When Allen Pasztory discovered he was likely to die before his time, he realized that what he could pass down to the people he loved was stories. Stories of and for his families – the family he was born to and the family he stumbled upon and fiercely embraced.
The hearing child of parents raised in the inhumane surroundings of a state school for the deaf, all along Allen knew he and his family were different. His sister tried her best to become ordinary, as if it were possible, but Allen knew better. He would be ready to offer sanctuary when an ordinary family cast out his nephew Kit.
Allen fell for freelance artist Jeremy’s talent and looks, but it was Jeremy’s unanticipated bravery that supported them through the years while they nurtured their new family. Despite hostility from without and threat from within, they created a secure and loving home for Jeremy’s precocious son Toby and, later, Allen’s nephew.
But safety can’t be guaranteed. Allen must tell himself stories to survive, stories that may explain his life to the boys he’s raised, for “your life is never only your own story, and what you don’t know for sure you must invent, using all the clues you can gather.”
There are books we know will have a discernible impact on us while we are reading them and that their story and characters will remain with us long after we have finished reading. Safe As Houses by Alex Jeffers is such a book.
Safe As Houses is a beautifully written and intensely moving story of a family faced with the devastating reality of illness and the impending loss of a spouse and parent. It is also a story of love and commitment, of relationships and of families both born to and chosen.
Allen Pasztory is ill and likely dying. He does not want to leave his family nor does he want to be forgotten. He sets out to write the stories of his family as a testament of love to his lover and partner Jeremy, their sons Toby and Kit and his parents for as Allen tells us:
“Everything wants to be remembered, chronicled, documented: everything – all of this and all the rest, because your life is neither a finite length that can be measured out to a certain point and served, nor is it only your own…”
The story spans some sixty years covering the period of 1933 to 1991 and is told through Allen’s narrative voice alternating in parts between the third and first person and at times between past and present.
There are two distinct parts to the novel. The first is Allen’s telling of the “stories his father never told him.” They are stories of how Allen envisioned the life and experiences of his father and mother who grew up in a state institution for the deaf where they learned how to communicate through sign language. He also tells of his experiences and feelings as a hearing child of deaf parents. The second part of the story is devoted to Allen’s life as an adult and chronicles the meeting of his lover and partner Jeremy, the family they form with Jeremy’s son Toby and then later on with Allen’s nephew Kit, the issues that Allen and Jeremy face as a gay couple attempting to raise a family, the loss of several friends as a result of HIV/AIDS and of course Allen’s reckoning with his own illness and mortality. Once again, these stories are seen and told through Allen’s eyes and his perceptions.
Mr. Jeffers has written this story with an abundant language and as if every word that appears on the page has been carefully chosen. His descriptions are intricate and substantial and engage all of the senses. Allen’s narrative is written with sincerity and emotional depth conveying the dimensions of these characters, their relationships and by extension their experiences and feelings.
“What’s wrong with this picture. here they are, the family, walking through the garden behind the house: mother, father, son, son’s spouse, two grandchildren. The lawn is cleanly mown. Narrow borders along paths brim with petunias colored to the stridency of plastic but textured like damp velvet. In the corner of the fence stand camellias decked with pink blossoms that look dyed, among dark leaves that look waxed. Roses like porcelain teacups, glazed and shining, fat and heavy with scent, lift on sturdy stems from shapely bushes. The mother, who believes her son to be barely convalescent, offers her arm for the promenade but he, feeling quite well thank you, prefers to lean against his spouse, who offers the mother a shy smile over the crown of the son’s head. They understand each other, finally. Lagging behind, the father and grandchildren chatter happily together, everything to say and not time to say it.”
In addition to the exceptionally written prose, the chapter titles and even the layout of the book reinforce the honesty with which this story and its characters are written. One chapter in particular, entitled Requiescant is written as a series of epitaphs to those in Allen and Jeremy’s lives who have succumb to AIDS. It is a powerful statement and a splash of cold reality of the devastation of this disease.
There is emotional integrity to this story and despite the subject-matter the writing by-passes both cliche and melodrama providing for an honest and intimate reading experience whereby the reader is completely transported into the world of Allen and his family. While it is emotional and at times sobering it is neither heavy or depressing. At its core Safe As Houses is not about HIV/AIDS, but rather a poignant and life-affirming story of spouses, of parents and children, of fathers and sons, of family.
I loved every aspect of this novel and I will revisit it again not only for the pleasure of re-reading a beautifully written story or gaining new insights into the characters and their experiences, but also because I had a difficult time in letting go of both the story and its characters. There is a part of me that remains hopeful that Allen and Jeremy have gracefully aged and are enjoying relative comfort and well-being in their life together and with Toby and Kit who have grown into fine men and are making their own way in the world.
“I will not die in a car crash. I will not die in the explosion of a plane bombed by terrorists. No madman will strafe the bleachers at a soccer game if I am there, Toby’s cheering section. A crazed junkie in a dark city alley will not plunge a knife into my belly, angered that I don’t carry enough cash to do him any good. Lena’s boyfriend Ray will not fall asleep before the TV with a cigarette between his fingers and the hundred-thirty-year-old frame and clapboard house whose lower floor she rents will not blaze up and burn down – because I live upstairs. My flesh is sealed, my fate verified in a purple rich and indelible as blood, twenty-seven dry lesions scattered over my limbs like candle drippings and one on the roof of my mouth. I will die in bed, in a hospital or my home. The newspapers in the tidy Catholic city where I live will commit to print euphemisms about long illnesses and grieving survivors without being able to name the illness or mention that the chief survivors will be my beloved friend, the man who has shared my life for going on ten years, his teenage son, and the nephew we have taken into our home. I can drive anywhere.”
Safe As Houses was first published in 1995 and after being out of print for over a decade the novel was wisely re-released in 2009 by Lethe Press. I say wisely because this novel is a reading gem that is the stuff of life and I commend Lethe Press for releasing it as a second edition and introducing the incredible writing of Alex Jeffers to an entirely new generation of readers.
Safe As Houses by Alex Jeffers is available at Amazon.
NOTE: This review was originally published online by Rainbow Reviews.