Title: Springtime 1962, The Lawson YMCA
Author: Owen Keehnen
Publisher: Wilde City Press
Pages/Word Count: 72 Pages
Rating: 3 Stars
Blurb: A diary is found in a secondhand bookstore. The narrator opens the dusty cover and discovers that the book is the intimate diary of a man named Joseph. Reading the entries, the narrator is quickly drawn into a passionate gay intergenerational love story of two retail workers in Chicago during the spring of 1962. In his mid 40s, Joseph has worked at a large downtown department store for years. One day a young muscled man in his early 20s named Clint is hired. Later, Joseph sees him again at the Lawson YMCA and realizes that they both live there. Soon the two began spending a great deal of time together, going to movies, working out in the weight room, taking work lunches together in the park, and so on. Soon they fall in love despite the closeted nature of their work and lives. Both men thought the feelings that they have for one another and love they share were impossibilities. In time Joseph learns that Clint harbors a grave secret that threatens their relationship and both of their futures. Will outside forces destroy the magic they have discovered?
Review: I’ve always enjoyed fiction that follows a less obviously linear narrative. Epistolary fiction (stories conveyed through letters) and journals are just a couple of examples of narrative forms I wish more authors nowadays experimented with. Of course, the downside to both involves the inclusion of so much minutiae in order to tell a clear, coherent story (see: Dracula). Why is that a problem? Because you might as well just forgo the use of letters or journal entries in favor of the more standard narrative form of first person. One doesn’t scribble down details of dialogue and activities in a letter or a journal if one were to be realistic about it.
In that sense, Owen Keehnen’s Springtime 1962, The Lawson YMCA, is a good example of how this narrative form can be realistically approached. The journal entries made by Joseph are summaries of his day, and hardly any dialogue is present. If anything, you usually only see maybe one or two quoted lines mixed with summarized or paraphrased conversations and thoughts. And the effect of this approach, ironically enough, is the up-close look into a very private experience. We get to see deeply inside Joseph’s life as a closeted gay man in the early 60s, and one who’s also stuck in a dead-end job working in retail. What’s more, we get to see his love story with Clint unfold, bear witness to the more shadowy world that gay men were relegated to at that time. Furtive sex with strangers in the shadows of a theater’s balcony, random hookups in the gym and the showers, and accounts of risky cruising in the outdoors at night – those, plus the inherent dangers of such activities, play a significant role in Joseph’s story.
This is very much a May-December romance, with Clint being the younger partner in his twenties, while Joseph’s in his early forties. On the whole, there’s a lot about Joseph for the reader to feel a good deal of sympathy for. The problem is that I found him occasionally the opposite.
I suppose it’s quite natural for him to really go crazy over Clint, considering how lonely he’s been for so long. Unfortunately he does a few things that turned me off his character. He easily gets jealous when Clint spends time with others, and spends the time sulking, raging, and/or pouting when Clint returns. While Clint’s away on a vacation with his parents, Joseph yearns, harbors self-defeating thoughts, and entertains himself with anonymous sex to stave off the loneliness. And yet when Clint agrees to exchanging sexual favors – or to posing nude – for a place to hide (a painful necessity for the lovers), Joseph again gets jealous.
But the most significant issue I had involved issues of homophobia and Joseph’s attitude toward it. There are, of course, several instances of homophobia and the dangers constantly faced by gay men that are touched on in the book. Max, a neighbor and good friend, becomes an example of how bigotry and unfair laws can destroy lives. Joseph peppers his journal entries with accounts or his fears of being caught by his co-workers. And yet he wants Clint to take advantage of homophobic laws in order to get out of the army – a dishonorable discharge, to be precise – in order for them to be together. It came across to me as a double standard for Joseph to even entertain such an idea.
I wasn’t sure if we were supposed to see Joseph as a flawed character in that sense, or if it was supposed to be a romantic touch of sorts to have a character go to such lengths in order for the couple to stay together. As much as I’d love to sympathize with Joseph, that particular detail kept me from liking him completely. For a forty-something adult, Joseph seems to regress to being a petulant teenager once Clint walks into the picture, and he’s even wondered, “What about us?” whenever the troubling issue of Clint joining the army is raised. Never mind the fact that Clint faces real dangers, considering who his father is: a high-ranking general with a lot of clout. Whenever Joseph suggests the route of dishonorable discharge, I can’t help but think that it’s all about him and not Clint.
The ending might be a little difficult for some readers because it appears as though things aren’t clearly resolved, but I liked it. If anything, I find that Joseph and Clint’s story is happily resolved, but it’s only through clues as described by the nameless narrator in the bookshop. It’s a completely different approach to a more traditional narrative, and considering the theme as well as the method of conveying the story (a handwritten journal in a spiral-bound notebook), the ending works perfectly for me.
You can buy Springtime 1962, The Lawson YMCA here: