The Nothingness of Ben (Stuart’s Review)

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.

Blurb

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

Review

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.

Author

I live with my husband and our boxer dog in the beautiful Hudson Valley. If only I loved nature as much as I love a good book!

8 comments

  • Thanks for the compliment, Reggie! The way the book treats grief is not out of keeping with the tradition of Romantic Comedy: look at the breezy treatment of a ghastly neurological disorder in the movie 50 First Dates. It’s a good book and I hope you enjoy it!

    Reply
  • Thanks Stuart. I love your clearly written reviews. I understand the whys and wherefores of your ratings and then I can make my choices.

    I was hesitant to read this precisely for the pitfalls you mentioned. Like you,I get thrown out of stories when the underlying psychology is too wrong. Now that I know the humor is successful I can breeze over the light treatment of grief.

    Thanks for the review! 😀

    Reply
  • Great review, Stuart. I love a good RomCom. And despite your problems with it, which certainly sound valid, I might just have to pick it up. Thanks. (Great Gwenn quote btw. 😉 )

    Reply
    • Thanks, Tom. I don’t think you can go wrong in choosing to read Nothingness of Ben, it’s definitely worth your time as a RomCom fan.

      Reply
  • Sometimes, I just dont get your ratings. Regelence Rake by Langley and Player and the Prude by Daisy Harris got 4 and 4.5 ( or was it the other way around?) And this book gets 3.75? I disagree. I so so so disagree!

    Reply
    • Hi, Sona. Thanks for your comment! Each reviewer is responsible for rating the books they select. I’ve never read either of the works you mention, so I don’t know how many stars I would give them if I reviewed them. What I try to do is provide concrete reasons why I made the rating decision that I made. I hope I was successful in doing that, even if you disagree with my assessment.

      Reply
    • Hi Sona I just want to add that I find ratings the hardest part of the review writing and of course you cannot consider rating by every reviewer to be a reflection of site’s ” official ” rating whatever that would mean 🙂 IMO. There is always a wiggle room even between the books every reviewer rated say five stars and much more so for different grade. I cannot *stand* the first book by JL Langley from the series you mentioned and never bothered to pick up second and third book, but several my fellow reviewers really loved them. After a while you more or less figure out individual reviewer’s likes and dislikes and how well it matches yours, but it differs very significantly between us IMO and that’s part of the reason I love this site so – because people with so different tastes write for it and I can always find the reviews by somebody whose tastes are pretty close to mine or sometimes branch out and try the book which was recommended by the reviewer whose tastes usually are not close to mine.

      This book was a solid five for me , but I love Stiart’s review and understand his reasons for grading the book as he did.

      Reply
    • Sona

      As Sirius and Stuart said, each reviewer uses his/her own judgment when rating a book. While there are guidelines on the site, each reviewer’s rating is that person’s personal opinion.

      I read this book and while I liked it a lot, I agree with the rating for the reasons outlined in the review. To treat one’s parents’ death under the wheels of a truck on the highway in such a cavalier fashion, while it might appeal to some readers as light comedy, was not something I felt was appropriate under the circumstances.

      However, everyone’s taste is different and you might feel that the levity was in keeping with the sombreness of the occasion.

      Since you mentioned it, I rated My Regelence Rake 4 stars for the reasons outlined in the review. This book received 15-5 star, 14-4 star and 6-3 star reviews on Amazon, so my rating was consistent with that of other reviewers.

      Thanks for commenting.

      Reply

Please comment! We'd love to hear from you.

%d bloggers like this: