Title: Songs for the New Depression
Author: Kergan Edwards-Stout
Publisher: Circumspect Press
Characters: Gabe Travers, Jon, Keith
POV: first person
Sub-Genre: gay fiction
Gabriel Travers knows he’s dying; he just can’t prove it. Despite his doctor’s proclamations to the contrary and rumors of a promising new HIV drug cocktail, all it takes is one glance into the mirror to tell Gabe everything he needs to know. His ass, once the talk of West Hollywood, now looks suspiciously like a Shar-Pei, prompting even more talk around town.
Back in his 20’s, life had been so easy. Caught up in the 1980’s world of LOVE! MONEY! SEX!, Gabe thought he’d have it all. But every effort to better himself ended in self-sabotage, and every attempt at love left him with only a fake number, scrawled on a realtor’s notepad.
The only happiness he could remember was in high school, where he’d met Keith, his first love. Only Keith had recognized the goodness within, and knew of the brutal attack Gabe had faced, the effects of which still rule his life today.
Now almost 40, and with the clock ticking, Gabe begins to finally peel back the layers and tackle his demons – with a little help from the music of the Divine Miss M and his mom’s new wife, a country music-loving priest.
Songs for the New Depression by Kergan Edwards-Stout was one of the most emotional, touching, heart-wrenching, and intelligent stories I’ve read in a very long time. With a dark wit reminding me of David Sedaris, this story examines the life of a man who’s made many mistakes and, at the end, has managed to learn a few lessons.
Written in the first person from the perspective of Gabe Travis, the story is broken into three sections. The first section focuses on his later years as he is dying from AIDS. The next section focuses on his twenties at a juncture when he had lost his youthful idealism, but still had hope for a happier future. The third section depicts his high school years and the awakening of his physical sexuality and first love.
Part of what made the story so touching was this backwards design. As we moved forward in the book, we learned about Gabe’s past, but we learned about it already knowing where he’d end up. References and dreams take on a new meaning because we know, ultimately, where the desires of the younger Gabe will lead him.
The language is sophisticated and elegant, each word precise, depicting clear images and evoking specific emotions. The description, whether of location, food, clothing, people, or emotions draws the reader into the moment as if it were actually happening. As a result, we experience Gabe’s highs and lows on a powerful level, truly understanding Gabe, his limitations, and his dreams.
One common thread throughout all sections of the book was Gabe’s tendency to push people away. He uses sarcasm, humor, and sometimes cruelty to keep people outside his coat of armor. What I admire about this story is how Mr. Edwards-Stout did not hedge from painting a real and sometimes ugly picture of a man who, along the way, had pushed so many people away. Whether a teenager finding first love, a man in his twenties trying to reinvent himself time and again, or a dying man looking back on his life and wondering what impact he’s had and who would notice, Gabe ultimately viewed himself as alone. Up until he met Jon, the one person who could accept him for all his faults, Gabe would consistently reflect on how he’d effectively pushed everyone away who tried to get close. Not until the end of his life does he truly realize what he has in his lover Jon, unconditional love, and that he’s wasted so much time avoiding people who could hurt him.
The story, real and unapologetic, speaks to a specific segment of the population at a specific time period. Gay men, at the onset of HIV/AIDS, experienced things in a particular way and this book was perfectly ensconced in that era. Yet the story also transcends the population of gay men at the onset of an epidemic. The book speaks to any person who’s been afraid of getting hurt, who’s allowed their fear and their guards to push people away rather than looking inwards and facing their own flaws. In short, this book speaks to everyone.
Who hasn’t lost a friend because our pride or feelings got in the way of looking past a specific incident? Who hasn’t made a choice which defined the direction their lives took, for better or worse? Who hasn’t spoken falsely, skimming over the surface of a serious conversation, afraid to face heavy and uncomfortable emotions? The questions need not be answered, since these are natural parts of being human. The rewards of pushing past those instinctual protective responses is at the heart of what Mr. Edwards-Stout has portrayed in Songs for the New Depression.
Through the life of a man who had every opportunity to make the choices which would have unlocked his dreams, he has depicted how fragile our lives are and how our choices have very real consequences which can’t be undone. Even so, despite choices which lead to unintended consequences, we also learn those choices do not consign us to lives of depression and isolation. It’s never too late to learn the lessons life has to teach and ultimately, happiness is always achievable. Wrapped up in a sad story, illustrated with disappointments and heart-break, is a story of hope and understanding.
Reviewed by Doug