A Guest Review by Aunt Lynn
When high school teacher Tom Smith meets Kevin Bannerman at a gay club, he violates his own rule: one-night stands only. But when the weekend is over, he walks away, reminding himself that he lives a deeply closeted life for painful, compelling reasons. He keeps his secrets, his heart, and the cause of his crippled arm to himself, but almost immediately he bitterly regrets leaving Kevin.
Months later, while Tom serves as reluctant assistant director for his school’s production of Rent, he fears that the show’s same-sex love angle will somehow out him. Protests against the play begin, one of the student actors is harassed, and during a parents’ meeting, Tom encounters Kevin again. This time Tom can’t fight the attraction between them, and he and Kevin begin a tentative relationship. Within Rent’s message of acceptance and support, and as local churches oppose the play, Tom struggles to find the strength to admit one man into his heart.
Admit One is the second story by Jenna Hilary Sinclair that I’ve read. I really, really liked this long, well-written, -plotted and -paced angsty tale of the damage of hate and the healing nature of love. Sympathetic, fleshed-out characters added to the overall enjoyment I had of the story.
The story opens with Tom, our first person narrator, introducing us to Kevin, the man he just picked up at a gay bar in Houston, as they make their way back to Tom’s hotel room. They exchange some blow and hand jobs and part, Tom making his way back through the many miles to the small, conservative west Texas town where he lives and teaches high school and is completely, utterly closeted. Tom never expects to see Kevin again — which is exactly how he likes it — but several months later, he runs into the other man again at the same bar. Reluctantly hooking up once more, they share not only another night, but part of the next day and night, something Tom never does as part of keeping himself from repeating the traumatic history and experience he had as a younger man, the one that crippled his left arm. Almost against his will, he finds himself relaxing and enjoying himself, but when Kevin asks for them to continue to see each other, Tom throws up his self-created walls, says “no,” and runs back home as fast as possible, though not without regret afterward. Now, many months later, Tom has been coerced into acting as assistant director of his school’s production of Rent, and is shocked to see Kevin walk in as the parent to one of the actors. Though every alarm goes off in Tom’s head and against his better judgment, they begin a tentative weekend-only relationship that is destined to become more, though not without major obstacles — the largest being Tom himself. With his past always in conflict with his desires, Tom feels that he must put his own safety and fears ahead of what he really wants — a normal life with a loving partner — but it’s possible that Kevin can help him move on and realize his long-denied dreams.
With recurring themes of regret, love, hate, ignorance, and acceptance, Admit One made me think. Living in the very liberal Bay Area, I often forget that there is a world outside that can be dangerous for those living alternative lifestyles (though, then I also need to remember that I live in the state that allowed the fucked-up Prop 8 to pass…). The small, conservative and religious western Texas town of Gunning could be Anytown, USA, where church steeples litter the sky and homophobia runs rampant. As Tom says, Matthew Shepard could have happened there.
I found Tom to be an incredibly tortured hero — one of the more damaged I’ve encountered in a while — with internal and external forces causing his pain. A thirty-eight-year-old high school teacher who is voluntarily socially amputated, living his life in a self-made bubble of work, hiding away in his tiny house, and wallowing in a sea of fear, self-loathing, regret and longing. Occasionally scratching his itch for man-on-man encounters by driving eight-plus hours to Houston for anonymous one-offs, he is the picture of unease, very closeted and paranoid about being outed, which ultimately drives pretty much all of his behavior. Added to that is his involvement in a play at school that he is positive will shine enough spotlight on his life that suspicions couldn’t help but be aroused about the middle-aged, single teacher. Now Kevin has turned his life upside down and Tom finds himself breaking self-imposed rules for the man who won’t leave him alone — not that Tom really wants to be left alone — and falling in love when he absolutely doesn’t want to. So deeply conflicted that he is in constant war with himself after meeting Kevin, Tom’s life is in turmoil; I felt his emotions as if they were my own and I found his actions (and reactions) painful to watch. We get a good look at Tom and his heartbreaking existence in so many excerpts, here are just a few:
I was sick of the way I had forced myself into living, how I never connected on any deep level with anybody. Living where I did, I couldn’t keep my job and my safety and change that, but that didn’t mean there weren’t moments when I regretted it all, everything. When I let myself think for a little while about living a normal life.
Since that first time I’d touched him, Kevin had been… not pushing me forward, but pulling me backward. He made me remember the young man I’d been: in love, full of hope, when I’d honestly believed there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t be able to do. I closed my eyes and remembered that man, honored him, mourned for him, and wished with everything I was that he still existed.
I really liked patient, thirty-seven-year-old banking executive Kevin, who gently — or not so gently! — pushed Tom into making changes in his life that, although having seemingly disastrous effects, in the long run allowed/forced Tom to grow and heal immensely. Kevin, who wanted Tom so much and saw, even early on, the potential there for a wonderful relationship that he was willing to put up with Tom’s rigid personality and strict rules, making concessions that he would probably not have to make being with someone else. I wondered at times why he bothered, but his reaction upon hearing Tom’s story made me cry, telling me almost everything I needed to know.
The group of secondary characters is fairly large, colorful and fairly well-developed, from Tom’s co-worker, the tall, gangly committed-to-Rent George, to the high school kids making up play’s cast and crew, to various town folk on both sides of the controversy. I was interested in the biker man who attended school board meeting who handed Tom a card reading Phoenix Pride, and I wondered if he might either be a character from another book that I didn’t read, or if the author was setting it up so that he would get his own story in the future?
I thought the reveal about what had happened to Tom that changed him and made him what he was today was perfectly timed, with enough hints that I suspected what it would be without knowing all of the horrific details.
My single niggle is that I really would have liked to have had more insight into Kevin’s thoughts during this whole saga, which I think is a limitation of the first-person POV. We do get a good idea of his character, but his life and emotions are impacted by Tom’s paranoia, actions and decisions, and I wondered what exactly was going through his head as he made concessions and had so many disappointments.
I highly recommend this wonderful, well-written book to anyone who loves a good, angsty, reluctant love story, with characters who heal and grow along the way.