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Growing Up Is
Hard to Do

Growing Up Is
Hard to Do


Acclaimed lesbian author Stacey D'Erasmo's third novel, The Sky Below, charts her antihero's metamorphosis into a post-gay man.

At a time when being gay is commonplace, where's a "post-gay" man supposed to find meaning in life? What if his adulthood turns out to be a perpetual adolescence, without the impetus of marriage and family, and with the freedom to keep a boyfriend on call, to take a job that simply pays the rent, and to wait for his real life to start? If sex doesn't hold enough transformative power anymore, what else might be strong enough to push this sensitive soul to grow up?

It's not surprising that novelist Stacey D'Erasmo, one of the few American lesbian novelists who has managed to publish all her books with highly respected literary houses, would be drawn to these questions. Her previous two novels, Tea (2000) and A Seahorse Year (2005), both map the ambiguous boundaries of contemporary queer identity. Whether it's the young Philadelphia woman grappling with her emerging sexuality after her mother's suicide in D'Erasmo's first novel or the San Francisco lesbian couple struggling to raise their schizophrenic son with help from his gay father in her second, her characters crises often begin where the established social order leaves off.

In her third novel, The Sky Below, D'Erasmo focuses on Gabriel, an artist whose life is shaped more by crucial absences than by sex, or any other kind of desire. First and most powerful is the loss of his "sad brown bear of a father," who abandons Gabriel and his mother and sister when Gabriel is very young. Later comes the absence of his bossy yet beloved older sister, Catherine, who leaves high school for Morocco, then New York. Though Gabriel eventually joins her in her tiny East Village apartment with his college friend Sarah, Catherine departs again for Berlin. All the while, their wispy, detached mother stays down in Florida, still managing the motel to which they moved after his father left.

It's Catherine who first suggests that Gabriel's yearnings for wholeness might be fulfilled by something akin to divine transformation, while the two are still in high school. She takes him to a swamp and insists he climb a tree with her, where she attracts a flock of gold-streaked birds and appears to dissolve into them. This surreal yet convincing scene palpably reminds Gabriel of a favorite story his mother read to him from Ovid's Metamorphosis about a mythical young man called Tereus who is "midway between a warrior and a bird, his hair a bird's crest, his nose a beak, but his hands and body still mostly human." When Gabriel experiences his own divine visitation a few years later, it's in the form of an invisible stampede of bulls that inspires him to create the Joseph Cornell-like boxes that become his artistic medium.

But Gabriel's 20s slip away as he awaits his next thrilling transformation, during years spent writing obituaries at a third-rate tourist newspaper in Manhattan after 9/11. By now his relationship with his friend Sarah has turned into an intimate dependence that sometimes threatens to arrest their personal development, as on the night he visits her after abruptly leaving Janos, his Hungarian financier boyfriend, at the opera. Finding that Sarah has recently clashed with her boyfriend, Gabriel slips into a tender old ritual with her: "I held her for a long time in the bath, my penis as silky and limp as a calla lily. Unlike, I had no doubt, the wooden penis of the puppet maker. Sarah's men were generally assholes. Sarah cried for a while, adding salt to the bathwater." It's one of many fresh and compassionately observed scenes, and typifies D'Erasmo's ability to get under her characters' skin.

When Gabriel's much-longed-for metamorphosis finally does arrive, it's accompanied by the usual physical itches, palpitations and hallucinations (birds again) -- and leads him to collapse. A physician's evaluation results in the diagnosis of a "lazy cancer" like a sleeping lion that could wake at any time. And here it is at last: the larger-than-life force that Gabriel doesn't understand and can't control, that has the power to turn his mind around.

Yes, the transformative power of possible death. Since D'Erasmo doesn't give Gabriel much self-consciousness as a gay man, and never mentions AIDS, you almost don't see it coming. But it gives Gabriel a strangely believable lift. Imagining that he can take flight like a bird, Gabriel flees to Mexico, where he thinks his father might have gone. Feeling himself becoming a bird, one feather at a time, he finally opens up, lets go of his parental resentment and embraces his life.

D'Erasmo's use of myth can be challenging, but the reader's close attention is often rewarded by her potent, almost magical ability with language, and wonderfully observant eye. Though Gabriel's aimlessness at times leaves the novel drifting, and some of its full-fledged characters dangling, you can feel D'Erasmo's maturity and intelligence in this textured and vivid portrait of contemporary life.

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