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Boys and Oil (Review)

Note: A slightly altered version of this appeared in the Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide

Boys and Oil, by Taylor Brorby. Liveright, an imprint of W. W. Norton & Company. 352 pages. $27.95

Review by Dale Boyer

Over two decades ago, Kathleen Norris published Dakota, a wonderfully poetic and ruminative personal essay about life on the great plains, specifically from a spiritual point of view. Now comes Taylor Brorby’s Boys and Oil, an equally contemplative book, this time attempting to capture the experience of growing up gay in that same beautiful-but-bleak environment.

As Brorby writes, the great plains make one observant, and he is certainly that, as he painstakingly details the subtle color gradation of a prairie sunset: “The dome of the sky smolders cerulean, sapphire, indigo, crimson, amber, saffron, lavender, periwinkle, and plum.” It is also a landscape where things can turn on a dime, and not just the weather: the quiet bar with Hank Williams playing on the jukebox, old-timers drinking in the shadows, the sharp crack of billiard balls. It all sounds very nice and peaceful, until suddenly it isn’t.

Probably no one who didn’t grow up gay in a previous generation or in a small town can ever understand the constant need to hide, the ever-present sensation of danger, and the persistent feeling of shame thrust upon them for who they are, and what they feel. Brorby realizes at a tender age – as most gay and lesbian people do – that to survive in the world, he must hide what he actually likes. He recalls secretly watching Will and Grace in the basement with the volume turned low, and would quickly change the channel whenever anybody else came in. He takes up wrestling because it’s the only way a boy is permitted to touch another boy – that is, adversarially, with only power and subjugation of the other as the goal.

It is a world where people kill things rather than hunt. “To live on the prairie,” Brorby writes, “is to be hunted, whether by a coyote, by a pack of boys, or by the sting of loneliness.” The author remarks that, as a child, whenever he was caught reading, he was urged to go outside and do something, as if action were the essence -- indeed, the defining quality -- of manhood. As a young man, he is also chastised for the way he sits (too much like a girl), and for his interest in things other than sports.

“Nothing, after all, survives on the prairie by being tender,” is how he sums it up. At his first job, when he accidentally lops off part of his thumb on a machine press, his manager initially yells at him for running away from his post. As he bursts into the nurse’s station spurting blood, she informs him that she’s near the end of her shift. Later, his thumb bandaged and one joint shorter forever, his mother tells him it’s his own fault, and blames him for not being more careful.

This damage on a personal level echoes the damage being done to the land around him: broken land and broken lives. Even as he describes the North Dakota landscape he loves, Brorby is aware of the oilmen blowing up the ancient seabeds two miles underground, and concludes: “The story of North Dakota is then the story of self-destruction. Everything leaves North Dakota full and comes back empty. The only way I’ve understood my home is by getting out, escaping its crushing weight, watching the destruction now from the outside.”

Brorby’s patient and attentive prairie childhood experience enables him to recount this movement away from this world, as well as his gradual understanding of it, intelligently and compellingly. He leaves first for college, then later for teaching posts on both coasts, and still later, enters a life of activism fighting against the destruction of the land by oil companies. The narrative he lays out is that of a child spurred by the ever-present disapproval around him to become a super-achiever, the model perfect child either consciously or unconsciously over-compensating and atoning for that part of himself which feels inadequate, unloved and ashamed -- this despite achievement after achievement, and acceptance into more than one Ivy League school. It also fuels a growing problem with alcohol, resulting in several suicide attempts which are, thankfully, interrupted.

Brorby has a gifted storyteller’s voice, and an immediacy that makes one feel he’s telling the story directly to the reader. But, the narrative slacks a bit in the last third of the book as he details the eventual playing out of all these various struggles. Indeed, the best parts of Boys and Oil are the early, almost morbidly compelling, details of growing up gay in such a hostile environment – a struggle that many gay readers will be able to recognize.

The book is also something larger than that, though: it is a trenchant and exceedingly relevant critique of what comprises American masculinity for the majority of Americans today, and its tragic consequences. It is also ironic, but perhaps fitting in a way, that only someone who sees himself forever outside those norms could write about them so perceptively and convincingly.

It would not really be spoiling things to say that there is no neat resolution in the book: no longed-for reconciliation with his parents, whom he goes for years without seeing or speaking to, and who never accept him after he eventually comes out. As he points out the ruts of Custer’s wagon track still visible in the prairie soil to a friend, the friend says tellingly: “This place never heals.” Brorby himself remarks that, even though certain television shows provide the illusion that things are getting better, and that we no longer need live in fear, it is an illusion. He concludes: “we do. We do live in fear.”

Boys and Oil documents all this splendidly and poetically. Near the end of the book, Brorby visits an uncle who carves wooden crosses with inscriptions like “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” The uncle sums it up best when he comments, both literally and metaphorically, on how hard it is to get the words in the inscriptions to flow smoothly: “’The truth of the matter is, Taylor, cutting out ‘truth’ is fucking hard.’”

Dale Boyer’s latest work is Columbus in the New World, Selected Poems.


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