Her ears were turning red, and with staring set eyes, she attempted to demoralize Bob. I could see the spatters of her spit. “I find that filthy, dirty, and disgusting.”
Bob stood his ground, never taking his eyes off his mom. His voice was even, calm, no hint of anger, almost cold like a breeze after a summer rain. “I’m sorry you feel that way, Mom.”
It is 1969 and in the small town of Dewers, Illinois, a scandal is brewing. Five men, the Square Affair Five, are arrested after being found having sex in the public toilets in the local courthouse. What follows in Holt’s novel, is a complicated series of first person accounts. Our guide is 70 year old town gossip Clara May, and her narration is interspersed with chapters narrated by the accused men themselves, their wives and family. It is a pressure cooker of a town, gossip, judgement and puritanical religion, leave all the families scarred.
Writing so many first person narratives in the one novel must be incredibly hard to do and I confess, with the exception of Clara May, they all seem quite samesy. I didn’t feel I really got to know any of the characters intimately, despite their habit of describing sexual details with surprising frankness, even to old Clara May, who, inexplicably, doesn’t blink an eye. That said, I did particularly enjoy the section narrated by one of the men’s wives, Sue, who decides to peel potatoes with a peeler instead of a knife because “with it I’m less likely to slip up, do something I’d regret, couldn’t undo”. The story itself is also a challenging one, notions of sexuality, social expectations, morality, forgiveness and how a person’s actions can affect others, are all interwoven with the multiple points of view. It’s an important picture to paint, I feel, while the novel reminds us that in 1969 homosexuality itself wasn’t illegal (since 1962 in the US, 1967 in England and Wales, 1972 in NSW, and in many countries it is to this day a crime for reasons no-one can establish), the men were charged because of the location of their tryst rather than its nature, it does describe a world of danger and loneliness for anyone questioning their own desires.
However. I hate to bring it up but this is the second novel I’ve been sent for review that could use a good editor. Not only is there typos in it, there’s also words missing. There is their/they’re confusion and woman used instead of women. I know these things are hard to catch, I understand that. But it goes deeper than that, some of the prose just felt clunky. Holt has an understated way with words, the whole novel is written with a matter of fact tone, which is fine as a style, but I did crave a little more light and shade. Dialogue felt wooden. The two gossiping old biddies, Clara May and her friend Frieda, run through paragraphs of exposition that could have been tightened and toned. I think the reason this all bothers me so much with this novel is that it could have been so good. First person, present tense the whole way through, multiple points of view, it should, by rights, be a thoroughbred racehorse of a novel. But without that editing it’s a big old Clydesdale. It clops along on heavy hooves.
I received this ebook for free in exchange for a review and I’m happy to tell you there is a promotion on Amazon, you can also get yourself a free copy between July 21 and 23. I would recommend you give it a go, if you’re willing to overlook the shortcomings, because I do think this is a monumental challenge Holt has taken on and a worthy story to tell. Without the errors this would be a solid three star novel.
The Square Affair, Timmothy Holt: two and a half stars.
Read it to: see a complicated LGBT story woven around a small town.