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
Kisses: 4 stars
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.
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.