It’s been an interesting week for the oppressed and the dispossessed, for anyone, in fact, who fears that a quirk of identity might prevent them from gaining access to power. Barack Obama has done a pretty fine job of proving that a black man can lead a country, but will the day ever come when a gay man (or indeed woman) could do the same? The question occurs to me having recently read Anne Brooke’s intriguing thriller, Maloney’s Law. Her main protagonist, Paul Maloney, is a gay PI whose sexuality is central to the novel. His ex-lover and a man who is publicly heterosexual, big business mogul Dominic Allen, has asked him to investigate an international company with whom he wants to have dealings, and for all that he’s instantly placed in the firing line, dodging bullets and knife-wielding attackers, the real danger comes from inside his own head. He’s barely recovered from their break-up, several years ago now, that sent him into a spiraling depression.
To call Paul Maloney troubled is something of an understatement. His family has been broken twice over, once when his older sister, Theresa, is murdered, and again when his sexuality becomes a stumbling block to relations with his father. Paul is a severely damaged man, suffering from the terminal pain of being unaccepted, unrecognized and disapproved of by the family who ought to love him. He begins the novel in a certain amount of anguish over his sense of self, rejected and abandoned twice over now in traumatic ways, and as it turns out, things are only going to get worse. Taking on Dominic’s case is going to transport him out of his depth, into a sordid world of double-crossing criminals and onto a trajectory through grief, violence and breakdown. In many ways I found this very interesting; most contemporary detectives are troubled, but few live out the consequences as viscerally as Paul does. But it’s not an easy read, as the case tends to take backstage to the torment that Paul is going through, his sense of responsibility and guilt, of failure and insufficiency, and his possession of a sexuality that is fierce and demanding but which seems to hold him apart from the daylight world.
I was intrigued by the fact that a woman should want to write from the point of view of a gay man, but by the end of the novel, I felt that it was portraying that sense of fundamental dislocation from the mainstream that appealed. Paul can’t regret his sexuality – it’s who he is, but he can never be at peace with himself because of the way he’s emerged from the crucible of his family life. But this kind of portrait of a gay man goes against the grain of some of the more recent principles of homosexual literature. Gay crime was a fairly big genre back in the eighties, or at least it was a significant niche, but the feeling was that fiction shouldn’t present gays as odd, eccentric, unhappy individuals. Consciousness-raising literature for blacks and for women went through much the same kind of journey; whenever a dispossessed or marginalized segment of society was at stake, what was needed was a source of positive role models. Story-telling could do its usual act of rescue by showing the world how you could be different in fundamental ways, but still be admirable, resourceful, strong. Even now, women remain uncomfortable with narratives that present their sex as victims; much better, it’s felt, to see women fighting their way over obstacles and winning the day. But of course, we also turn to fiction to tell us the truth; perhaps it’s just as necessary to show how women, blacks, gays, can and do suffer from prejudice, oppression, and a poor self-image. Even today, in a society that is undoubtedly more liberal than it has ever been.
It’s interesting that only a very few writers have made the crossover into the mainstream commercial world from writing about homosexuals – Patricia Highsmith with the dastardly bi-sexual Ripley is one contender, Patrick Gale is becoming better known these days now that his work isn’t so obviously oriented, and Val McDermid wrote a series of detective novels with a lesbian PI, who if I remember correctly, was not prone to the kind of tears and self-doubt that inflict Paul Maloney, but benefited instead from a somewhat more damaging right hook. This is a well-written, tense thriller that’s very, very dark, and unflinching in its full portrayal of a gay man’s life. Reading it, it occurred to me that it was rather good for me, would-be liberal that I am, to broaden my horizons this way, to enter unreservedly into the imaginative zone of someone who was wholly other to me. It’s only when homosexuality becomes a matter of transparency and indifference that no hint of unreasonable and unjust discrimination will remain.