Title: The Nothingness of Ben (The Austin Trilogy #1)
Author: Brad Boney
Cover Artist: L. C. Chase
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Buy Link: Amazon:
Genre: Contemporary M/M
Length: Novel/248 pages
Rating: 3.75 stars out of 5
A Guest Review by Stuart
Review Summary: The Nothingness of Ben is a fun, humane, and witty romantic comedy, populated by wonderful characters. The novel’s effectiveness is undermined by themes of grief and mourning, never successfully integrated into the novel’s theatrical tone.
Ben Walsh is well on his way to becoming one of Manhattan’s top litigators, with a gorgeous boyfriend and friends on the A-list. His life is perfect until he gets a phone call that brings it all crashing down: a car accident takes his parents, and now he must return to Austin to raise three teenage brothers he barely knows.
During the funeral, Ben meets Travis Atwood, the redneck neighbor with a huge heart. Their relationship initially runs hot and cold, from contentious to flirtatious, but when the weight of responsibility starts wearing on Ben, he turns to Travis, and the pressure shapes their friendship into something that feels a lot like love. Ben thinks he’s found a way to have his old life, his new life, and Travis too, but love isn’t always easy. Will he learn to recognize that sometimes the worst thing imaginable can lead him to the place he was meant to be?
The Austin Trilogy
Brad Boney’s debut novel The Nothingness of Ben is well written, filled with characters of surprising humanity and originality; a romantic comedy where engaging, decent, funny people try to do the best they can to help one another through a difficult time. Ben Walsh, the selfish professional, and Travis Atwood, the compassionate mechanic, are versions of stock characters in M/M fiction but NoB uses them in new and engaging ways. Ben is not merely the selfish, New York lawyer, “from a top law firm,” growing via love and self-knowledge to become an effective and caring guardian of his three teen-aged brothers. Travis is not merely the straight, working-class, wet-dream, whose simplicity and moral clarity provide the impetus and grounding for Ben’s transformation.
The story of the selfish professional saved by his proletarian hero has been written dozens of times, with varying degrees of success. In NoB, however, Ben and Travis are depicted from the beginning as having clear, if not always accurate, ideas of their flaws and strengths as human beings. Ben knows he’s brilliant but selfish, Travis knows he’s open-hearted but uneducated. They are each uncertain if these qualities are sufficient to help them adapt to the challenges created by the death of Ben’s parents and whether they have the capacity to change. Having characters written from the outset with an aptitude for mature reflection and self-knowledge is a refreshing change in how men are often depicted in M/M fiction. NoB lavishes equal care on the minor characters who emerge as other than the clichés their descriptions might suggest: “the jilted boyfriend,” “the disgruntled teenager,” “the corporate magnate,” “the homophobic relative.” The author consistently takes these stock genre characters and does something unexpected and interesting with them.
Brad Boney has clearly studied M/M novels and works meta-narratively to avoid the pitfalls of genre clichés. When Travis and Ben discuss their attraction, Ben says: “I know there are supposed to be these straight guys out there who go gay for that one special dude. But it’s a fantasy. It doesn’t really happen, except maybe in romance novels and gay porn.” NoB charmingly and comedically explores the ways real people might respond to finding themselves entangled in a Gay For You plot.
NoB avoids the pitfalls of the Big Misunderstanding. The characters, major and minor, consistently seek solutions to conflict through (mostly) honest communication. However, the author also recognizes the way good-faith efforts to speak truth can often create more problems. He uses this pattern of truth creating obstacles as an effective substitute for the Big Misunderstanding, a more realistic way of creating drama and propelling the plot forward.
It’s not easy to write funny and erotic sex scenes but Brad Boney has done it. The intentional use of farce makes the sex scenes in NoB great reads in their ridiculousness and humor. You will be introduced to Bull-riding techniques as a model for anal sex and to two new words “long-dicking” and “short fucking,” which I find to be most excellent verbs. NoB, in what must be a conscious joke, takes the sex scenes written in M/M romance novels to their final, absurd conclusion: “…Travis could fuck for hours at a time. Often they would have entire conversations while they screwed, Ben slowly moving his cock in and out of Travis’s ass.” That’s hilarious! My husband and I laughed and made up stories about how life might be for Ben and Travis. Ben writing a legal brief while they fuck? Travis fixing a car while they fuck? I don’t know where authors can go next, now that Brad Boney has taken sex to the level of perpetual fucking. There’s something subversive about the sex scenes in NoB, they walk the thin line between homage and mockery, which I appreciate. Not only is the sex funny, it’s also integral to character development, the sex evolving as Ben and Travis evolve.
An affable, charming, funny book, NoB should never have chosen the framing device of Ben’s parents dying in an auto accident. Parental death and the ensuing grief are situations that produce deep emotions such as fear, despair, anger, depression, isolation, and sorrow. It’s not that NoB doesn’t try to include written descriptions of these emotions, they simply don’t come alive on the page. Here is Ben at the funeral Mass for Ben’s parents: “He hadn’t been to church in years. He couldn’t put up with the anti-gay bullshit that came bundled with Catholicism, not to mention his healthy skepticism about the whole God thing in general.” Does that sound like a man facing the simultaneous death of both his parents, crushed by an eighteen-wheeler on a Texas highway? Does that even sound like the thoughts of someone wrapped in the numbness following unexpected trauma? No. The funeral and its immediate aftermath consist of exposition, the introduction of characters, and clichés from M/M romance, all told without the verve, comedy and originality that make rest of the novel enjoyable. I frankly hated the book through Chapter 3 and, even after the book becomes strong and enjoyable, moments of deep emotion somehow fail to take on even soap operatic life.
It takes great skill and finesse to produce a successful romantic comedy. As Edmund Gwenn said: “All the honors go to the tragedian for chewing up the scenery, while the comedian, who has to be much more subtle to be funny, is just loudly criticized when he doesn’t come through.” Despite its flaws, I’d unhesitatingly recommend The Nothingness of Ben to those seeking a fun, humane, and witty romantic comedy.