Down home again

  • by Jim Piechota
  • Wednesday October 25, 2017
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Since I Laid My Burden Down by Brontez Purnell; Feminist Press, $17.95

In author and musician Brontez Purnell's engrossing debut novel "Since I Laid My Burden Down," his protagonist does something that a lot of us dream about doing when city life becomes oppressive: return home to the land of our childhood to rest and regroup.

DeShawn, a middle-aged gay man living in Oakland, flees back to rural Alabama to mourn the death of his uncle, and contemplate his past and who he has become as a man. Flashback episodes of his childhood and adolescence fill in the spaces of DeShawn's adult life and flesh out much of the book. While these scenes tend to be haphazardly arranged, they are effective at translating past ordeals into a present condition. Growing up, DeShawn's family life was made turbulent by an abusive stepfather who was prone to violent rages amidst quarreling relatives. But his sexual awakening came early, and with a thrust his family wasn't quite ready to process.

The novel is slim yet potently realized, with a lot to ponder. Purnell draws each episode in DeShawn's stirred memory with careful consideration and candid detail. His sexual escapades are raw, and the ghosts of his past confronting him during his homecoming are dealt with and vanquished one-by-one. Readers will relate to DeShawn's return home if they've ever ventured back to the childhood roots of their own pasts and found both painful and pleasant memories there. Nostalgia can be a welcoming friend and a vengeful enemy at the same time.

This novel follows the re-publication of Purnell's first book "Johnny Would You Love Me If My Dick Were Bigger" by Feminist Press, initially released through San Francisco-based radical underground press Rudos and Rubes in 2015. This brilliant, unfettered commentary on the state of contemporary gay life is told through a series of frank, humorous essays, vignettes, anecdotes, musings, and illustrations. Purnell reflects pointedly on urban life, friends, adventure, race, culture, and freedom. He makes some poignant, vital, and deeply-felt points on HIV, the queer community, and sexuality in all its glorious forms. Both Purnell publications are busy, frantically narrated books, but well worth the trip.