Jendi Reiter’s wise and ambitious novel Two Natures is the story of young gay man Julian Selkirk who, Crusoe-like, finds himself washed ashore in New York in 1991 and ‘dependent on the kindness of strangers.’ Julian is an aspiring fashion photographer, whose career lows and highs quickly alternate, mirroring his personal exploration of the gay scene and his search for love. The spiritual and the carnal, the beautiful and the sordid, interweave in complex patterns, overshadowed by the gathering AIDS crisis, as the years to 1996 become increasingly hostile to difference. The intensely personal is the politically fraught, and Julian has to cope with the vagaries of love and ambition while mourning friends and lovers.
Two Natures is an all-encompassing work that plunges us into New York’s rent-controlled apartments, gay bars and nightclubs, and the overlapping world of fashion shoots and glamour magazines, in pursuit of the spirit of the times. We accompany Julian in his life of one-night stands and copious casual sex, his interactions with models and photographers, and the conversational jousting with publishers and agents on whom his career depends. A great deal of this whirl is ephemeral, but then, every so often, something permanent is created – a beautiful design, a miraculous photograph, a loving relationship.
Accurate assessment of a life requires perspective. Photography also has two natures, its concern with surface and space, texture and composition sometimes piercing the veil of appearances to reach something beneath that is true and profound. In Paris on a shoot, Julian stands at the top of the Eiffel Tower: ‘I felt like so far I’d stumbled into beauty, taking lucky shots of miracles I didn’t cause, being praised for effects I couldn’t control.’ The professional and the personal are imbricated here, and neither offers a smooth ascent to fulfilment.
In 1991 Julian shares a flat with Dmitri, whose poster of Andres Serrano’s polyvalent photograph Piss Christ is a symbolic bone of contention. ‘“All I ask,” [Julian] said slowly, “is for one fucking place … where I don’t have to walk on fucking eggshells … for once in my fucking life.”’ Julian’s appetite for some kind of congenial faith that has the grace to accept him has survived his conventional Christian upbringing in Georgia. Somewhere concealed in religion there exists ‘a picture of life where nobody’s trapped by being different. I feel like, if I took a fresh look at myself, I don’t know what I could find.’ But then: ‘It’s always the wrong people who can’t see themselves in mirrors.’
In 1992 the pace quickens:
Now Sundays were the only day Phil and I both had off, so the closest I generally came to a house of worship was driving Dane to important funerals. The back pages of the Times were full of them, those discreet half-columns for designers dead at 38, 40, 46; lived, loved, invented the T-shirt dress, died, details of last illness not disclosed.
Phil has a secret life starring as Randy O’Tool in the Pump Me Hard gay porn movies. This is an era of frantic post-sex hygiene, of taking ‘the test’, of waiting weeks for the result, of not daring to open the envelope when it arrives from the clinic. It’s also a time of more subtle cruelties and exclusions: barred from visiting lovers in hospital, uninvited to their funerals. Even when Julian and his friends turn up anyway, he cannot express his sorrow: ‘Any break from my invisibility would be read as drama, not grief.’
Yet all this sadness and anger is laced with humour. ‘Nobody puts adhesive on a good suit,’ Julian quips as an ultimate insult. ‘Saturday I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge and watched the sun set over the Jehovah’s Witnesses world headquarters.’ Anger and humour mix it up when Julian’s family visits New York and he feels he has to put on a heterosexual front in order to keep the peace. ‘My family. Here. Next week.’ We share his dread at the prospect even as we are told that ‘Lying is my family’s preferred form of communication. It’s traditional and cultural, like chopsticks.’ Another time, Julian’s father gives ‘a coherent toast about being proud of his children, including me. He told several of his friends that I’d been working in Paris, though he said the ads were for Christian Dior.’ They weren’t.
Behind the profane – and sometimes mixed in and virtually indistinguishable – is the sacred, glimpsed in little experiential epiphanies, such as the unexpected response of a homeless man to the gift of a dead lover’s clothes: ‘Have a bleshed day, man.’ Sometimes the gift of happiness is hard to accept, as when Julian’s friend Peter looks love in the eye: ‘It feels like a mistake – this can’t be for me, it’s too good.’ The lucky ones among us, surely, have all felt as unworthy.
Above all, there is sex, described in minute anatomical detail, in all its sticky mess, pain and pleasure, guilt and innocence. There is an awful lot of it in Two Natures (some of it quite possibly with the Angel of Death himself) – perhaps too much to make its point or avoid repetitiveness. Yet the point seems to be this: sex is not essentially the opposite of the sacred; rather, it can be a manifestation of the sacred, surprising us as such even when our appetites are at their most lustful. In the milieu of Two Natures, sex is a refuge and reassurance, at once dangerous and companionable, an assertion of togetherness and belonging in a wider culture that rebuffs and ridicules:
I felt the chill of embarrassment, the familiar sickness. From the locker rooms of my suburban high school to the bars of New York, that echo would never die, the baying of the pack.
Jendi Reiter’s work in Two Natures is quite different to that in An Incomplete List of My Wishes. The novel largely eschews the poeticism of the short stories and is told exclusively from Julian’s point of view, so that what happens to him, happens to us. A great deal happens to Julian, all of which we believe but some of which might get lost in the mix. Along with the copious sex, there is perhaps too much narrative in Two Natures, or too much narrative that is too similar. There is room for something qualitatively different to occur, such as a dramatic family confrontation with grievances aired and secrets exposed. Drama tout court. There are fights and falling outs, failures and successes aplenty, but the passing of time – reading it as well as living it – probably requires more variety to be made completely memorable. Julian himself is memorable even though his emotions can sometimes feel not quite his own, filtered through his self-reports as if they are happening to someone else.
Two Natures re-creates the pain and the glory of New York’s gay community and the awful pressures it faced in the 1990s. It’s an enlightening and challenging novel that is often compelling and always frank. Above all, it is a book for gay and straight readers – anyone, in fact, with a love of fine writing, witty repartee and genuine feeling.
‘The birds of the air have nests, and the foxes have holes, and Julian Selkirk needs a place to bring his boyfriend if he should ever find one who returns his phone calls.’ Jokingly, Julian echoes the complaint of the Son of Man and, for one brief instant, shows us the sorrow and significance that unites them.
A shorter version of this review appeared in the Independent Book Review here.
For an interview with Jendi Reiter centred on An Incomplete List of My Wishes, click/tap here.
Saddle Road Press | ISBN 9780996907422 (pbk)