Book: Two Natures
Publisher: Saddle Road Press
Publication date: September 15, 2016
Length: 376 pages
Reviewed by Meredith
Jendi Reiter's debut novel offers a backstage look at the glamour and tragedy of 1990s New York City through the eyes of Julian Selkirk, an aspiring fashion photographer. Coming of age during the height of the AIDS epidemic, Julian worships beauty and romance, however fleeting, as substitutes for the religion that rejected him. His spiritual crisis is one that too many gay youth still face today. This genre-bending novel couples the ambitious political analysis of literary fiction with the pleasures of an unconventional love story. Vivid social realism, enriched by unforgettable characters, eroticism, and wit, make Two Natures a satisfying read of the highest sort.
Book will be 99 cents until September 28th!
[This excerpt is from the first chapter of Two Natures, "Cross (1991)". Our narrator, 19-year-old Julian Selkirk, has just moved to NYC from his hometown of Marietta, GA, to study photography at the Fashion Institute of Technology. He is hoping to have his first gay romance but has struck out, yet again, at the club where his sophisticated new friends gather.]
Tucking my hands in my pockets for warmth, I walked along Tenth Avenue, between the dark slabs of office buildings and the blinding fluorescents of gas stations and car dealerships. The working girls were out in their bolero ski jackets and fishnet stockings. In the shadow of a doorway I stopped to watch them saunter up to passing cars, headlights sweeping momentarily over their hard painted faces. One of them spotted the flash of my ever-present camera and, fearing I was a cop, hid behind her friend, a towering black girl who offered to do a variety of illegal things to me in exchange for the film. I paid her fifty bucks and let her pat me down for weapons, which hopefully she enjoyed more than I did.
"You want to get inside someplace warm?" she suggested. She had a complex face, wide Egyptian eyes ringed with mascara, bruised-plum lips touched at one corner by a thin scar that streaked down to her mannish jawline.
"We could go back to my room," I ventured. I must not have been as sober as I thought. I figured I didn't have anything worth stealing except my cameras, and in the unlikely event that she knifed me, my family would probably be relieved that I'd found such a straight-acting way to die.
The few dark, windy blocks back to the dorm had never seemed so long. Could you get arrested for walking with a girl whose skirt barely covered her butt cheeks? There was no way to make this look like anything but what it wasn't. Fortunately, city style was a shifty thing, unlike the strict seasonal palette and respectable hemlines of Mama's cocktail-party set. The New York look was out of the corner of the eye, pretending not to see, not to want to be seen.
Her stride was brisk and long, making direct conversation difficult. "What's your name?" I spoke up when we paused at a don't-walk sign.
"What do you want it to be?" The husky tenor of her voice sounded worn, like an old cello rehearsing a much-requested song.
"Uh...whatever it is?"
"Yeah, okay," she said wearily. "Desirée." I heard the invisible quotes around the name, clearly not hers, or not all the time. And we were on the move again, through the wind tunnel of high buildings flanking the narrow street.
"Look," I said, when we'd reached the warmth of the dormitory lobby, "I'm not like those other guys. I don't even, uh, have sex with girls."
She stared at the elevator panel. "Greek style, cost you fifty bucks extra."
"No, no," I said, peering nervously down the brightly lit hallway for fear that someone would hear us. "What I meant was, I only want to take some pictures of you for my class. With your clothes on. Well, not your clothes, but clothes. Okay?"
"Uh-huh." The numbers could have been television, she watched them that intently, counting down till the doors opened for us on the lobby level.
I thought the costumes would cheer her up, bright props I was always gathering in anticipation of a suitable wearer. She had a Mardi Gras face, regal and sensual, meant to be softened by purple and gold plumes. I draped the fake feathers around her shoulders, stiff in a yellow brocade jacket whose frayed underarms only showed if she moved the wrong way. Despite our conversation in the lobby, she kept rubbing her leg up against mine when I got too close.
"You sure you don't like girls?" she purred. "Maybe you just need a nice girl to show you how to have a good time."
"No, thank you," I said, because my Mama raised me to be polite, even to the type of woman she pretended didn't exist outside of the Bible. I could smell Desirée's musky skin and floral hairspray. How was I made, that I was unmoved by her scent — repulsed, even, to imagine the overlay of touch upon touch that had gone into it, like fingerprints on a greasy doorknob?
I stepped back. The colors were festive and rich, perfect against her dark skin, as I'd imagined. She stood like a bright bird unaware that it could fly. She needed to see herself, I thought, then she would be proud. I positioned her by the mirror on the closet door. "Okay, pose," I encouraged her. Like a kitten stalking its reflection, she leaned toward it, tipping out her cleavage, pouted her puffed violet lips and mimed French-kissing herself.
"No, not a sex pose...like a model," I tried to explain. "You like fashion magazines? You know, Elle, Vogue, Glamour?"
"Do you work for a magazine?" I thought I heard a little excitement there.
"Well, not yet. But maybe someday."
"Oh, okay. Okay. How about this?" She propped one stiletto boot heel on our sagging armchair, angled her hands on her hips, and flashed me her idea of a Hollywood smile. I snapped some pictures to please her, but her expressions remained exaggerated and false, a drugstore version of a luxury perfume. If you like Cindy, you'll love Desirée.
"Let's try something different," I suggested. I helped her into a drop-waisted cocktail dress in a sugary pink. Like my other thrift-shop finds, this one had been cast off for showing signs of wear: the constellation of seed pearls at the neckline showed some gaps, and one or two of the skirt's fluttery overlapping petals were frayed at the bottom, as if snagged by an exuberant dancing heel. Actually, I supposed the only thing it had going for it was the color, defiantly feminine and optimistic in a city of grays, designed to awaken a hidden nostalgia for Easter bonnets and Princess phones. It wouldn't zip all the way up Desirée's broad back, but you couldn't really tell when she was reclining on Dmitri's bed. I asked her to rest her head on the pillow.
"Talk to me," I said.
"You're such a naughty boy," she said. "I bet you have a big, hard..."
"Please, stop." I put down my camera. "Talk to me about something you like. Not sex," I quickly added.
Her eyes searched the room for answers. I resumed clicking away, hoping to catch that moment when the mahogany angles of her face softened into dreaming. But there's the wonder and stupidity of my profession, the promise that a dress as pink as a birthday cake can roll back the clock to girlhood, simple as that.
"I like bubble baths," she droned on, "French restaurants, dancing at the club..." Her wristwatch beeped and she sat up. "You want another half hour? Twenty dollars."
Since I'd already spent both of the fifties Mama had smuggled into this month's letter from home — on booze and cheap women, no less — I had to decline.
Getting out of bed, she noticed for the first time the poster on Dmitri's side of the room. "That's a nice picture of Jesus. Did you do that?"
I shook my head vehemently. "It's my roommate's. I mean, it's not by him. Andres Serrano took it. A famous guy." I gathered up the clothes she'd come in with. "Here's your stuff."
She didn't take the bundle I thrust at her. "Can I use the toilet?"
"Sure, go to town." I dropped her skirt and ski jacket back on the floor.
Our bathroom door was warped and didn't latch properly. This wasn't usually a problem for me and Dmitri, as we were rarely home at the same time and equally uninterested in seeing each other naked. Despite myself, I caught a glimpse of pink gauze over brown thigh and was compelled to linger. Had I ever actually seen a vagina, outside of health-class videos and my brother's stolen magazines? Casually, I edged toward the door and brushed my shoulder against it, nudging it open a bit wider than I'd intended. The pink dress was rucked up over her round hips. The curve of her belly descended into a patch of dark fur that did not make it into the picture I submitted as that week's homework assignment in Intro to Fashion Photography for a much-needed B-plus, a picture of that moment before the shocked modesty of her wide brown eyes became cool and unreadable as a doll's gaze. I tipped her another five singles and she left.
Alone at last, I switched off the light and lay down in bed, but an oppressive presence filled the room. It was thick as the red-gold billows surrounding the crucifix on the poster, that she hadn't known was urine. Even in the dark I couldn't forget it was there, and every night that I coexisted with it, it confirmed my buried fears about the choices that had led me here, making my guts knot up with a pang of shame.
What harm had Jesus ever done, that anyone should want to piss on him? In our family's Baptist church we'd learned to sing "I Dreamed I Drove the Nails". The preacher groaned about the spitting soldiers and the crown of thorns while I studied Daddy's confident face at the altar call. The bruises on his knuckles weren't from work. And the painted Jesus smiled over us from his hill of clouds, victorious and clean, tender shepherd of other people's children. Kneeling in silent anger on the carpeted steps, I'd wanted to give Jesus a broken arm like mine, Carter's black eye, our little sister Laura Sue's fingernails nervously bitten down to blood. But that only proved I was my father's son.
I'd parted ways with that Jesus years ago, or tried to. Serrano's soiled crucifix forced me to recall the one my French-Catholic Uncle Jimmy, Mama's brother, had given me from his curio shop in Savannah. We'd moved in with him and Memère for a month when I was ten, till Daddy wooed Mama back with roses and a remodeled kitchen. On the worst nights, that scrawny, dented carving in my hand had allowed me to pretend there was a different Jesus, one who had no super-powers and couldn't help anyone, but would keep me company. I imagined feeling his presence like a warm breath, a feather-weight on my pillow. Sometimes I let him say to me, I love you, Julian, I've always loved you. But later I felt ashamed that this was childish, and then that it was something worse. Something too close to the half-seen men who embraced me in dreams that left my sheets sticky. So I had to lose that Jesus as well.
The degraded image on Dmitri's wall seemed to mock my boyish wish to protect Jesus from my unclean thoughts. If what the preachers said about Christ's two natures was true, I didn't know how he could stand his life anyhow, being split down the middle between the part of him that remembered heaven and the human part that would have touched me back.
This drunken soul-searching, however, had to be weighed against the more immediate problem of ridicule from my roommate whenever I hinted that I didn't appreciate the decor. Last time, he'd pretended to ignore me, blowing cigarette smoke out of his nostrils, his eyes half-closed behind his thick black-framed rectangular glasses, and then later he and his friends made sure I overheard them calling me "Jesse Helms" in a fake Southern yokel voice. So I tossed and turned on my bed, and dreamed about processing drywall invoices for Daddy's company.
Many of us remember the early 90's and how AIDS was actually vocal. Yes, it had been around for years before but it wasn't really until the 90's that people talked about it. Many people suffered and died because of this virus. This book not only addresses AIDS and that time period but you are gutted at the loss of one character because of the virus. That is the only warning you're getting about the seriousness and emotional upheaval in this book.
This tale is close to 400 pages long but it flowed. Pacing was terrific and the characters were fleshed out nicely. There's a high angst count on this story obviously so be ready.
You may walk away from this book angry and frustrated and that is really just a testament to the realism the author creates. The truth here is a beacon for awareness. Take a deep breath and be ready for an emotional pummeling.
About the Author
Jendi Reiter's poetry and fiction are guided by her belief that people take precedence over ideologies. In exploring themes of queer family life, spiritual integration, and healing from adverse childhood experiences, her goal is to create understanding that leads to social change.
Raised by two mothers on the Lower East Side of New York City, she grew up in a home full of books. Early poetic idols were W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, and Anne Sexton. Her literary role model was Jane Eyre. As a teenager, she learned from Jean Auel's The Valley of Horses that erotic literature could contain a utopian vision of gender freedom and egalitarian relationships. She began publishing poetry professionally as a high school senior when her poem was reprinted in Best American Poetry, and other publications soon followed in journals such as Poetry and The Lyric.
Two Natures, her debut novel, is forthcoming from Saddle Road Press in 2016. Her published poetry collections are Bullies in Love (Little Red Tree Publishing, 2015), Barbie at 50 (Cervena Barva Press, 2010), Swallow (Amsterdam Press, 2009), and A Talent for Sadness (Turning Point Books, 2003). In 2010 she received a Massachusetts Cultural Council Artists' Grant for Poetry. Awards include the 2015 Wag's Revue Poetry Prize, the 2013 Little Red Tree International Poetry Prize, the 2012 Betsy Colquitt Award for Poetry from Descant magazine, the 2011 James Knudsen Editor's Prize in Fiction from Bayou Magazine, the 2011 OSA Enizagam Award for Fiction, the 2010 Anderbo Poetry Prize, and second prize in the 2010 Iowa Review Awards for Fiction.
In 2001 Jendi and her husband Adam R. Cohen founded Winning Writers, an online resource site for creative writers. Their free email newsletter provides over 50,000 subscribers with profiles of the best free literary contests. Winning Writers also sponsors four annual contests for humor poetry, self-published books, general-interest poetry, and short fiction and essays. The site has been named one of the "101 Best Websites for Writers" (Writer's Digest, 2015) and one of the "100 Best Websites for Writers" (The Write Life, 2016).
Prior to becoming a full-time writer and editor, Jendi wrote business news articles for a reference publishing company and clerked for an appeals court judge in New York City. Her book reviews and editorials appeared in the New York Law Journal and National Law Journal, and she published several articles in academic legal journals on such topics as pregnancy discrimination in the workplace and the free speech implications of trademark law.
Book trailer on YouTube: http://bit.ly/twonaturestrailer
Goodreads (see reviews on this page): https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/30080524-two-natures
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