This Charming Man by Ajax Bell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This charming book is chock full of interesting, lovable, and, at times, hate-able characters. First is Steven, the narrator and main protag, who has come to adulthood but hasn’t really found his footing as an adult. For the past five years he’s been happily lost in that place familiar to most readers–somewhere between dependant adolescence and independent adulthood. Sure, he’s not living at home with his parents, but he’s holding a retail job during the day and clubbing the night away with his fascinating-but-cruel best friend, Adrian, most nights. He’s a typical Gen-Xer in that way, delaying adulthood and responsibilities, and prolonging the time between. Which, huh, speaking of Gen-Xers, he is one, since this this story is set in 1991. And that realization has given me a whole new spin/outlook on Steven. Basically, if you’re familiar with that Portlandia song “The Dream of the 90’s is alive in Portland”? Well, that’s the dream of the Gen-Xers, man, and Steven’s living the dream. [reference: http://youtu.be/TZt-pOc3moc]
But somewhere beneath his shiny, glittering night club life, he’s tiring of it all and he’s growing up, wanting to find something meaningful in his life, something beyond coffee shops, bumps of coke, and his retail job at a fashionable clothing shop. He’s wanting a career, a life, a true love, a home. And yet his current situation keeps sucking him back. It’s easy to stay the same and hard to change–especially when his best friend, whom Steven is half in love with, seems very invested in keeping him stunted.
Speaking of Adrian, he is a scene-stealer in the best way. He’s horrible and yet so compelling. If any reader has made it to adulthood without knowing (and being compelled by) someone like Adrian then you’re a lucky dog. I’ve certainly known enough Adrians in my time to feel both drawn to his flame and an intense world-weary disgust with him. It’s easy to see how he’s manipulated Steven into being his emotional prop through the last five years, and how Steven has been his eager toy.
Enter Steven’s motivation to change. One John Pieters, a charming older man (think Baby Boomer to Steven’s Gen-X) who has life experience and drive. He’s suffered through the 1980s horror of AIDS and clings with tight loyalty to his friends, demonstrating the kind of connection with his self-made family that Steven yearns for and doesn’t get with Adrian. He’s an adult in a way that Steven finds inspiring, arousing, and intimidating. Steven knows that a charming, handsome, older man must look at him and just see a wasteful club kid with nothing going for him.
While Steven does keep John in his mind as a motivator for the life changes he makes in the wake of meeting the man, it’s clear that Steven’s metamorphosis, his true coming-of-age, comes from within. John is the carrot that drives him, like a fantasy or a dream, but something so unattainable at first that it’s only as Steven begins the process of changing the he realizes that maybe it’s not so unattainable after all. At first his metamorphosis is about wanting to be the kind of man John would notice, but it isn’t long before the satisfaction of change motivates him on its own.
I don’t want to spoil too much, and a lot of the wonderfulness of this story is in the details and the way that Steven’s character (and every character of the book) is so relatable and yet so identifiable as being tied to the time (1990s) and place (Seattle). You’ll love Steven and want better for him, like a mother hen ghost, silently following him as a reader and rooting for him to make better choices and then cheering when he finally does.
Speaking of Seattle, the city during the 1990s is beautifully captured here and comes alive in the reader’s mind. While I was not in Seattle in the 1990s, myself, I’ve been given to understand from other readers that the scenes and places discussed are real and recognizable to people who were there.
This Charming Man is a charming, lovely read. There are no difficult hoops to jump through to get into the book. The writing itself is sharp and straightforward. I’ve read it twice and loved it both times, and both times found a deeper connection to the story and the characters.
I think Gen-Xers will especially identify with this story but it’s a great read for all lovers of gay fiction.
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