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[125] Kansas in August – Patrick Gale

kansasaugust.jpg“Rufus Barbour was a fully-qualified shit. Not only was he selfish and pig-headed, he was greedy, obstinate, morose, anti-social, parasitic, and promiscuous. He delighted, as much as well-meaning friends, in dropping veiled references to his impulsive one-night-stands. What kind of mind is it that can’t cope with steady affection, love indeed, but has to glean thrills from a succession of puny conquests? … Frankly, who wants to share their lover with half trash and social misfits of Charing Cross?” (16)

At least two of his number are not socially erratic or trashy. Hilary is a charismatic high school teacher who has a passion in acting and dancing. He views life as his beloved musicals. However he enjoys discussing Lady Macbeth with his students, the job is no more than an interim one with which he ekes a living while he paves his way to the theater. Hilary’s older sister Henry (see how the names breathe a hint of the theme of misrepresented identities that is to follow) is a psychiatrist who maintains crisp control in the face of her patients’ insanity and a crumbling health service. She too is at an emotional juncture and her motivation runs dry. After the call-off of engagement, her only non-professional encounters with men, who so rarely measure up to her intellectual or emotional stimulus, let alone rival to her time, have been brief and uninvolved.

Until Rufus Barbour comes along. Brother and sister, without each other’s knowing, find themselves involved with the same man who is a cheesy bisexual in dire financial straits. After months of groundless romantic occupation it dawns on Hilary that he wants a spouse and Rufus a lover. It would be unfair of him to make Rufus even try. His intentionally but mocking remark, “The trouble with you, is your pathological inability to separate sex from domesticity,“, which he later regrets blurting, makes the split easier and painless.

While Hilary turns his attention to the baby boy he finds abandoned in a subway station, Henry (it’s really Henrietta) is half hopeful of the flourish of love and half skeptical of this unexpected romance thrown in her path. The cross-cutting between plots may have been more artificial at times in his earlier works, but here Gale has fully mastered the cuts, juxtapositions and simultaneities. The romantic nemesis in Rufus, the abandoned baby, and the surreal mystic devotion of a downtrodden school girl come to brother and sister’s salvation and demolish that barrier of cowardly silence between them. Through their checkered journey to self-discovery, Gale exploits the mistaken and misrepresented identities and coincidences that are in play. Hilary aspires to take up a role that is traditionally reserved for women–parenthood, which Henry dreads. That he nourishes a sacrificial love surpassing his any of his other passion for the baby, who merely enters his life by pure chance, makes him see that Rufus, and even teaching English, are no more than things he allows to clog up the path to freedom out of sheer force of habit. And for Henry, she cannot cope with the baby, let alone adopting him and battling against biased bureaucrats that pigeon-hole the gays, but she exerts invincible strength to keep her patients at bay. As befit to Gale’s light-hearted and quirky style, Kansas in August goes awry in bizarre imagination but is kept within the realm of reason by the grace of social relevance.

[124] The Aerodynamics of Pork – Patrick Gale

pork.jpgFeature author of The Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival 2008.

I have trouble nailing down a single passage that encompasses the gist of this novel, Patrick Gale’s debut, whose entwining storylines and the quick actions ensued keep my plate full. A lot is going on but all the loose ends eventually communicate at the end. The Aerodynamics of Pork follows a series of events that unfold during one summer simmering week—the week before Seth Felix Peake, whom the novel revolves around, turns sixteen. In the opinion of academic he is lost and in the eyes of the church misdemeanment, Seth holds a most special place in his mother’s heart. The young music prodigy seems uncannily to comprehend sufferings of maturity and torments transmuted to a score. On the eve of the Peake’s departure to Cornwall where Evelyn Peake conducts the annual music festival, WPC Maude Faithe is investigating a series of violent attacks on newspaper in London.

At Cornwall, Seth scrapes a friendship with the good-looking, somewhat conceited Roly MacGuire, who is commissioned to renovate statures and sculptures in the nave to embrace gala spirit. That Roly talks about his homosexuality to the teenager in an unbridled manner encourages Seth’s self-discovery. Meanwhile, Seth’s sister, Venetia, an aspiring literature scholar, lapses in a rare state of hysteria in which pent-up sexual neurosis is manifest in the classic pregnancy symptoms. As occurrence and consequence of the “Astro-Burglar” multiply and cumulate in an arson that burns nothing but fortune-telling books at a warehouse, Hwu Peake, Seth’s father disappears.

As Seth sets out in hot pursuit of the unconventional romance with the sculptor, who feels a qualm of the boy’s being incapable to cope with his feelings, every bit of details and hints begin to fall into place. Lying in the middle of all these but remaining rather understated is a permeating social relevance, which concerns an amendment to the law suggesting that sixteen, not twenty-one, should be the fair age of homosexual consent. The smooth writing and intriguing plot put me into a state of lolling and contented absorption. The ending is tugged away in a rather abrupt manner but the scrupulous reader will catch the allusive meaning.