Black Sheep Boy: A Novel in Stories, Martin Pousson
Publisher: Rare Bird Books
Genre: Queer Literary Fiction
Tags: Retro Setting, Cultural, Coming of Age, Under Age Sex (Non-Gratuitous), Psychological -Family, Feeling Other, Bullying, Magic Realism, Strong Religious Overtones
Length: 208 Pages
Reviewer: Kazza K
Purchase At: amazon.com
Meet a wild-hearted boy from the bayou land of Louisiana. Misfit, outcast, loner. Call him anything but a victim. Sissy, fairy, Jenny Woman. Son of a mixed-race Holy Ghost mother and a Cajun French phantom father. In a series of tender and tough stories, he encounters gender outlaws, drag queen renegades, and a rogues gallery of sex-starved priests, perverted teachers, and murderous bar owners. To escape his haunted history, the wild-hearted boy must shed his old skin and make a new self. As he does, his story rises from dark and murk, from moss and mud, to reach a new light and a new brand of fairy tale. Cajun legends, queer fantasies, and universal myths converge into a powerful work of counter-realism. Black Sheep Boy is a song of passion and a novel of defiance.
**CONSIDER THIS REVIEW GRAPHIC AND NSFW**
Last year Sideways Down the Sky was my co-Book of the Year. It’s a queer literary book comprised of stories that interlink to a conclusion. Black Sheep Boy is similar. This time the stories are interlinked by one unnamed narrator growing up the son of a mother who wanted out of her Louisiana bayou town, and who loved and worshipped the ground her Pentecostal Revivalist preacher, full-time voodoo traiteur, shapeshifting, larger than life father walked on. Yet, in one of life’s great ironies, she married a boy who lived in another town, owned his own car and was Catholic. Just as immaculately and desperately as she painted her skin as white as she could, outwardly wanting to hide her Sabine-Cajun mixed-race roots, he wanted to escape religious claustrophobia. He married her because he perceived, she seemed to suggest, a tantalizingly exotic excommunication from his suffocating experiences of a Catholic mother. The grass is not always greener. Life is not really about ideals, and the narrator’s mother walked a line between the two faiths ferociously outside and in.
Soon as the Most Holy Ghost Revival Hour ended, Mama shut it off with a determined click. Then she fixed one last bobby pin to the lace on her head, and fixed her face into the look of a Catholic parishioner.
As the narrator grows, mostly in increments of two years per story until nineteen, in his sad home where his mother is abusive and his father drifts away from him, while attending Catholic schools, being sent to his cousins feral home, he learns exactly what it’s like to be gay when the expectations are for something completely different. A manly boy, a son who could make promises to take his mother out of this town to a better one. Far away from Sabine, far away from Cajun, who will play sports well, win trophies, not swish or sway or desire men. Not be fucked by older boys, priests and teachers who trade cards and comics – shiny gifts – and conditional friendship for what they want. Who outwardly vilify and proselytise their religion as their closeted desires physically say something else. Not easy for a Cajun no-name boy. But lessons learned.
However, growing up in Louisiana also meant New Orleans Mardi Gras’ tantalisingly painted men, beads, pill popping and a further awakening of desires. Queens in bars that an underage boy in the 80s learns about life and drag culture from and sees fearless people who face down inequality in their own rebellious way, even if it means more danger. Lessons that teach others who are like the narrator. He continues to learn about those who hate the no-name boys, about an enemy who kills teenagers – the angel boy – and escapes punishment because they’re (just) queer, they’re (just) gay. Because of panic defence.
“Miss Carriage,” he extended his hand like a favor. “Some poor twinks think me gruesome, like I mean dead fetuses and weeping women. Get this straight: I do not mock women. No ma’am. I respect women. It’s men I mock. Men in robes. Men in suits. Men in every costume they drag out of the closet.”
Black Sheep Boy is not depressing, it’s not dire, but it most assuredly is gritty, real and definitely not the Bradys. It hits on the reality of growing up queer in the 70s through to the 80s, during the beginnings of an epidemic that would test guilt and faith, and shows the impact of culture, religion, societal expectations on the narrator’s life… but not just his, so many others. Thus the brilliance of a no-name narrator. I’m not a gay man and I grew up in Australia, but I lived a wild life and I knew these people in another country as surely as the narrator did. I took drugs, earlier than this period, I was wildly promiscuous into this period and I had HIV tests in the 80s. I know what it’s like to have a finger pointed at you. I know what victim shaming, religious hypocrisy and rebellious behaviour look like.
“Where there’s smoke…” he started then stopped, one freckled hand covering his mouth. Then he waved at the air and counted the symptoms on his fingers, like a Sunday school teacher listing the Ten Plagues of Egypt. Fatigue, fever, swollen glands. Dry cough, skin rash, sudden weight loss. Night sweats, nausea, phantom sensations in the feet and hands. I showed every sign of affliction.
Like a priceless gem, Black Sheep Boy is multi-faceted. There are the tales of family and lamenting the loss of cultural history and ways. There’s acquaintances, friends, bullies, racism, predators, fear, discoveries, coming of age and an acceptance about sexuality. It’s not always pretty but the writing remains effortlessly lyrical, mesmerisingly inviting and non-judgemental. Thankfully there is absolutely nothing pretentious about the words used within the narrative, as well as the narrative itself. It’s quality literature that can be and should be read by as many people as possible.
If this review seems ambiguous it’s because Black Sheep Boy is too fluid yet complex to write an in-depth review about. It relies upon the storytelling narrative, the reality mixed with magic realism, symbolism and metaphors. One of the most impactful aspects of the writing is that it allows for personal interpretation of certain occurrences. The queen of the psychiatric ward, Mercy, is very much a case in point. You really have to read it to experience it personally. The ending is perfection and left up to the reader. It brings the book full circle in a way, in my opinion. This book deserves a book club reading to dissect it in depth because so much begs discussion, and I’d love to discuss it further myself. Black Sheep Boy is one mighty fine piece of writing, one powerful piece of queer literature. If you’re reading my review, seriously, do yourself a favour, go grab this book. 5 Stars!
What a review. After talking to you behind the scenes I knew it was a hard one to put into words. You did it brilliantly and brought the story out even more with the quotes and GIFs you used.
Loved the book, hated reviewing it, not because I didn’t want to get out what I loved, because I hope I can help people see how fabulous Black Sheep Boy is, but because it’s hard to define and retell this book, these stories, in my words. I know you understand what I mean.
Thank you, Cindi.
I enjoy when you review GLBT books with religious themes on this blog and how you dissect them. I know some readers feel it may not be apropos in mm but in actual literary writing or fiction it’s such a rich tapestry, especially for this reader. When there’s counter realism involved I believe a treat is in store. Such a wonderful review. I’m placing it squarely on my reading list for the year ahead. Many thanks.
I don’t know why it happens but I sometimes find myself drawn to a bit of religion in fiction – even in non fiction I’ve jumped on in. Obviously there is a lot more than religion to this story. I do recommend this book because it is well written and, in my opinion, there is no judgement in the words, it just is what it is. Definitely grab a copy.
Thank you, John 🙂