Guest Review by Raine
Summary Review: This exuberant and sweet satire is a word juggling comedic circus; involving total immersion in the gay sub-culture of all-singing, all-dancing bears.
Blurb: Fired from his job at Phag magazine, Peter Mallory has to find a way to make a living . . . and get revenge! When his best friend suggests writing a book about the bear community — and using his new ursine look to go undercover at Phag — Peter is soon letting his body hair grow and practicing the fine art of flannel couture. When Peter’s sabotage campaign works only too well, he starts to run the risk of discovery. With an envious fellow bear set to unmask Peter as a fraud, and a relationship with an intriguing bear on the line, things are about to get very hairy!
Often, when a writer focuses satirical eyes on a society the outcome has an uncomfortably jagged edge. Jonathan Cohen’s view is astonishingly over the the top, but filled with a very satisfying, underlying kindness. Indeed this novel’s energy reminds me very much of Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue or Wilt, but totally without that author’s residual anger. The book’s title is a reference to John Howard Griffith’s 1961 non fiction work, Black Like Me in which a white man takes on the appearance of a black man and travels throughout various racially segregated states. Griffith’s diary forms the basis of his work. In a Bear Like Me, Peter starts a journal to keep notes for his ” bear” book, and the predominantly third person narration occasionally changes into first person.
Peter Mallory, the central character, infuses the book with his own good humoured personality. He is the innocent abroad; enthusiastic, intelligent but not clever, kind and incredibly funny—both by accident and design. His plaintive question, ”What is a Bear? ” resonates throughout the book. Peter’s journey from twink to bear alter ego Dan, originally in search of anthropological truths for his book, has long reaching effects on his life. Mac, his best friend and mentor into the world of bears, explains the insidious attraction.
”It’s all a question of degrees. First you sleep with a guy who has a treasure trail, then you sleep with a guy with a hairy chest. Next thing you know,” Mac said smugly, ” you’re buying a replacement filter for the shower drain.”
Once Peter has decided that to know the bears one must become a bear, the fun breaks lose. Primarily this has some negative effects on his life, most telling is Mac’s comment:
“You love to rush into things you don’t understand, without preparation or research. Then, when you screw up, you have to get bailed out.”….”You used to be able to get away with it because of your looks, but not now.”
One of the most interesting elements is the book’s concentration on outward appearance, which leads, albeit with a light touch, into the deeper waters of invisibility, discrimination, (driving while bear ) and segregation. There are many wry social comments including details of the bear’s determination to express their individuality by all dressing the same. As Peter puts on weight and gives up shaving, both his view of and place within society changes. His boyfriend Danny worries, ‘‘I read somewhere that the way you look ends up changing the way you feel. The way you are.”
Among many other things, Cohen looks at the changing face of publishing, professional greed, social stereotyping and relationships. Although there are clearly clever social points being observed here, the book’s strength is the humour with which all this is dealt with. This ranges from throw away wordplay to some gorgeous visual set pieces; satire and slap stick. Mac’s determination to adjust Peter’s attitude involves note-cards and a rolled up newspaper. Another of my favourite parts of the book was Peter’s new found world of computers and the Internet. Originally published in 2003 and probably a product of the late 1990’s anyway, the technological world of Bear Like Me is amusingly rather dated. Nonetheless Peter is computer illiterate and his enthusiastic but hapless discovery of the Internet, involves this exchange with Mac:
“Now do you remember the ground rules ?”
Peter looked skyward, then recited from memory: “Online cocks are one-and -three-quarters times as long as real cocks…”
Peter’s need for revenge on his previous employer, Chester Valentine, helps drive the plot dramatically, but is never allowed to appear mean-spirited. His appealing mixture of social naivety and thoughtful insight eventually gets its just reward in a new romantic relationship. The book builds to a huge bravura comedy outing at the Global Bear Gathering, and the Queermedia Annual General Meeting, where various strands of the book come together in a satisfying conclusion that surprised both Peter and me.
I found this book an incredible mix of all of the above and probably more. Being older, a woman, a Brit and straight (but not narrow), I’m sure I missed a lot of social references that many of you won’t. It was an exhausting read, but just so very funny.