Today’s fiction review is about a novel, yes, but it’s also about the soundtrack of a life. Songs for the New Depression, the first novel for author Kergan Edwards-Stout, is set to the soundtrack of the Bette Midler album it takes its name from. The book is loosely based on the life story of his now deceased former life partner Shane Michael Sawick and an obvious passion for the music that moved a generation of gay men.
The book has garnered some rave reviews from both gay and straight outlets due to its honest and open portrayal of a death too soon from AIDS and also, no doubt, due to the fact that Mr. Edwards-Stout has been quietly making a name for himself by having works of both fiction and fact published in the magazine press and for being named by the Human Rights Campaign as one of their 2011 Father of the Year honorees. When I was contacted by his publisher about reading and reviewing this book, and when I saw those reviews, I responded to the inquiry with excitement. I wasn’t disappointed.
The lead character in this tale is Gabriel – often known as Gabe and, to his mother and an old friend or two, Gabey. Kergan wrote the book in a backwards chronological format. It opens with a prologue after Gabe has died from the scourge of AIDS. It proceeds in three parts – late life leading up to his death, the middle period where he contracted the disease, and his closeted high school years where he was trying to discover where he fit in the world, and then it ends with a short epilogue that brings the story forward in time again. It’s unusual to begin a book at the end but for Gabe’s story it works well.
At the beginning of the book, which again, portrays the end of Gabe’s life, he has some redeeming qualities. He’s found the good in life and in himself and he is prepared for death. As you as a reader go backward in time with him, you’ll almost feel yourself hating who and what he was. In the middle part of his short life he was a stereotypical sarcastic, bitchy queen with a sex fixation. As a woman, a lesbian woman, had this book been written in forward chronological order it’s very likely I would have given up on Gabe somewhere about the middle of his mid-life. While my heart broke for the young Gabe of the 3rd part, the 2nd/middle part made me want to grab 20 something Gabe and slap him silly for being such a total ass to everyone he came into contact with and, quite frankly to slap a chastity belt on him and throw away th key. I’m not a violent person but, wow, part II Gabe was a real piece of work!
Mid-life Gabe doesn’t love himself and he sets about his life to make himself unlovable by others. He always seeks “love” but he never finds it because, after the trauma of his teen years, he has blocked out any form of love but sex. When he seeks sex, he’s actual seeking real human contact, love and acceptance.
There is A LOT of gay sex in this book. Again, as a lesbian, it did absolutely nothing for me and had the book not started where it did, about the 5th time he was “intimate” (for lack of a better word) with someone in any way I would have closed the book for good. I didn’t do that because of the way the author so skillfully set the scene and built Gabe’s character. The sex is integral to the story. It is why Gabe is who and what he is.
Another thing that’s integral to the story is the soundtrack. No, there is no CD with the book. Gabe, during his life, became a fan of Bette Midler, The Divine Ms. “M” a gay icon in the period the early and mid stories are set. Each of the three parts has a song that it flows with. Trust that you don’t have to own the album to feel the music. The references are throughout the text.
Many tout this book as an important piece of fiction that should be read by all because of it’s portrayal of AIDS. I’ll give them that. I would add that it’s not only an important piece of fiction because of the message, but it’s a great piece of fiction writing regardless of the message.