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[239] Surprising Myself – Christopher Bram


“It frightened me because Corey was a guy. I wanted to protect it because such a love was so ridiculous and fragile. Love was for marriage, and I couldn’t marry Corey . . . I couldn’t distinguish the excitement of my fear from the excitement of love.” [61]

Joel Scherzenlieb grows up at a time given to homosexual panic. In 1970, at summer camp boys behind his back call him queer, which makes him feel misgiving because it means he’s weak and helpless. His divorced parents, whom he doesn’t trust, are busy criticizing each other, let alone ushering and fortifying their gay son to adulthood. When he reunites with Corey in New York City three years later, he falls in love with the man who comes to his defense at the camp but decides that being with Corey doesn’t make him gay.

“But I’m not queer. That’s why I have to end it . . .
“Were you in love with him?
“Of course not. I’m straight [76]

It’s obvious that the relationship between Joel and Corey is uneven, if not one-way, because one is more mature, secure, and monogamous than the other. Joel seems to be using Corey’s feelings as a chance to test his own fantasies, fear, temptations, and even homosexual panic. Joel is far from being comfortable in his own skin. Is he to blame for his promiscuity behind Corey’s back? Christopher Bram, with an erotic and yet controlled style, delivers an emotional journey of someone who does not know love let alone understanding love in the context of a committed relationship. Coming to terms of his homosexuality, Joel has also given himself to a concussion of libidinous escapades that he thinks can never hurt a partnership that is based on true love and understanding.

Oh yeah? I know how you people live. Yeah, you live like couples and pay lip service to love, but if there’s somebody on the street who catches your eye, you’ll jump into bed without thinking twice about it. I’ve heard all about the gay scene. [281]

So disconcerting and yet so dead-on. Bram’s purpose is not to advocate monogamy but to explore the validity of love. In order for Joel to make sense of love, he has to commit, in his own words, discourtesies, errors of judgment, and sexual nothings—acts that debase Corey’s love and that take Corey’s trust for granted. It’s almost necessary for him to fall so deep, to the point of self-hatred, to recognize requited love that he’s shown. The only way the prodigal son to perceive love is through forgiveness.

I could resist it only by hating him back, but even that turned against me, because I hated myself for hating Corey . . . Corey was too good for me, and I hated myself for hating him even as I hated him for making me hate myself. [369]

Surprising Myself is Bram’s first novel and that it lays the ground work for his later novels. The ideas of no-string-attached sex and emotional fidelity recur in Exiles in America. The novel captures beautifully the altering gamut of emotions, as well as the reversing cause and effect in a relationship that is stranded in misunderstanding. So powerful and raw is the portrayal of one’s guilt and selfishness and their consequence on mutual trust. The only foible is the lingering drama of the sister’s bungled marriage, which is to mirror Joel’s lack of gratitude. I resonate most deeply with the book’s undoing the deception that love is some trite convention between two people. It shows the destruction power of speculation and exploitation.

424 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

12 Responses

  1. I am glad you liked this book. I read this back when I was 16 years old in the 1980s and it was revelatory to read this coming out story while I was coming out myself. It is still my favorite Bram novel. I wonder how I would fee about it if I re-read it now 24 years later.

  2. This has been in my TBR stack for ages. Maybe I’ll move it towards the top of the heap.

    Do you think it holds up well after so much time? I wonder if it felt at all dated. It sounds like it was very much a novel of the 1970’s, but it also sounds like you think it’s pretty terrific anyway.

  3. This was one of those book I read in HS (early 90s) when I was dealing with being gay. I had already started to come out so I though why not read as many books as I can. I never liked this one, I felt depressed by it as I do from a lot of the books written during the 70s and 80s. One of the few that I liked and still like is The Lure by Felice Picano.

  4. This sounds like an excellent story not only for someone who is gay and/or coming to terms with that, but for anyone who is trying to understand love and to feel like they deserve love. I think all of us yearn for that but at times do things to jeopardize relationships because we feel that we ourselves are not worthy.

  5. […] [239] Surprising Myself – Christopher Bram […]

  6. Thomas:
    i think Bram’s later works have not been as audacious and direct as this one. It’s just so dead on and explosive about gay relationships, nailing the doubt, trust and distrust, insecurity, fear, and hypocrisy. I’m simply in awe of this book.

  7. cbjames:
    The whole homophobia issue is very lively and accurate in this book, although you probably won’t find many guys who try to hide from their sexual orientation as contrived the fashion as these characters. I think it holds up well since this is my favorite Bram so far. 🙂

  8. Ryan:
    Thanks for mentioning The Lure, which I have not heard of. I grew up in another country and I find myself digging all these coming-out stories of America in the 70s and early 80s.

  9. Staci:
    This novel is very well-written because it puts the coming-out story into the perspective of a family. It’s a page turner.

  10. I really wish my local library would carry more GL books. They have done a pretty good job with YA but not so good in the adult area.

  11. This book seems great, but isn’t it a little bit caricatural? The way homosexual are described as non-monogamous and frivolous…

  12. […] number of books by that author? Christopher Bram, 5: Exiles in America, Gossip, Gods and Monsters, Surprising Myself, and Almost History. He explores the boundary between privacy and publicity in gay […]

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