canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

St. Stephen's
by Sky Gilbert
Insomniac Press, 1999

Review by Ibolya Kaslik

St.Stephen's contains many genuinely compelling insights about gay life, poignant moments and laughs but, unfortunately, a successful novel it is not. Gilbert's central rambling narrator, Jack, starts with a clear enough thesis-like statement: "Teaching is learning; learning is teaching". As we follow Jack from his transformation from hip, urban, gay actor to small-town university professor, we learn some incidental things but very little about teaching and learning, except that it is probably not a very good idea to sleep with your students.

The novel's shortcomings, however, have little to do with structure as there is a clear sense of journey and movement through Jack's various experiences at the college. His relationship with the older Matthew, the "dapper dean", who adopts Jack as protégée and professor, shapes Jack's narrative but provides a shakey, almost pointless line of reference as the relationship sours and leaves Jack, two-thirds of the way through the novel, where he began; an aging, bright homosexual with a penchant for young men.

In fact, Gilbert's self-conscious need for structure is the weakest part of the book as the tangential Jack is best when he discusses themes, anecdotes and beguiles the reader with observations like:

"I think most of the gay guys who work on the gay streets in any big burg are from small towns. And they are just so goddamned happy they don't have to be closeted hairdressers anymore that they get all snippy from the sheer joy of living with their own people."

Aware perhaps of the self-indulgent nature of the confessional form, Gilbert clings to a notion of theme and structure while the real richness of the writing comes from the indulgent boldness of his narrator. That is, St. Stephan's best moments occur when Jack derails his own narrative and lectures to the reader on the dark side of urban-gay life, pedophilia and when he is not so avidly, consciously, trying to give a form to these themes within his narrative.

"They just seem to be exaggerating the crumbs of affection or even attention they get from their so-called loved ones. But then again, isn't that what love is?...Isn't pederasty then, in a way, the love in our culture that is most like the kind of "true" love in storybooks?"

This subtextual argument about pedophilia becomes foregrounded as Jack's own attraction to young men resurfaces after his relationship with Matthew dies. In the final scene of the novel, Matthew and Jack have an intellectual argument about religious figures, teaching, and Jack's own misdemenours as a prof. This scene is supposed to be high drama but is forced and unbelievable. The true close of the novel is Jack's break-up, in the rain, with his twenty year-old, student, cocaine-addict boyfriend. This scene, though cliched in many ways, is emotive and cinematic: "You make me feel cheap. You always make me feel cheap, you know that?" young Theodore tells Jack, isolating the essential inequality in May-December, adult-child, relationships.

While the dramatization of themes in his relationship with Matthew is unsuccessful, the realization of the same theme with Theodore is. Perhaps this is because Jack is closer to being a lover of young men than a victim, perhaps also because Gilbert, caught up in the notion of ending the book with a grand finale, is compelled to "show" us again. While there were some beautiful moments in this novel, Gilbert's engaging expositions on gay life are more in the vein of queer theory than fiction, and his voice is more in line with improvisational monologue than novelistic scope.

Ibi Kaslik is a graduate of the English Masters program at Concordia. Her work has appeared in "Matrix," "Hour" and "Peckerwood". She dreams of one day owning her very own banjo.







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