Title: The Unfinished
Author: Jay B. Laws
Publisher: ReQueered Tales
Length: 349 Pages
Category: Gay Fiction, Horror
At a Glance: Jay B. Laws’ gift for spinning an effective tale is evidenced by the balance of shock he provokes with the empathy he inspires for his characters.
Reviewed By: Lisa
Blurb: Jiggs, a hearing-impaired gay man tortured by the recent death of his parents, moves into a long-vacant San Francisco apartment. The apartment is revealed to be haunted by the Unfinished, spirits whose lives ended prematurely through tragedy, violence or betrayal.
Jiggs’s initially adversarial relationship with his spectral housemates soon becomes a partnership when both parties see each other as instrumental to ending their own suffering. The stories unfold via visitations by three Dickensian ghosts offering accounts of their deaths. In one story, a man dying from AIDS confronts the limits of his vanity when he realizes the terrible price of his wish to recapture his looks. In another, a car mechanic’s soul is left to ponder how his weakness led to his murder.
Review: The Unfinished is author Jay B. Laws’ second and final novel, published posthumously in 1993, which offers a poignant and unmistakably allegorical tone to its narrative. The Unfinished of Laws’ imagination are the men who died too soon, who were cut down in the prime of life by betrayal and murder, or by the AIDS virus presented to readers as both metaphor and realism. After falling out of print, ReQueered Tales has reintroduced the author to a contemporary audience, serving a twofold reaction: gratitude for the opportunity to experience his writing and regret for the loss of his voice, as his gift for spinning an effective tale is evidenced by the balance of shock he provokes with the empathy he inspires for his characters.
The novel opens as any good genre horror story might, with the introduction of Jimmy ‘Jiggs’ Jiggers whose deafness doesn’t factor into his characterization as a hindrance but, rather, as a capacity for sharpening his awareness of the events that will befall him upon his move into a rental home with a history that demands to be heard. The delivery of these stories reinforces Jiggs as the conduit through whom they are relayed as opposed to him acting as the traditional narrator of the book; he is more oracle than protagonist, which became an important distinction as a means of embracing this method of storytelling. It us upon the revelation of the supernatural entities that make themselves known to Jiggs—through items disappearing and showing up again in strange places, his new habit of sleepwalking, his perception of a strange and unusual presence in his home—that readers begin to understand why the cottage owned by Kate and her partner, Sue, has seen a revolving door of renters. The sense that there is something wrong with the place, even if there is no name for that wrongness, factors into the concept of the Unfinished through a method that initially read as flashback but was quickly revealed as something much more relevant and potentially sinister.
The Unfinished is told in a trifecta of stories-within-the-story, as Jiggs’ best friend, Luke, is made a bargaining chip to ensure Jiggs’ cooperation with the ghosts in their desire for confession and acknowledgment so they may rest in peace. In Sam Speaks: Backstabbers, Laws unites Jiggs’ initiation to the ghostly encounters with a story of betrayal that threw a great and unexpected twist out in the end. This short but impactful piece is absolute in its presenting the black, white, and gray areas of decisions and consequences, and it composes a “be careful what you wish for” theme leading into the following story, Brent Speaks: The Look, by far the longest and most ominous of the three vignettes.
Brent is one of “The Scarecrow Club” and “The Look” is allegory. It is made clear that he’s dying of AIDS, and his story becomes one of both wish fulfillment and a bargain with the devil when he is approached, in what can only be interpreted as the end of his life, by evil in the form of a man who promises Brent his health…for a price, of course. Is Brent willing to kill if it means he will regain his looks? At what cost to his soul will a narcissist trade whatever conscience and morals he possesses for the chance to be admired and desired again? Laws lays this story out in unflinching terms as Brent gets exactly what he asked for, though it doesn’t pass the smell test (in a quite literal sense) when he’s ordered to deliver the proverbial lamb to slaughter to prove his loyalty.
The risk in this vignette is the ability to connect and empathize with Brent, to establish an affinity for him and understand his motivations, and yet also find them grossly inhumane. For the length, the subject matter, the introduction of a full roster of characters, and its completion, this story could have stood alone and independent of the book. As it fits into the whole, however, we see Brent as the Unfinished whose story weighed heaviest on the soul of Jiggs’ house, and Laws succeeded in establishing my sensitivity to his characters’ plight.
The final story is by far the most poignant and might, perhaps, be interpreted as the most personal: Me Speaks: Gravity. It is told by an Unfinished who has watched his lover and myriad friends die and is now himself succumbing to the AIDS virus, but before he goes, he composes a note for his friend Roy, conceivably his way of gaining immortality through the written word, which is Jiggs’ rai·son d’ê·tre here—offering a bit of immortality to the men whose stories he pens. Told through both the physical reality of the disease and the metaphorical sensations of lightening and becoming weightless, free-floating towards a sense of being that is unexpectedly sweet, it finds Roy facing the inescapable evidence that his friend may not have died as much as he entered another, more profound, plane of existence. This vignette provides an absolute contrast to the stories that came before it as well as a compassionate conclusion for the Unfinished.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to read The Unfinished with any sort of reasonable detachment from the author himself, as his delivery is accessible in a way that goes beyond the novel being easy to read. He allows Jiggs to sum things up thusly:
“He was…happy, Luke, really happy. Maybe some of that happiness was still somehow imprinted into the house. Maybe he wanted to prove that not all interrupted lives were full of pain and discomfort. That it was possible to be filled with…joy.”
One can only hope that was as much affirmation as prose.
You can buy The Unfinished here:
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