My Hero, A Wild Boy’s Tale
Tristram Burden

A valentine’s review to HU.

Note: this review is not even a little worksafe and contains potentially distressing descriptions of sex, gender, religion, various abuses, etc. Also, talking penises.

This is a very odd book. It’s got a talking god-penis, of course it’s odd, but beyond that. I mean it’s just weird.  In fact, it’s so strange that I’ve been putting off reviewing it for over a year, because whenever I try to explain it, I end up waving my hands around wildly, at a loss for words.

I suppose I should start by explaining the plot.  Except that plot is not really the point of this book. Perhaps a list of themes would be better?

It’s about sex, gender, anarchy, the problems of Christianity, sexual abuse, religious abuse, middle America, taoism, Crowley-style mysticism, magic (probably spelled with a k), magical animals, talking penises, pollution, self-respect, duality, and communication.

The book is about Joshua My Hero, a young man who lives in a post-apocalyptic world. We meet him contemplating Christ and how much he’d like to have sex with the wounds in his wrists. At least I think so. It’s a bit unclear from the italics whether it’s Joshua or the penis who is so keen on Christ. Anyway, just go with it.

The scene expands and it turns out that Joshua’s father is raping him, and the penis explains that he should kill him and flee. So Joshua does.

It’s the first of many scenes that sound completely batshit but are actually rather powerful. Even though it’s completely batshit. Or because of it. Honestly, I don’t know.

Such is the nature of this book.

So, Joshua is on the run after committing patricide because his penis told him to. He travels on foot through some destroyed lands, and he meets a stranger in the dark and gets him off in exchange for cash. We continue to follow Joshua along his path, where he eventually meets a wizard/teacher named William D’Reel who has an owl and who becomes Joshua’s guru. There’s a steel town and a destructive flood and a magic tornado and a girl named Alice and a owl named Marlow and a cyborg also-wizard with a magic eye. Joshua’s old town turned out to have killed the cyborg’s family. Or something. I think.

To be honest, I don’t always know what happens, because the narrative is sometimes circular. Frequently strange things happen, both in dreams, visions, and (apparently) reality. Sometimes what I thought was a metaphor turned out to be a dream, and what I thought was a dream turned out to be reality, and what I thought was reality turned out to be a typo. After the first couple of chapters, I quit worrying about it.

The narrative voice is hyper-real. It’s full of gross sensory detail, farts and gasps, nose-picking and pretty colors, close observations of wall paintings and then broad-brushstrokes of whole forests. Joshua experiences something completely bizarre, a whole body orgasm and a visit by a god, a surreal vision of snakes, and then eats some runny eggs on toast. (I loathe runny eggs on toast.)

Half the time I kept reading because I could not predict what would happen next. I can usually tell whodunnit by the third chapter of a mystery novel, so believe me when I say I had no idea what on earth would happen next. The aliens, for instance, caught me completely by surprise. And yet, it’s not because the book lacks coherence or causality. It all makes a kind of interweaved cracked out sense, after a fashion, and it flows. Strangely, granted, but it flows.

But I didn’t just read it because it was like stepping into a peyote dream. I hate the beat poets with a passion, and I have no patience with a lot of the weirdo French philosophy that folks around here are so interested in. (I’ve read it, mind you, occasionally in French, but it bores me. I usually feel like saying: Just buy a black turtleneck and some Gauloises and be done with it!) Ahem.

No, I read this because I found myself arguing with it. I would read a section about the talking penis-snake and stop and find myself muttering about what sex means. Does the biological construct imbue some people with oracular gender-power just because they’ve got balls? That seems unfair, and yet on the other hand, ‘don’t listen to your dick’ is a powerful mantra in society, contra women’s intuition (although I’ve never heard ‘listen to your lady bits’). So it could be a reclaiming of feeling as masculine (versus ‘masculine = thought’, see Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus and many online flame wars and western philosophers). Or it could be that ‘masculine through queer-lense is feeling’, which is a more standard trope, and that the underlying dislike of Alice is garden variety misogyny, except that I liked Alice, so there’s that.

I don’t know! People, I was arguing gender politics with a book that features Tiamat as a god and it wasn’t a D&D book. This sort of woman-man equalizing force as embodied in the body of a queer guy who masturbates a lot. I just…. Damn, this book is hard to explain. The bottom line is that it feels worth arguing with–I ended up frowning, and trying to remember if I made up the section where he masturbates and comes (or, as the author prefers to spell it, cums) out all of the poisons in his body. Or maybe it’s really in there. But it’s an interesting idea, especially when combined and contrasted with the pictures of Christ on the cross, looking orgasmic. I’d never considered that before, but yes, I have to admit that many of those dire religious chromos depicted Jesus looking rather, er, rapt. And so if that’s the case, that the crucifixion is cleansing a la sex, then what’s all that religious abuse about abstaining going to do? (I was raised Catholic, by the way.) I don’t have a direct answer to that question, but it’s an interesting question.

And that’s what I enjoy about this book. The whole thing is a series of interesting questions. Completely unexpected combinations of ideas, sensory descriptions, jumbled together religions (some of them highly problematic), sexualities, and genders.

I spent some time trying to decide whether the owl Marlow is Athena’s owl, a Harry Potter owl, or Hegel’s owl. Or maybe some completely different owl.

And that’s just unlike me. Yes, yes, I feel I’m a reasonably close reader who pays attention to what’s on the page, but I don’t normally go swanking around muttering about Hegel. (And if I do, thwack me on the shins, will you?) But this book calls for that.

I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but here it is. This book is good. Not genre-lit good. No. And if you’re looking for a typo-free experience, look elsewhere. This book is fascinating and powerful and completely cracked out. It’s as exciting, in its own way, as beautiful, as the Metamorphosis. It uses some of the same methods–dreams, ekphrasis, vivid imagery, quick-flash plot. But in a gay boy queer lit way. With aliens. Hell, I don’t know. It also strongly reminds me of the Gospel of Thomas, which is heretical and beautiful and completely bizarre, too. Beautiful and strange and very rewarding. Now with extra penises!

Highly recommended, because dammit, I want to talk with someone about this book! Read it, all of you, and let me know what you think. Pretty please?

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