Book Review: Trebor Healey, A Horse Named Sorrow

14 Oct

A horse named sorrow

 

A Horse Named Sorrow is the kind of book that I love, while at the same time being fully aware of its weaknesses.    If someone came up to me and said that they couldn’t finish it, I would completely understand.  However, I have to applaud Healey for trying for something more than the average gay novel tends to.  While this is a good (but flawed) novel, I have no doubt that Healey has a great novel in him and will be looking forward to further reading.

AHNS sets us up in San Francisco in the early 90’s.  This is not the queer wonderland that we so often see, but a worrisome wasteland filled with disease and death.  The AIDS crisis is going full swing, and the new medications haven’t come out yet, so there’s a state of unrest.   Seamus falls in love with Jimmy, who has AIDS and dies from it.   Seamus then goes on a road trip on Jimmy’s bike with the intent of leaving Jimmy’s ashes in Buffalo–where Jimmy came from.   He follows Jimmy’s map and tracks his journey backwards one stop at a time.

From Pilgrim’s Progress onward, every journey is ultimately a spiritual one.   One thing I loved about this book is its emphasis on the spiritual–Seamus is searching for meaning after his whole life has fallen apart, and this quest is the central story of AHNS.    He meets several people on the road, most notably Eugene, a mute Indian, and his uncle Louis, amidst their own journey.

Healey’s language is rich–so rich that you don’t so much read this book as dream it–sometimes a little too rich here and there.  I don’t mind heightened language when the subject deserves it, and the subject here–grief–certainly does.    The biggest theme we have here is transition, Seamus’s journey, the multiple descriptions of the BART, the blue truck, the bicycle–even the focus on the shifting landscape as Seamus heads east leads one to a sense of change and desolation all at once.  Everyone around him seems disconnected–the people who want to tell him their stories as he hitches rides, the waitresses, the people at the diners.   All are either stuck or aimlessly drifting, with little sense of direction.

The other theme here is speechlessness.  Seamus’s actions come from bearing a grief too large to utter, he cannot speak, but only can act.  Eugene doesn’t speak, he’s completely mute, but in his silence provides Seamus some direction.  We enter a world of symbols and pictures, items so much more expressive than literal words.

The thing I love about this novel is it’s greatest flaw–this novel is loose–its associative structure, its heavy reliance on flashbacks, the random details that pepper the story, they’re all evocative, but sometimes they’re a bit much.   There’s a few too many dream sequences, and Healey’s use of stock-phrases, especially “backasswards” can get a little grating as they’re repeated beyond meaning.   However the looseness fits the meaning, we are on a journey of a young man seeking direction, it’s going to be a bit loose and baggy, and odd little things will get pregnant with meaning.  Healey also gets the mindstate of grief spot-on–Seamus is in pain, but he’s not completely shut down, he can’t even begin to speak, and it’s a good way through the book before he even allows himself to really cry.

All in all I find this book a wonderful slow read, that shows the humanity in its gay characters without becoming patronizing or victimy.   It’s georgeously sad, and I highly recommend it for those who aren’t looking for a thrillride, or something naughty.   That’s the best thing about this book–it does not fall to the tropes that most gay male fiction tends to (outside the classics of course).   We have a full spectrum of emotion, and while the characters are all gay, they are rounded characters with more to them than just that.

 

 

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