Review | You
Are Here: A Memoir of Arrival,
by Wesley Gibson
The title of Wesley Gibson's new book evokes, for me, an odd image of myself, standing at one of those mall directory obelisks, searching for the name or number of some shop or restaurant and attempting to orient myself with respect to the gargantuan schematic of the shopping center by finding the small red circle that will tell me where I stand amid all the neatly boxed store numbers and the universal icons for Restrooms and Pay Telephones. You Are Here. Of course I am, right here at Entrance Thirteen. Yep. There's Spinnakers.
So, if I turn right at the food court. . . . The ellipsis here could signal a host of possible omissions. Choice and fate are implicated, but only we know where we wish to go in the first place. Or do we? A central theme undergirding Gibson's delightful story-telling is an examination of our notions of orientation on a number of levels. How do we manage to navigate the distances we travel from the familiar spaces we share as parents and children, brothers and sisters, through the broader matrix of our social and professional interactions, into the fraught, intimate landscapes of our adult lives? The humorously officious gesture of Gibson's title is disarming in that it seems to answer a question the reader doesn't necessarily remember having asked. Or, perhaps, the title is making a promise that the text which follows will function in much the same way as that red circle on the mall directory, giving us some essential starting point from which we might begin a journey toward the author himself or, at the very least, toward some destination he has envisioned for us as we traverse his narrative, from memory back to the world we inhabit.
The tension between history and memory suffuses this, Gibson's second book. For the book is a memoir, not simply a piece of fiction. As such, its very fabric automatically depends on the bare facts of the author's autobiography in a way that does not typically apply in a work of fiction. Here, the evanescent boundary that separates the narrator from the author in the reader's mind all but disappears. In the supplementary writings that follow the main body of You Are Here, Gibson makes some interesting comments and observations that shed light on these formal aspects of the book. He admits that he set out to write a much shorter essay, but the initial story grew to encompass more autobiography and personal anecdote than he had originally intended. As he describes his return to New York and plots the illness and eventual death of his new friend, John (a man he has come to live with by way of a gay roommate service), Gibson finds numerous opportunities to reflect upon his own past, on growing up gay—in the South, during the sixties and seventies—in a family that was, more often than not, unable to understand, much less validate, his emerging artistic sensibility and the troubled sexuality of which it was a symptom. (Is that a tongue in my cheek?) But the trouble is the human heart comes to know itself so very slowly. Its lessons are painful. Families help, or they don't. Friends come and go. Sometimes we get wise to things when we least expect it. So the writer picks up his pen. . . .
That the events and characters which Gibson describes for us are real poses a certain challenge to the writer himself to be truthful with his own subject matter. But Gibson is seldom comfortable playing the mild-mannered servant to mere history. As he weaves his facts together his story-teller's penchant for insinuation and exaggeration step in to offer assistance just when the vast superstructure of what-really-happened seems about to collapse. In one passage early on in the book, a passage which describes the first visit of his friend Jo Ann to his new New York digs, Gibson recalls going to pick her up from the bus station, but then memory blurs:
I don't remember how we got home. For some reason it feels like it was the subway because I have a distinct memory of wrists with gold bracelets, and the stubble of gray above the suit of some guy who was past tired, and a crumpled coffee cup with QUARTERS drilled into it with a Bic pen. The usual body-part sightings of any subway ride.
The effect of this passage (and others like it) is to render something both more and less than recollection. The objects of the speaker's memory here are quite sumptuous but completely over-determined as outward details of the moment in question. I mean, he just told us he didn't really remember the ride. The significant and authentic claim the passage makes has more to do with revealing the emotional pitch of that bit of time, its interiority, the manner in which the speaker felt himself abstracted into a mood, a state of mind, a hazy point of view.
Gibson's efforts to tune into memory at this more visceral, impressionistic frequency results in a lyrically dense prose that is at once straightforward and inventive. He has a poet's ear for clichés, and a comic's desire to redeem them with easy wit. In a passage describing the first time he is awakened in the middle of the night to the horrible sounds of one of his roommates having a lung-cancer-induced bout of coughing, Gibson writes "I sat up, my covers clutched in my hands. . . . Whatever drunk I'd tied on had completely unraveled. I was six-cups-of-coffee awake. My heart hummingbirded inside my chest." Not only does Gibson invigorate the tired old phrase "tie one on" by presenting it in a perfectly disheveled past tense that has to work hard to tidy up and make sense of itself coming "unraveled," he throws in a comically compound uber-adverb to describe just how awake he ends up. He then choreographs a precisely calibrated catching of the breath with the consonance of "heart humming . . ." even as the verbalized noun in this phrase creates a perfect image of the sudden nervous energy of his adrenaline rush.
Telling some of these stories called for a great deal of courage on Gibson's part, and a willingness to make himself vulnerable to the high standard of truth he felt compelled to bring to the telling of John's story. More than anything else, Gibson wanted to be able hear his own voice speaking out of the context that this material provided. Not as a thing contrived or artfully arranged, but springing from it authentically, already there. With guts and a good sense of humor Gibson has more than succeeded. The overwhelming majority of reviewers and critics have noted how hilarious this book is. In fact, the moments where Gibson's tale turns "uproarious" or "laugh-out-loud" funny are too numerous to mention. A stand-up comic could mine the book for a great many wicked one-liners. But, with equal frequency, these same reviewers and critics use words like "brutal," "heartrending," and "cruel" to describe the author's accomplishment. Could it be that the dark-edged truth telling Gibson engages in on some fairly serious themes is not balanced by a large enough dose of his wry, often side-splitting wit? Maybe that's the price of a certain kind of honesty.
As a narrative of contemporary gay male identity, Gibson's memoir, with all its conflicted musings and persistent apprehensions, feels truer than many of the glaringly optimistic representations of the gay self that have emerged in pop culture in the last decade or so.
Having rounded the corner of a new century at full speed with the sunny spin-light of Will & Grace and the Bravo Network's Fab Five in our eyes, the images and arguments which are so suddenly and so pervasively there in Gibson's book feel like a head-on collision of sorts. Gibson's reflections on what it means to be gay are instructive for their candor and for their willingness to re-problematize certain issues that the Hollywood Dream Factory would just as soon file away as "Dealt With." At one point in the book, Gibson recalls himself at seventeen, attempting to come to terms with coming out. He describes the surreal floating feeling of being lost and found at the same time, cruising the bars, trying to look tough, then muses: "Even then I could see the crippling irony of this. There I was, milling around a gay bar, hoping that people didn't think I looked like a faggot." Brutal? No, brutally honest. The human heart changes very slowly.
So where has all this led us? Are we any better prepared to explore the vast shopping mall of the self without popping Paxil or leaving someone at home to tape Jerry Springer? Probably not. But at least we have been warned by this hilariously disquieting romp through one man's imagination, based on the true story of his life, that to settle for an identity is to miss the point. Identity is an answer. The self: a question. In this respect Wesley Gibson has much in common with an earlier generation of writers like James Baldwin, who, in The Devil Finds Work, comments:
The question of identity is a question involving the most profound panic—a terror as primary as the nightmare of the mortal fall. . . . Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self; in which case it is best the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which robes one's nakedness can always be felt, and, sometimes, discerned. This trust in one's nakedness is all that gives one the power to change one's robes.
Having had the pleasure of long talks with the author in the flesh (though not in the buff) I can assure you he is here in the pages of this book, in the voice that emanates from each argument, shaping the terse, episodic prose of his personal experience into a story based less on the ebb and flow of day to day than on the slow accumulation and rearrangement of sympathies and rituals we grasp all too imperfectly as his life (the book) sweeps us along. Into the arms of family and of strangers. Into the empty chairs of coffee shops across from the expectant smiles of friends. Into ambulances and cramped elevators. Too late or too early. Toward that place where pain blurs into joy. We all get there.