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Book Review: A Few Hints and Clews by Robert Taylor

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The post-WWII period saw the paperback explosion and with it, the proliferation of gay pulp fiction. Though there existed some quality literature treating homosexuality seriously, though rarely positively, most gay novels before Stonewall were sensationalized, often trashy paperbacks, whose stories inevitably ended negatively, either in self-destruction or murder. Many publishers would not otherwise touch them. Many propagated nasty images of gay life. Few showed positive images, and almost none admitted the possibility that fulfilling, committed, long-term gay relationships were possible. Nevertheless, as Ian Young writes in The Paperback Explosion, for many young men these novels "provided the first window onto the gay world."

Even today, as progressive as we might imagine ourselves to be, the dominant and overwhelming image of gay life depicted in movies and in television sitcoms like "Queer as Folk," particularly of the gay male, is of the dangerous, frenetic, hyper-sexual and promiscuous, often drug-riddled life on the gay nightclub hamster wheel. They party hard and are made to feel over-the-hill once they turn thirty. Few are ever depicted as entering long-term, satisfying relationships. While gay pulp fiction and the nightclub scene make brief appearances in Robert Taylor's new novel, A Few Hints and Clews, his is most certainly not gay pulp, nor is it about the nightclub scene. This novel is a wonderful and moving love story whose two main characters just happen to be gay men.

A Few Hints and Clews is Taylor's fourth novel. His other writing consists of Revelation, a collection of short stories and a novella, as well as three other novels — The Innocent, Whose Eye Is on Which Sparrow, and All We Have is Now. Taylor's work exemplifies the advice so often given to writers — write about what you know. The Innocent features a gay officer in the military in Vietnam, experiences of which Taylor personally knows from his time as lieutenant and then captain in the Vietnam conflict. While I haven't yet had the chance to read Taylor's other novels, I recognized a number of parallels between the author's own life and the story he tells in A Few Hints and Clews as I read the biographical portion of his website.

A Few Hints and Clews is written in a style reminiscent of much older literature. It is narrated in the third person, though from Adam's perspective. He, the book's main character, from the bits and pieces he's heard from and about his parents, and from and about Tony and his parents, imagines, fills in, what their lives must have been like. A Few Hints and Clews reminded me of Carol Shield's The Stone Diaries, both because of its style and because of the way in which both reached back into previous generations to not only create a vivid sense of place, a sense of history, continuity and change, but also to create a solid background to help us make sense of character development. Though its language is clear, simple and modern, and both the content and perspective are very timely and relevant, it shares very few stylistic characteristics with postmodern literature.

In A Few Hints and Clews there are no graphic descriptions of hot, steamy sex. One brief chapter describes the men in the Lost and Found, a gay nightclub in Washington's gay district Adam visits with some regularity before getting into a committed relationship. Adam notices how "those with nice chests wear tight-fitting T-shirts, those with well-developed ones wear skimpy tank tops, and those with sensational ones wear no shirts at all," then stands back and "concentrates on looking at the bare flesh." That's about as graphic as it gets. And aside from the little swearing by a soldier in Vietnam, there is hardly any profanity in the book either. We've become so used to graphic scenes and explicit language that its absence is palpable. But the overarching concern in this novel is with relationships, romance, and love. This novel is romance, not erotica.

There is virtually no referencing in this story of specific events or milestones in the gay liberation movement — indeed its main character seems largely oblivious to such things as a gay lifestyle, community, or movement, or to politics. While the narration is sweeping, in terms of family history, it is very much focused on Adam and his personal life, of his personal experiences and those of his family. It is personal, not public. Still, as the story progresses, we see the subtle effects of the changes brought about by the gay liberation movement in how people react to them and how they are able to live their lives more freely.

A Few Hints and Clews is written in such simple, clear language, and is comprised of mostly very short chapters, that it can easily be read in small chunks, a chapter or two during one's lunch break or while waiting for the bus. But it is engaging enough to draw you in, to make you want to read it in one sitting. This novel truly is refreshing, moving, compassionate and, in today's hurried, socially-disconnected culture, a much-needed love story. Most refreshing of all, for me, was how very ordinary the story was.

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