Roots for fruits, Laurence Jenkins

Sucking Feijoas
Jeff Buchanan
Tandem Press, $24.95
ISBN 187717824 1

Wilde’s “love that dare not speak its name” now declaims lustily from the rooftops, but which name? For men, as if homosexual weren’t confusing enough with its origins in both Latin and Greek (when is a homo not a homo?), there is a superfluity of other names including “Friend of Dorothy”, “poofter”, “faggot” and “gay”. In case you thought we had settled on the latter, forget it, for, transmogrified, in-your-face queer is back, clothed in respectability.

George Crossett, one of the trinity of protagonists in Jeff Buchanan’s Sucking Feijoas, initially feels the flush of guilt and indignity created by simply hearing the word but is cavorting about (“mincing”) before the end of the novel, proudly proclaiming himself Queer. I still flush, but it is George with whom members of my generation will doubtless identify in this evocative, courageous novel – three novellas carefully and cleverly linked – which asks vital questions about the progress of personal freedom in a provincial setting.

George makes it with his married navvy lover Des while his father Albert, two days a widower, makes tea in the next room. Dad empathetically reveals that his wartime lover Jack drowned himself rather than “face his own nature”. Albert and George share a symbiotic if boring life in the aftermath of all that death – to which Des adds by putting a bullet through his own head. George shifts to Wellington but yields independence when Albert’s lungs pack up. Father and son tend Mum’s Memorial Garden, and son cruises the public toilets, convinced that he masks his sexuality behind the macho mannerisms he carefully rehearses. Entrapped in the toilets and sent to prison, he’s jolted into self-awareness by Billy, a fellow inmate he sets out to seduce: “With a queen like you? A fucking dairy cow? … You gotta be strong in prison. Tough … be a man and not so bloody camp. It’s for your own good. Don’t mince. Don’t sit like a queen.”

Gay (one of Buchanan’s characters calls this “old language used flippantly for something criminalised”) writing, queer writing if you will, has focused almost exclusively for two decades on disease and demise. Practically nothing has appeared since Boys in the Band (which predates HIV) depicting homosexuals as closeted, neurotic figures coping with fear and ridicule. Fairy Godmother has made being gay ok. Bibbety-Bobbity Boo. In a triumphant post-Stonewall, post-modern world, the past and pretty much all who lived in her are now culturally marginalised, trivialised: the Pink Dollar, Don’t rain on my Hero Parade, Queer Nation and, in case you’re not reading ready, Qwer Nation, Queer movies for straight audiences (In and Out, R16) – welcome expressions of a new confidence. Buchanan, like a cold, sobering shower, drenches us in a memoir of hell – New Plymouth become Salem, Roots for Fruits and about time, too.

The victims of past attitudes, represented by George Crossett, are still here, but the tradition which began with Genet, Gide, Stein, Baldwin, Radclyffe Hall and Gore Vidal has succumbed to a New PermWave. Angst has given way to mawkishness. From rich and diverse beginnings, gay writing has become rather monothematic. Even the most talented of gay authors – Edmund White, Paul Monet and in New Zealand, Peter Wells – seldom rock the boat. The “normals” as enemy have been usurped by a virus.

Do we need the enemy? Never fear, he is still out there.

Buchanan’s enemy often assumes feminine shape. George is persecuted by the vengeful widow of his wartime lover, resulting in his disgrace and the loss of livelihood. Twice – in prison and later – he engages with the crusading Dorothy (is this irony?) who preaches Christianity-as-Tarnhelm, able to “turn homosexuals into heterosexuals”. These homophobic dragons recall Anita Bryant who was very real in the now-hazy 1960s. Not for nothing is the theme of “war” central to the book. From that metaphor Buchanan’s Heroes are sprung and though other battles transport them elsewhere, in the end they return to find their questions largely unanswered and the landscape of Taranaki in the shadow of its inscrutable volcano as hostile as before.

Neddy Bouzikis, child of Catholic Lebanese immigrants, is unmarried at 40. To placate his mother Fareda, he takes the physic recommended by his priest and fetches home to New Plymouth a Lebanese bride. Betty Bouzikis betrays him with a Kiwi bloke from the New Plymouth Repertory Theatre, but the marriage hasn’t “cured” Neddy and he cannot forget the passionate sex he enjoyed with cousin Alex as well as with George Crossett in the back of the ZYX Fruit Shop delivery van. After Fareda’s death he buys Betty off and absconds with Alex to Beirut where they set up a delicatessen together and, prosperous and accepted, brave the civil wars. Exit Alex by a sniper’s bullet. Neddy inadvertently discovers both his adopted status and his Maori origins and sets off back to New Plymouth.

Garth, the third and most aloof of these misfits, returns to New Plymouth after the death of Alfonso, his exotic lover, in Mexico City. The archetype of the post-HIV generation, gloomy, positive, withdrawing Garbo-like into his grief, Garth revisits his boyhood identification with Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, ruminating on a farcical attempt by a sexually forward girl to end his virginity in his father’s Humber – he costumed as his hero, she as an angel. But Garth knows what he wants:

Garth found himself erect and manoeuvring on top of the Good Angel. Suddenly he pictured Raskolnikov in his wretched garret … he pushed in and out amazed that it was possible for him to do this against all the odds … Garth opened his eyes and Raskolnikov fled. He felt himself go limp.

Strong stuff with lashings of humour to counteract the pain. Buchanan, himself an expatriate for half his life, draws strongly on cultural differences, contrasting Taranaki mores with perceived attitudes abroad and, obliquely, within New Zealand. Symbols duck and weave enticingly through a narrative often as abrasive as the book’s title:

“Feijoas,” Neddy said. “What is it about them that makes me think of semen?”

“Their odour,” Alex replied, holding his purply-brown specimen. “Spunk mixed with perfume. Delicious. Do you like sucking them?”

The confluence of generations predictably arrives, and with it one is prone to question the pull of New Plymouth on those so tormented by it. It is something for the rootless to ponder, to be embraced perhaps only by those with a sense of place. Buchanan wisely avoids the argument in favour of larger issues. We are treated instead to the spectacle of a homophobic public meeting against the Homosexual Law Reform Bill, positively operatic in its execution, by Benjamin Britten out of Irving Sinclair.

Laurence Jenkins is a musician and writer who lives in Kaeo.

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