Title: Getting Life In Perspective
Author: Toby Johnson
Publisher: Lethe Press
Buy Link: Buy Link Getting Life in Perspective: A Fantastical Romance
Genre: Gay Historical Romance, Paranormal, Gay Spirituality
Length: 290 pdf pages (103,600 words)
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
A Guest Review by Cole
Review Summary: Though not without a few bothersome niggles for me, this epic love story set alternately in the 1890s and the 1980s is a beautifully rendered tale of what it means to be gay across time and culture and the different perceptions gay individuals (and all marginalized groups) have from the rest of the world on a variety of subjects — most importantly love and man’s perception of its own mortality.
When warned by his doctor to rest, Rick Carton, a jaded and disillusioned editor with a Boston publishing house, retires Texas hill country to write the novel he’s always intended to. But Rick discovers he is not alone at the neglected old mansion. Two lovable, Topperesque apparitions from turn-of-the-century America haunt the sometimes-bewildered Rick as struggles to face the enormous problems of contemporary society as the 21st century is about to turn. This sweet historical romance has layers of gay spirituality woven throughout the romance and just a touch of the Twilight Zone.
First released in 1991 and re-released last year by Lethe Press, Getting Life in Perspective tells the life story of three gay men. Rick Carton, an editor for a Boston gay-oriented publishing company, has watched many friends and past lovers die at the hands of the latest monstrosity sent to plague gay men, AIDS, and now has been told that he has a similar disease in symptom, though somewhat different and lesser known, yet which is slowly killing him just as surely. His dire prognosis is leading him down a path of self-actualization in which he realizes that he’s living a life that never dreamt of. Most of all that upsets him, though, is the fact that he hasn’t found love in his life, though he’s had plenty of sex, and he seems to have lost the wonder of seeing the world in the way he once had during his youthful days marching for human rights throughout the 60s and 70s. Urged by his best friend to take a holiday for his health, he retreats to the Texan countryside to help prepare a old rundown Spanish estate for sale, and hopefully, find inspiration to create the novel he’s always wanted to write.
The country is good for him. Breathing fresh air and working in the garden is not only healing him physically, but spiritually as well. So comes the day when he takes the advice he’d given in the past to young writers as he sits to write his novel. He imagines sitting down and having a conversation with his characters and letting them tell him their story. Like the creation of a tulpa, two men emerge. Ben comes first. He is the embodiment of all that Rick has ever been attracted to and he is remarkably insecure at first, like a lost little boy begging to be understood. He tells Rick his story — his enrollment in a Jesuit seminary in the 1890s and the subsequent feelings of otherness. As he continues his tale through seminary, the downfall of his family, his life as a tramp and the shanty towns along the rivers on the way to Chi-town, Rick also comes to meet Tom, another man/character sprung from his consciousness (or the land he now resides?), who has braved his mother’s care and death, then the loss of his job with the failing economy. Now untethered and dreaming of the adventure he could not pursue while his mother was dying, he buys a train ticket to Chicago where he hopes to meet his childhood friend Johnny, the only person who he felt ever really understood him. Like Ben, Tom tells Rick of his adventure — of meeting Literature professor Eli Hauptmann on the train and his subsequent discovery of the alternately sexual community of scholars, poets, artists, and philosophers of the late 19th century.
Told in alternating viewpoints between the three men, and spanning two different times of transition in American and gay culture, the story follows the fated meeting of Ben and Tom and their search across the West for a place to live peacefully and Rick’s own parallel discoveries of life, love, and the pursuit of the Clear Light, a place of new perspective in the ever present mortality of life.
There is so much I felt while reading this truly beautiful story that I feel as if I’m bursting at the seams. I’ve only read one previous book written by Toby Johnson (with Dr. Walter Williams), Two Spirits (reviewed here). Like that book, the storytelling here is superb. Essentially a coming of age novel, no matter at which point each of these characters are in their lives, this is a story of adventure, of learning from life, and understanding. It is a story about the history of all marginalized groups everywhere and their slow, perpetual work toward the benefit of their community and humanity. This is a story in the vein of the Bill Moyers interviews with Joseph Campbell — a dialogue of sorts challenging the nature of the ever-changing mythos of homosexuality. And lastly, this is a story about finding love and having the courage to accept that sometimes it breaks all the rules.
Though I must say that I find gay spirituality a fascinating topic, I’m still a lover of stories at heart, and the real heart of this story is the journey undertaken by Ben and Tom. Though their era is often referred to as a simpler time, their personal experiences show that misfortune knows no restraint by the era in history. Ben and Tom face trial after trial in their youth, until they learn to embrace the margins and take up residence there with what they previously believed were the dregs of society — tramps, hobos, queers. Their love story is triumphant because they truly love each other, which is consistently shown in this story to be a spiritual birth. Their journey is meant to be instructive, not only to Rick, but to everyone, that love should be treated with the same reverence a priest would give to God. As a product of that joining between the two of them, they nurture each other until they ultimately overcome the fears that were previously strangling them. This is possibly one of the most obvious themes — the hero’s journey — which among others, are stamped across the pages saying “Joseph Campbell was here.”
The only real difficulty that I had with the story is that the narration often strays into what a character from the later part of the novel calls “sermonizing.” I sometimes felt like the fourth wall had broken down and I was in a seminar. Now, that depends on the reader whether the subject interests them enough to enjoy it or over look it if they don’t. While I found the discourse interesting at times, it often repeated the same theories from different angles all at the same problems, which made the reading sometimes tedious. Thankfully, I loved the rest of the story so much and these parts, though while often, tended not to last very long. To some extent, this is to be expected, as Toby Johnson set out to write a Gay Spiritual Romance, which by nature means that he’s starting a discussion with the reader. I simply wished that sometimes I had been left to discover the message on my own, through the characters’ journey.
I must admit that I feel a bit ashamed after reading this novel, that while I thought I was very up on a piece of my own history, I had largely based my knowledge on the queer movements of the 60s-80s (from Stonewall to Homosexual Theory to AIDS marches on the Reagan administration). There is quite a bit of information here, all set up as a story within a story within a story — a nesting doll of comparative experiences among gay peoples that spans time. It might be helpful for some to have some knowledge on the subject, though definitely not needed. While I find the teachings of Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, and the like interesting, I must say that I know quite little about these teachings, and some of these texts (the Upanishads for example, are referenced quite often), yet it didn’t diminish my understanding and enjoyment of the novel, no matter how I might have sometimes wished for a lighter delivery.
This is certainly not a light read, and you should know that this book is meant for more than enjoyment. It isn’t quite heavy, though, especially in the way that Two Spirits was sometimes difficult to read. There is a brief attempted rape (I refuse to read non-con, yet this did not bother me), and those who are sensitive to religious issues might take heed. I do, however, encourage those who might balk at the idea of this story to try the book anyway. Even if you absolutely hate the spiritual discussions, the story within is a gem and Ben and Tom are characters that grew to mean very much to me. The secondary characters alone are reason enough to read the story. The numerous shades of people Ben and Tom meet on their journey remind me so much of Cormac McCarthy’s characters. They’re simply a delight to read. Though I marked off some points in my review, this is definitely a keeper, and I plan on reading it many times in the future.