Garrard Conley's remarkable debut novel, 'All the World Beside'

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday April 9, 2024
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Author Garrard Conley
Author Garrard Conley

For all the extravagant variety implied in that long string of capital letters plus the plus, avid readers of today's LGBTQ+ literary fiction may occasionally feel weighed down by its much of a muchness and like of a likeness. Into that fray comes the gust of fresh air that is Garrard Conley's debut novel, "All the World Beside" (Riverhead Books).

It didn't have to be that way. Conley made his name with "Boy Erased," his frank memoir of surviving gay conversion therapy and the movie it spawned, both of which did not just entertain readers but in fact saved lives. But no memoir, however salient, guarantees success in a first novel, yet Conley has scored one.

No spoilers where he came up with that title, though said avid reader can find it, but Conley has taken the trouble to research the past deeply enough to arrive at a historical novel that makes its own world —and invites its audience in. The history he explores is that of the 18th-century American phenomenon known as the Great Awakening —or, as my American-literature-teaching mother formulated it, the culmination of "plain living and high thinking."

Almost improbably, Conley has created from that chowder a meal that goes right down. The writing is masterful but un-self-flattering. The story is as linear as human life, with its twists and turns, flash-forwards and flashbacks, will allow.

The language is startling in its unstartlingness, consciously and painstakingly turning away from verbal acrobatics and rhetorical enigmas. It moves you right along, and then it moves you deeply. All this novel lacks is artifice.

His principal characters — the Reverend Nathaniel Whitfield and Dr. Arthur Lyman — exude same-sex male eroticism without suffering the reductive pigeonholing of being "gay" characters. And if the men are buffeted by the slings and arrows of avoiding outrageous fortune, the ladies, too, confront the hazards of the particulate breezes the men stir up. A good time is had by almost no one but the reader.

Author Garrard Conley  

Intimate letters
In his afterword — pages as thought-provoking as the novel they follow — Conley cites some of the usual suspects as influences. Legendary preacher Jonathan Edwards, he of the famous "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" sermon, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose "A Scarlet Letter" is assigned to young readers long before most are ready for its relentless strangeness, ride again in Conley's tale miraculously but without taking over.

He also acknowledges the almost hysterically erotic charge of the profession of affection, even respect, between men of whatever sexuality in those not all that distant times.

There is no better example than the correspondence of Hawthorne and his dear friends, Herman Melville, Henry Davis Thoreau and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (correspondence my mother did not teach) —unless it would be the letters between the ever-conniving Richard Wagner and his flamboyantly queer patron, King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Read from the vantage point of our more profane times, one possible retort would be, "Get a room."

The story is set in the mythical town of Cana, Massachusetts, a Puritan settlement in what once was Mohican land. The resonance is with the Biblical Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine for a wedding. But such as this novel has a set theology, it is of the kind Kierkegaard called "thoughts that wound from behind."

The bleeding heart of Conley's story is the clandestine passion of the two principals, who unsurprisingly have to travel or at least take to the woods to satisfy it, and their desperate mutual pacts to get over it if not quite each other.

What drives their conundrum is the desire to shelter themselves from the awesome power of desire as much as to hide it from their unwelcoming if not strictly unsuspecting families and communities. One of the singular achievements of Conley's book is its non-doctrinaire confidence — that, as in life, everybody knows, even those who don't know they know — without hammering the point home.

His genius lies in the telling detail: the scent of sex with another brought home to a spouse, the cringing distance between the two men when their families gather for entertainment, lips that tell more than they should, the letters an unsuspecting child discovers tucked into a book.

Here's Conley's meditation on the timelessness of desire as much as the shame following the act: "Down at the Wharf when he and his family had lived in Boston, the seaman had passed by Arthur, who was pretending to admire the waves lapping the piles," he writes. "Then, in a swift motion Arthur had come to associate with these assignations, the man had returned, permitting his arm to graze Arthur's hips. Arthur waited a few moments before following the man down a narrow alley....

"Always it had been this way with the men Arthur met at the wharves. Whatever pleasure he found there had soon been eclipsed by the trade, and he was able to tell himself the animal moans that escaped his mouth as the men entered him were merely a part of the price of his science."

New music
The plot thickens without curdling or confounding. The women characters are as deftly drawn as the men, and the individual stories, compelling on their own terms, intertwine like a choking vine. That said, what could be unrelievedly deadly is leavened by the occasion wink of recognition, and authorial fellow-feeling.

One of the present-day writers Conley salutes praises his "new and ravishing music," and the observation is apt. The novel moves like a symphony, themes and plot lines developed and recapitulated.

Protestants raised on hymns know that when their spiritual waves recede, the words can seem overwrought when not downright baffling. Without sacrificing the poetry, Conley holds to the sense. The book reaches a final crescendo of something like truth.

One wrong pitch and this novel could have gone astray, too high or too low. But it feels like what is said about the good Reverend's preaching: "They say his speech placed such guilt in their hearts, and was spoken with such deep emotion, that the crying lasted for several hours. People fell out of the pews and broke into violent paroxysms upon the ground. We had no word for it. Now we call it an awakening, a revival."

"All the World Beside" cauterizes such guilt with a deep compassion. But what must have been Conley's struggle is not the reader's. As he writes of the Reverend's method, "It is his life's glory, these words; they come to him unbidden. Sometimes, after he finishes, he allows himself to marvel at the pages."

Himself a true, if transformed, believer, Conley leaves the marveling to the reader.

'All the World Beside' by Garrard Conley. Riverhead Books, $28, 335 pages,

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