Songs for the New Depression by Kergan Edwards Stout

Title: Songs for the New Depression
Author: Kergan Edwards-Stout
Publisher: Circumspect Press
Pages: 252
Characters: Gabe Travers, Jon, Keith
POV: first person
Sub-Genre: gay fiction
Kisses: 4 stars



Blurb:

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.

Review:

Gabe Travers wants to be a better person. He doesn’t want to be so judgmental of others. He wants to connect with his loved ones in a meaningful way, if only he could stop being so pretentious and shallow. On the one hand, he’s very proud of himself. He has culture and style, and he genuinely believes that “presentation counts.” He’s proud of how damned smart and quick-witted he is, and he cannot help but view others as being beneath him.

But he feels guilty, especially when he sees the goodness and sincerity within other people. Why can’t he be more like them? Why does he always judge people, think negatively of them? Why does he have to be so selfish and egotistical? He can’t seem to help himself, and throughout his posthumous autobiography, he contradicts himself repeatedly.

Throughout this story, I became frustrated with Gabe. I loved and hated him. He represented all the mean, pretentious people I’d ever met, and yet I connected with his struggle for self-improvement. I empathized with his feelings of self-loathing, his battle to conquer the demons associated with child sexual abuse, and his efforts to embrace his authenticity. In the end, I just felt sad.

Certainly the writing is superb. The wordsmithing is brilliant, and the vocabulary that the author uses makes it abundantly clear to readers that he’s a pretty educated guy. It seemed befitting the character for whom he was narrating. The problem I have with the book, though, is that although I have a great deal of compassion for Gabe, I just don’t like him very much.

The plot is presented in a non-linear format, beginning at the end and ending at the beginning. It is divided into three sections, the first being the last, and the last being the first. I wonder if I’d been able to read the story in chronological order, if I’d have been able to tolerate Gabe a little more. Perhaps this is the point. When we meet someone, we see them as they are with no thought of how they became the person they are. Once we see the big picture, it is easier to understand why an individual behaves the way they do.

It’s difficult to judge this story without delving into a psycho-analytical deconstruction of the main character…and even the secondary characters. Gabe’s parents, though they did the best they could, were in my view terribly misguided. His mother instilled within him the importance of image and presentation, and she’s perhaps the single force that established within him the core belief that self-worth is linked to refinement. This was a hard pill for me to swallow, being that my own core belief is that such attitudes are equivalent to snobbery.

Gabe tries to challenge these beliefs himself on multiple occasions. The most noteworthy of these is when he meets Pastor Sally, one of the story’s few endearing characters. Initially he regards her as a hick, someone beneath him, but then later feels guilty for judging her so quickly. He does the same with Jon, initially proud of the fact that he’s so much more worldly and intelligent than this common person. Eventually they fall in love, and Gabe realizes that Jon possesses every bit of the authenticity that Gabe has yearned to find within himself.

Yet in spite of all these self-revelations, Gabe never connects the dots. He never realizes that he’s spent his entire life trying to put others down in order to elevate himself. All he ever does is blame. He blames his parents for making mistakes that scarred him. He blames the kids who bullied him for making him into a whore. He blames Keith for rejecting him. He blames his therapist for being a fat, overpriced shyster who has milked him for money and provided no real benefit. And ultimately the only solace he ever finds to assuage the waves of self-loathing and guilt is his own materialism.

I am not sure if the author’s intent is to use subtlety to convey a larger, more altruistic message or if he is actually placing a stamp of approval on Gabe’s hedonistic view of life. Perhaps he is merely trying to show us that we all are flawed. After all, what I wanted most was for Gabe to just start loving himself. He really was intelligent. He really did have a good sense of humor. He really did have compassion for others and the ability to love unselfishly. Yet he was his own worst enemy. Because he couldn’t be perfect…and because “presentation counts”…he went to his grave believing himself to be an utter failure.

My biggest shortcoming as a reader (and literary critic) is that I want my happily-ever-after. I never found that in Gabe’s story. Although the writing pulled at my heartstrings and allowed me to feel those bitter-sweet emotions I so cherish, there was no resolution. There was nothing formulaic about this novel, and perhaps that is what has left me feeling so cheated. I acknowledge my own weakness in this regard. I have no doubt that this award-winning novel is worthy the praise that has been heaped upon it, but it is definitely not a feel-good read.

To be blunt, I feel emotionally as if I’ve been bludgeoned, and I wish my heart would stop breaking for this character who remains a little-too-real for my comfort level. In a word, I’d say the book was “haunting”. I guess it will have to be up to the individual reader to decide for themselves if this is a good thing or bad. It has certainly had an impact upon me.

Reviewed By: Jeff

Please note: We had two reviewers who reviewed this title, so we ran them both.

Michele

Songs for the New Depression by Kergan Edwards-Stout

Title: Songs for the New Depression
Author: Kergan Edwards-Stout
Publisher: Circumspect Press
Pages: 252
Characters: Gabe Travers, Jon, Keith
POV: first person
Sub-Genre: gay fiction
Kisses: 5




Blurb:

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.

Review:

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

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