more or less playfully, of going looking for bigotry. Believe me, I don't have to go looking for it -- it comes looking for me.)

I've avoided saying too much about what happens in Wounded -- it has a lot more going on than I've sketched here -- but I think that anyone who reads it with any care will agree that Percival Everett knew very well what he was doing. He writes about black characters who don't want to be confined by white America's assumptions about what black people should be like, and that's not capitulation to racism, it's resistance.