Book Review: Flannelwood (Raymond Luczak)
Reviewed by Michael Northen
"Literature is reading about people's lives and caring for them as if they were your own flesh and blood. It's about appreciating the craft and clarity that comes from telling a good story. It's about seeing yourself in the characters and discovering things you hadn't realized before. Which is exactly what we do with the people in our lives."
These are the words that Bill Badamore, the narrator of Raymond Luczak's latest novel, summons in an efort to explain the value of literature to his parents, farmers – who have no interest in reading. But those who are familiar with Luczak's work know that they might well stand in for the philosophy of the author himself. In thinking about Flannelwood, I want to make them the basis for my observations.
Flannelwood is composed of five linked stories. What holds the stories together are the central narrator; James, the character to whom the book is addressed; and Luczak's own writing style, one in which he informs readers rather than letting meaning arise from the interaction of the characters. What varies in each section are the tone, the secondary characters and central events, and the literary antecedents. While this last element is much more of a factor in some sections than others, it is the one that turns Flannelwood from a relatively conventional bildingsroman into a rather risky endeavor.
It is risky because the book's initial chapter, an over-the-top elegiac homage to a lost lover written in the second person, is likely to make readers feel disinclined to continue to the second chapter. If one of the values of literature is "seeing yourself in others," many readers are going to find that a difficult task in Bill, the narrator and would-be writer who excels in self-pity. One wonders why Luczak would lead off with this piece. There are a couple of clues. The first is the archaic title "Of Winter's Light I Bring." The second occurs later when Bill reveals how as a child he had spent hours in the library reading Romantic books like Wuthering Heights. Bill wants to become a writer but sees himself as the hero of a Romantic nineteenth century novel. By recreating an ersatz Romantic atmosphere, Luczak gives the reader the feel of just how difficult that journey to becoming a writer and a genuine human being is going to be. Pilgrim has to begin in the Slough of Despond before he can make progress.
It was in the book's second chapter that I finally did begin to see myself in the Bill's experience. Bill, like many of Luczak's characters, was raised in a region and family that puts little value on formal education. Like many of us who were the first and only members of our family to attend college, what we discover is that we have crossed a bridge over which there is no return. Education changes people in intangible ways. In Bill's case, Wolfe's admonition that you can't go home again becomes literally true when he reveals to his father that he is gay. His father's response is "'Well as long as you suck dick you can't stay here. Get Out.'"
Two other events of importance take place in this chapter and in Bill's real life education. The first is the relationship with his first real lover, Craig, who ultimately dies of AIDS. From Craig, Bill learns what his own family failed to teach him, that love is possible. The second event is the death of his mother. The style of this section picks up and begins to approach "the craft and clarity that comes from telling a good story." Bill is not out of the figurative woods yet, though, either as a writer or as a fully realized person. His reaction to Craig's death is one of self-absorption and loneliness (or Loneliness, as Bill would personify it). In Bill's last conversation with his mother he blames her for her own death because she smoked and would not give it up. Bill tells his mother, "You don't love me. That's what this has come down to. Your fucking cigarettes. You don't love me. Go ahead and die." To Bill, his mother's death is more about him than her. He is still a pilgrim with a ways to go on the road.
It is in the third section of the book, that Luczak really hits full stride. It is the riskiest and, to me, most fruitful part of the novel. Raymond Luczak is a prolific writer and editor who is tireless in work that bridges the disabilities and LGBTQ cultures. As a Deaf gay man, he frequently does this through his autobiographical books and works of poetry. In Flannelwood, however, Luczak has an interesting problem to work out in creating this bridge because the narrator, Bill, is a gay man with literary ambitions, but he is not disabled and the object of his reverence, James embodies the conservative machismo of the region from which Luczak's characters spring. He is an amputee but has no interest in identifying as disabled. Aside from sex, the only thing that unites them is that society views them both as freaks.
It is only after James discards him that Bill tries to make connections with other gay disabled men on line and the disability concerns in the novel shift into high gear. Bill arranges to meet Matt, a man in a wheelchair. Unlike James, Matt's disability is very visible. Bill, who has often decried the attitudes of others towards gay men now begins to recognize his own ableism. It is a powerful scene with Matt as the mouthpiece for disability advocacy. The entire conversation could serve as a Disabilities 101 text. Matt is a local director; he and Bill both have an interest in theater and theatrical production:
"Right, and I still want to do Into the Woods one day…"
What makes this so effective, despite the pedantry of Bill's speeches, is that nothing is resolved. Bill has to come to terms with the fact that just as well-meaning people may anger him by unconsciously perpetuating biases and stereotypes of sexuality, he himself clings and contributes to the ableist perspectives of society.
Section four hands the reader another surprise. Two minor characters in the novel's first section come back to be play a major role in this part of the story. The connection of these two characters, Cholëat and Veena, to Bill is a literary one, Djuna Barnes. Luczak has been preparing us for this throughout the book by dropping quotations from Nightwood like breadcrumbs (even embedding it in the title). Just as Bill's development as a person is growing and his understanding of his relationship to disability changing, so his Romantic conceptions of a writer and writing have been shifting.
The pretext that let's Djuna Barnes enter the story is an incident in which Bill gives Cholëat and Veena, his two lesbian housemates, an old copy of Nightwood that captivates them. This allows a reciprocity in which Luczak can devote a great deal of space to describing Barnes life and Bill is able to let go of his old notions of Romantic writing along with his own conceptions of James. What Cholëat and Veena reveal to Bill is that the conception of James he laments is a fiction and that James was in fact simply a man who used other men. Bill is now ready to move on to the final chapter and, hopefully, to becoming a better person and writer. I won't give the ending away, but here's a hint– it's self-referential.
In creating Flannelwood, Luczak deserves credit for raising questions about disability and ableism that are not easily resolved. Finger pointing and self-righteousness can be difficult to avoid, especially for writers who, like Luczak, have a tendency to didacticism. In this novel is able to override them. As a writer of disability fiction with a generally traditional vent, he also deserves recognition for some experimentation with form that might help to advance disability literature generally. Does Flannelwood live up to the mission of creating literature that provides the experience of "seeing yourself in the characters and discovering things you hadn't realized before?" Has he successfully used craft and clarity to tell a good story? Each reader will have to judge that for themselves.