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[479] Perfect Agreement – Michael Downing

” Most of my colleagues had reacted squeamishly to the Spelling Thing and the rift it caused, like prepubescent children subjected to a film about boys’ and girls’ blooming bodies. They didn’t like either of the two available options. They said nothing. It was easy to condemn them. I assured myself that their refusal to sid with me proved they were against me; that they were passive and guilty; that not to decide is decide. ” (52)

Mark Sternum is a grammarian—the guardian of the English language and its usage. His love of order extends into his meticulously constructed life, even though love and family cannot always be made to agree as easily as subject and verb. Downing’s gimmicky novel revolves around spelling, grammar and corrct usage, as intercalary passages of cutesy grammatical humor are inserted at the end of chapters as though they were insights.

A case can be made that these tutorials, both practical and humorous, are actually sly underlinings of subjects and themes brought up in the chapters themselves. The book’s protagonist is a college professor in Boston who is fired for not passing an African-American single mother who failed a spelling test. Mark, who is full of droll observations about the rules that govern the English language, claims that he is only doing his job and the job is not a cause. But the student accuses his standards being discriminatory.

In his estimation, everything was eratz, inauthentic—my garden, American history, his marriage, the Sjaker museums, the Catholic church, box cereal, and even his own best book of photographs. I believed more than ever in the utter truth of his death in 1982. I did not doubt that the force of my mother’s will had been enough to keep him alive, if only just, for forty odd years. (167)

As Mark monitors the ensuing academic skirmish from a distance, he turns his affection instead to history of Shakers community and his father, a famous photographer for his pictures of empty Shaker buildings, who disappeared many years earlier and is thought to be dead. But an old man who claims to be a Shaker named Brother Thomas turns up at Mark’s house and appears to be the long-lost father himself. Then we are directed to the relationship between Mark and his lover, who after ten years decides to move in with him. The narrative is delicate but not sentimental, focusing on the mundane matters of their relationship.

Then comes the major subplot—a long historical flashback about a Shaker girl who sees a dark-skinned man that the community, in the midst of its decline, wants to believe is a mystical vision of a black Jesus. This story is interwoven with the contemporary goings-on. Thw Shaker stretch steals the limelight, and the material is first-rate, making up the strength that the rest of the book lacks. While I enjoy the dish of academic politics and America’s obsession with race, my problem with Perfect Agreement is that far too many story lines, and styles, are trotted out, played with and then more or less abandoned.

288 pp. Berkeley Trade. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[162] Breakfast with Scot – Michael Downing

“We are all a little ashamed of ourselves. We weren’t exactly a family, but we shared a familiar feeling. Over time, in our peculiar lives, some of the shame of being ourselves had stuck to each of us, and it seemed to be the only glue holding us together.” [68]

Sam and Ed are living a good life together in Harvard Square, Massachusetts. Sam is a successful chiropractor whose meditation habit has rendered him more thoughtful and morose than his partner. Ed, an editor for a snobbish Italian art magazine, is spontaneous and upfront. Although they are very devoted to one another (monogamous?), they do not have longing for parenthood. When Julie (Billy’s live-in girlfriend) suddenly dies, her will has named Sam the uncle to be legal guardian of eleven-year-old Scot, because she wishes to protect her son from the irresponsible father.

Not that they don’t like Scot, but soon Ed and Sam realize that being a man who is meant to make good on his word is easier said than done. While they frantically get on with their well-intended preparations for Scot’s arrival, they try to solicit petty prejudices and moral outrage by canvassing—but everyone in the neighborhood and social circle is relentlessly encouraging to the adoption.

Efforts to accommodate Scot into the household and new life, if not altogether futile, are not adequate to ready him and the couple for what is to come. His refusal to speak dismisses him early from school. He also has a predilection for eye shadow, mascara, and lip-stick, as well as kilt and girly accessories. It’s no surprise that he is quickly marked as the cooties: the enduring, merciless grade-school diagnosis of a disease carried by the nerdy, the annoyingly smart, the femmey, the poorly dressed—the abnormal. The usual prescription: harassment and isolation. Is this why Scot is left behind? Would Billy have stuck about if Scot is different, meaning, being normal? For Ed, the question is equally probing. Is it his responsibility to have a preference about Scot’s preferences? Scot’s a stranger to this world that it’s not going to be easy for him to cast off others’ disapproval. So the issues are larger than parenting, because they evoke the society’s desire for normalcy (heterosexual norms) and assimilation to these norms. It reminds Ed and Sam, with a stab of pain, their own struggle for the cause:

“But there’s a lot we do and a lot we don’t do to make ourselves acceptable in their sight. I humble myself before them everyday when I don’t kiss you goodbye in the street.” [55]

A noteworthy thing about this book is the voice. Ed is the narrator of the book and he constantly reminds readers that Billy is not his brother, and he is only doing this for Sam. But Ed becomes very bonded to Scot, having all the conversation on his being queer and different. As much as his sensibility and vociferousness, and his many adventurous number with the boy at the museums and ice-skating rink, Ed is the one who is endowed with a practical sense. His love for the boy, and his vision of his having a bright future simply touch Ed and obliterate any doubt that the three of them cannot be a family. This is a meaningful book that explores one’s identity when it’s viewed as a stigma and shame. Comic but touching.

Some New Crushes

I read about Dewey the Library Feline here after I saw the book on display at the bookstore. Although I’m not usually a lover of feel-good books, but stories with animals usually pique me. Dogs are man’s best friends but what about the cats that roam about many of our homes in their own independent ways? Although I’ve had a rough experience with a cat at a local bookstore, (after much mental recuperation) I do enjoy walking into a bookstore and find that there is a kitty in residence. Anyway, Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicky Myron is the true story of the kitty that was found in the book drop one morning. The library staff adopted him and who has become a member of the branch. I cannot wait to read this endearing story.

I have to keep my hands off The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows until my next long-haul flight. This much-anticipated book for sure would be page-turner and I’m afraid the addictive spell of it will make me zip through it in no time. For those of you who have yet to read it (I feel like I’m the last person on earth who hasn’t), it is a charming epistolary novel set in both London and Guernsey Island. The book follows author Juliet as she becomes friends with the inhabitants of the island shortly after the end of World War II. Told in epistolary style, Juliet learns of the occupied island and its deprivations, as well as the resounding spirit of the people who live there. The book’s emulation to 84 Charring Cross Road and Excellent Women makes it very appealing to me. The book has been all over book bloggers’ radar and everybody is raving about it. Have you read it?

Currently I’m also reading Breakfast with Scot by Michael Downing. It’s the story of a gay couple in Cambridge, Mass., who inherit an 11-year-old boy, Scot. Everyone in the fifth grade thinks he’s gay, of course, but he’s too young to know what he is — only that he isn’t like most other boys. (Delicate and otherworldly, he reminds Ed of a cherub in a pre-Renaissance painting.) Sam and Ed finally admit to each other that his flamboyant behavior embarrasses them; Ed confesses that when he looks at Scot, he sees what the school bully sees. The film has (unfortunately, to me) changed the story around to have an ince-hockey theme. The book itself is very absorbing.