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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]