Southernmost, Silas House, Hardcover, 352pp, June 2018, Algonquin Books
Full Disclosure: I bought Southernmost from my beloved local indie, Curious Iguana [CLICK HERE], because it was blurbed by Garth Greenwell, whose novel, What Belongs To You, remains one of my lifetime favorite books. I did not get a free copy. I do not know the author. I am just a reader devoted to good writing.
Full Disclosure Part 2: To read a novel in which many actions are motivated by anti-LGBTQ bigotry in the current atmosphere when a major political party has embraced legislating hate, bigotry, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia into law is, for me, terrifying. I appreciate some people still think gentle education is the answer and cure, I was once a proponent of said approach myself. Now, however, I believe more and more with every passing day and new despicable action committed by the gop and the illegitimate dictator-wanna-be occupying the white house along with his criminal family and jackbooted cronies, that the only answer is revolution. In addition to which, having suffered the results — physical and emotional — and compromised existence resulting from such prejudice as is being promulgated by these fascist-republicans, I am, perhaps, more impatient than most with the gentle treatment of the bigoted-villains in this story.
Synopsis: A flood destroys a Tennessee town in tandem with the Supreme Court ruling affirming gay marriage equality. Pentecostal preacher, Asher Sharp’s nine-year-old son, Justin, runs toward the dangerous rushing waters in search of his beloved dog, Roscoe, and is rescued — sort of — by Jimmy and Stephen, a gay couple recently relocated from Nashville. When Asher offers shelter to the couple whose home has been destroyed, his rabidly-hypocritically-pious wife objects, worried what the congregation will think. Jimmy and Stephen leave, unwilling to stay where they are unwanted, and Asher begins to be plagued by doubts, further exacerbated by memories of his gay brother Luke’s departure a decade earlier when their mother held a gun to his head saying she’d rather see him dead than gay, and Asher, too, turned against him in cruel, bigoted judgment, twisting religion into hate.
When Jimmy and Stephen try to join Asher’s congregation, its members insist Asher reject them. Asher determines this to be un-christian and cites biblical passages to insist they be welcomed and accepted. When the congregation then votes to oust him as minister, Asher makes an impassioned speech about acceptance which goes viral. He leaves his wife, who sues for and wins sole-custody of Justin thanks to a prejudiced judge and backward court system.
Asher, increasingly disturbed by the abusive brainwashing his son is being subjected to, forcibly removes Justin from his grandmother’s home one weekend, inadvertently injuring her in the struggle, and runs with him to Key West putatively in search of Luke, the brother he’s not seen nor communicated with in a decade. Along the way they rescue a stray dog, who Justin names Shady, who can’t replace Roscoe — whose body Asher found, never telling Justin he had done so — but does give Justin something to take care of, a confidante.
In Key West, Asher and Justin and Shady settle in at a guest house owned by Bell, an older semi-recluse, and begin working there along with Evona, another emotional recluse with a mysterious and sad history. Now and then Asher asks someone if they’ve heard of his brother, and he Vespas the streets of Key West in a magic-realism, less than sincere effort at finding long-gone Luke.
What happens then, what’s happened until then, is a story about the shape and the power of beliefs, the cost of constructing one’s own personal morality and faith-based on experience and heart-truths, disregarding the droning cacophony of “should must right wrong black white yes no” of many traditional, conservative religions; a system of beliefs all too often used to bully, frighten, and control people in ways that grow hate rather than spread love, using faith as a weapon of punishment, terrorism, and division rather than praise, acceptance, and inclusion.
Asher questions his past and contributions to that culture of despair, and the damage such teachings and preachings have done. At the same time, he sees that forcing Justin to live in hiding, removing him from his home and others he loves is also doing damage. Asher struggles with questions of faith and accountability, and, too, the many shapes of love and the lengths to which people will go in the service of that love, lengths and actions that distort that love into an unrecognizable force of destruction and harm.
Well then. Okay. I get it. I do. And here’s what Josh Inocéncio in Spectrum South: The Voice of the Queer South [link to entire review, click here] has to say:
And this is why House’s novel is critical, particularly to southern literature. Written in third person, the story is about a conservative, heterosexual man who must challenge everything he knows to pursue a new sense of what is right.
… and this …
With Southernmost, House brings a much-needed message from a palatable point of view. It’s a novel that every gay southerner should read, and then hastily send to any of their kin still struggling with acceptance.
Palatable point of view? I say, fuck that noise. At this point in history, when our freedoms are daily abrogated, our lives quite literally threatened, all with the approval — nay, the cheering on — of a major political party and 62 million bigot-voters — for an LGBTQ writer to approach a story from the point of view of a cis-white-male-hetero-villain’s perspective in an attempt to mollycoddle the bigoted into considering behaving like decent human beings is nothing less than Uncle Tomism, or, I think we’ll call it Uncle Bruce-ism.
Like I said, FUCK THAT NOISE.
I think we’ve had quite enough stories told from the point of view of straight white men. And when man-of-so-called-god Asher suffers pangs of conscience ten years after calling his brother a faggot and disowning him, and then has his life inconvenienced for taking baby-steps toward decency, steps mostly self-serving and ill-conceived, none of which constitute actually DOING anything to undo the damage his actions and preaching have done throughout the years, well, you’ll have to excuse me if I am less than sympathetic.
Like the brother he finally finds who says that none of what Asher did can be undone, I agree. And so, this isn’t me saying the book is poorly written — that’s not the case at all. It moves quickly, speaks in evocative, simple language and Southern-patois with the ring of authenticity, and despite some diminishment of action into cliché and, too, a nine-year-old who is described as an old-soul but who is prescient and empathetic beyond belief, the novel is quite readable.
But, it’s a Lifetime-movie in a time when we need a Tony Kushner play. It is appeasement when we need to storm the barricades, and as such — for me, at least — it, in part, excuses the inexcusable and unforgivable behaviors and attitudes of the haters, without the hater-in-chief main character doing anything other than feeling a little bad about what he’s done. And, in the meantime, managing to hurt his son, his mother-in-law, his brother, and his fellow runaway, Evona, in the process. Typical. The angst and suffering of the cis-het-white-man infects and damages everyone with whom he comes in contact.
Enough. Too much. Rabbit has run one too many times, and Portnoy’s complaints are just privileged whining, and everything Franzen induces furious-gag-reflex now. So, out with the perspective of the oppressors, please.
And, one more time, fuck that noise.