A guest review by Maddy Cain
Review summary: An enthralling drama about an American trying to avoid the Mob taken into the household of a group of musicians and clubgoers in pre-AIDS London.
Meet Vince, a young, moody boxer from Brooklyn with an oozing bullet wound and a spot awaiting him in the Narducci crime family–if he weren’t on the run…
Through a series of events that begins with Vince returning travelers’ checks he’s stolen from a British tourist, he finds himself in 1980s London, the epicenter of New Wave culture, unsure whether he will become a rock star, a rent boy, or a laughingstock.
Vince’s journey brings an awkward friendship with a glamorous drag queen, a stint in a post-punk rock band, a frustrating romance with a Bowie-esque pop star, and bloody quarrels with a misfit skinhead–Vince’s own cracked reflection.
In this quirky yet charming story of love and family and culture clash, Vince discovers his place in a rapidly changing world.
It took me about ten pages to get into this book. It starts you out in medias res, throwing you into a chaotic club scene full of names and people you don’t know and expecting you to just go with it. In this way, the reader is in the same situation as the protagonist, Vince Saviglio, and we’re just as adrift as he is. I was confused, then a tad frustrated trying to keep everybody straight when all I had were names. Then the second protagonist, a Bowie-esque genderqueer rocker named Jik O’Blivion, was introduced, and I became intrigued. Then I was a goner.
I went into this book blind, having asked Wave to just assign me something to read within my preferred parameters, and I had no familiarity with the author. In fact she’s written only one other book, a historical lesbian romance (which I’m seriously considering reading). My goodness, Harris can write. The prose style here is hypnotic, with an immediacy that’s very visceral, if you’ll forgive me lapsing into reviewer-speak. I read 3/4 of this book in one long marathon Kindle session and I can tell you that every time I got up to put the laundry in the dryer or get a cup of coffee, I felt for a few lingering moments like I wasn’t quite Maddy. Harris’s writing had so thoroughly immersed me in her characters and her setting that I felt like I’d stepped into their lives and their skins. Her prose is complex without pretension, dialogue is realistic without being overly clever or canned, she isn’t afraid for her characters to be unlikeable at times and she conveys many levels of meaning without artifice.
This book is not, strictly speaking, a gay romance. It’d be more accurate to describe it as a novel about gay men and the world they’re living in, seen through the lens of a to-this-point straight man who finds himself in their midst. This man is Vincent Saviglio, who has been whisked away from Canarsie, New Jersey, where, if he remains, he will surely end up irrevocably immersed in the mob. His rescuer is Nigel, a wealthy promoter who helps musicians get exposure. Nigel and his boyfriend John take Vince into their house and their lives, which include drag queen Jezebel, her boyfriend Ian, and underground punk cult star O’Blivion. These people have a complex history that involves crossing streams of lovers and careers and school days, and in the pre-AIDS days of 1983 London, they bash about running into each other and the people who bear them grudges.
Vincent isn’t gay at the outset, although there are intimations later that he always was and his Canarsie friends suspected as much. At any rate he is initially a bit put off, but our intrigue is his and he doesn’t struggle too mightily against his attraction to men. He is half-Apache, half-Italian and a boxer, and he’s never felt he fit in, which makes him a perfect candidate for Nigel’s hobby of swooping in and Making Somebody out of the lost boys he runs across. As Vince and John develop their band and Vince starts to fall for Jik, peripheral events complicate things. But the romance between Vince and Jik is not the main narrative thrust of the book. The book is told from alternating points of view, switching out between Vince and Jik with seamless logic, and the story is really a two-threaded one about the changes each is going through at the time they meet.
Some things about the plot are a bit scattershot. A major point of conflict is the antagonism of one of Nigel’s former bands that turned into a street gang (yeah, really) and includes Jik’s estranged lover. If you’re looking for a story about two crazy kids who fall in love, this isn’t it. Vince and Jik’s relationship is a slow, believable burn with several frustrating but realistic missteps that isn’t consummated until very late. The book is very light on sex, although discussion of it is pervasive. Some may also object to elements of Gay For You that they may see in Vince. I ended up thinking that Vince wasn’t GFY so much as Jik provided him with a catalyst. I was tempted to knock one half star off the book because some of the conflicts and plot points zoom in out of left field and are a tad overdone. I also have a personal dislike for books about musicians in which the author attempts to describe the music being played, because to do so is extremely difficult to pull off without it sounding awkward. But my criticisms are tiny, indeed, and in the end the book is just too good and too well written not to deserve the full five stars.