“I’m leavin’ my fam’ly
Leavin’ all my friends
My body’s at home
But my heart’s in the wind
Where the clouds are like headlines
On a new front page sky
My tears are salt water
And the moon’s full and high”
(Shiver Me Timbers by Tom Waits, 1974)
Kergan Edwards-Stout’s debut novel, Songs for the New Depression, is the poignant and darkly humorous story of Gabriel Travers who is HIV positive and convinced that he’s dying despite his doctor’s proclamations to the contrary. His viral load is undetectable, his T-cell count is up, but according to Gabe one glance in the mirror tells him everything he needs to know. “His ass, once the talk of West Hollywood, now looks suspiciously like a Shar-Pei…” Faced with his own mortality, Gabriel’s first person narrative takes the reader on an emotional journey as he recounts his life experiences and relationships, reflecting on the choices that he’s made along the way and questioning his treatment of the people in his life.
“It seems impossible that my choices have led me here, to this spot, drained of every ounce of life. Despite my long-held belief that one’s journey – or ride, if you will – holds more importance than one’s destination, I am no longer cocksure. For if I, at age 17, had been handed a snapshot of myself as I am right here and now, providing the gift of foresight, isn’t there a chance I might have chosen a different path?
…Perhaps I would have ended up here, regardless of choice. Perhaps it was destiny. Fate. An unlucky draw of the straw. Whichever, it is much too late to ponder, for no amount of wishing can change who I am or what I have done.”
The title of the novel is taken from the Divine Miss M’s 1976 multi-artist compilation album of the same name. The story spans some two decades, from 1976 to 1995, and unfolds in retrospective but begins and ends in the present with the Prologue and Epilogue. Divided into three parts, each section of the story delineates a specific period in Gabe’s life, and each is thematically linked to a particular song from the album. Part I of the novel (Shiver Me Timbers by Tom Waits) takes place in the near present (1995) as Gabe ponders his life and mortality. The reader is then taken back in time to 1986, Gabe’s 20s and a time of love, money and sex (Samedi et Vendredi by Bette Midler and Moogy Klingman) and finally to 1976 during Gabe’s adolescence and the determining events that occurred during this period of time in his life (Let Me Just Follow Behind by Moogy Klingman).
Songs for the New Depression is beautifully written with a rich narrative and resonant characterisation. Gabriel is written with honesty and depth. While he is self-absorbed and can be insensitive in his treatment of others, at the same time, he is both generous and sympathetic. There is an authenticity to this character that makes him altogether accessible to the reader. I loved Gabriel’s sarcasm and manner of viewing the world and there were many laugh-out-loud moments throughout the story, including his description of his somewhat zany mother, her new wife Pastor Sue and their wedding. Most heartfelt, however, is Gabe’s narrative in respect of his relationship with his partner Jon, and his first love Keith.
The author peels the proverbial onion one layer at a time when it comes to Gabriel as he looks back on his life. From the beginning we are aware of Gabe’s often-difficult relationship with his parents but are unsure as to the reasons. There are also hints early in the story as to a life-altering experience in high school that still affects him as an adult and of course the pivotal importance of Keith in his life. All is slowly revealed as the story progresses and the present-to-past narrative is extremely effective in not only emotionally enveloping, but also deeply investing the reader in Gabriel’s journey.
This story touched me on such a personal level that it was difficult for me to immediately put my thoughts out there via review without feeling exposed. While I finished reading this novel a number of weeks ago, I needed a level of emotional distance from the story before putting my thoughts on paper. In many respects I believe that I was blind-sided by Gabriel. Lulled into a false sense of emotional safety by his sarcasm and acerbic wit behind which he hides. But Gabriel wasn’t going to let me off the hook that easily. Even with an extremely engaging character and his humorous descriptions of some of the events in his life, this story remains one of a 36 year-old man facing the sheer horror and trajedy that he’s dying of AIDS. As the story progressed to its fruition and the many mysteries of Gabriel’s life are revealed, including the heartbreaking circumstances surrounding his HIV infection, so did the blurriness of the pages increase.
“Voices call to me. Soft whispers, beckoning, offering tales of the sea. Suddenly I am in the sails of a pirate ship, adjusting my cap, a gull perched at my side. The wind cools my sunburned face.
Below, the men, my brothers, count towering stacks of gold coins while eating gigantic turkey legs. It is odd, though, that the turkey heads and bodies are still attached.
Even odder still is one pirate in a wheelchair, dressed as a mermaid. He looks to me, knowingly.
Though I cannot place his face or the long ringlets of hair, I am certain we once shared a meal or conversation.
The bell clangs as I glance to the stern, my father at the wheel. He winks at me, playfully, before turning the boat toward open sea. As he does, a purr, sad and resigned, plays through my head.
Shiver me timbers, it whispers, and before I can fully grasp what is happening, I find myself sailing away…”
Songs for the New Depression is both heartrending and bittersweet without melodrama, or attempts by the author to manipulate the reader’s heartstrings with cliché. This, coupled with the sincere and textured depiction of Gabriel, who is altogether human, demonstrates respect for the character and his story, but also for the reader. It is a deeply soulful account of a man coming to terms with having AIDS and his eventual death from the disease, of redemption, and ultimately of both human fragility and enduring spirit.
“What I wouldn’t give to once again experience such brazen, all-embracing delight. To hold Jon in my arms, heart racing, and say nothing. Just to feel a flicker of sunshine, a spark, some reminder, of our love. A love that lingers, now only as memory. The weight, the truth of it, I am no longer capable of feeling.
And if all feeling is gone, I ask myself, what, then, remains?
With a jolt, the elevator completes its descent, doors opening. The influx of wind sends the sounds and regrets of Paris coursing through me and, pulling my jacket tighter against my throat, I step into the waiting city to begin my life anew.”
Songs for the New Depression by Kergan Edwards-Stout received the 2012 Next Generation Indie Book Award in the LGBTQ category and was also short-listed for the 2011 Independent Literary Award in the same category. The novel is available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and through Indie Bound in print and ebook formats.