TRAVEL AROUND THE DEEP SOUTH, and you’ll see and hear plenty of religion, particularly Christian and Protestant. You’ll see and hear plenty about love, particularly of God (the Christian and Protestant one) and of men for women and women for men. The seven stories in Jason K. Friedman’s Mary McCarthy Prize–winning debut Fire Year queer the expectations of stories set in the American South, especially Georgia (Savannah and Atlanta), by trading Bible studies for bar mitzvahs and transforming a married quarterback into a bi-curious “receiver.” But these stories shouldn’t be pigeonholed by regionalism or sexuality. In Friedman’s well made, rich, and finely paced stories, characters struggle to wed their desires to their community’s expectations and traditions — traits that resonate regardless of creed, address, race, or sexuality.
Friedman bookends the collection with two coming-of-age stories that showcase the struggle between spiritual devotion and carnal desire. The first story, “Blue,” set in Savannah at a bar mitzvah after party, deftly captures wildernesses — of budding adolescent selfhood, sexuality, and social interactions. With regard to religion, the protagonist speaks earnestly: “In those days it was religion alone that lifted me out of despair, inspiring in me the fervid hope that everything would be all right.” In a humorous recounting of the his spiritual awakening, the speaker flashes back to an eighth grade trip to New York and his own fascination with a man in a seedy film that played in a hotel room filled with 60 kids and undoubtedly reeked of puberty. The next night, when a plate of veal parmesan (combined meat and milk) is served at dinner, the speaker refuses, thus sublimating transgressive eros into intensive Torah study. Throughout the story, Friedman weaves together the trials depicted in the Torah passages from the bar mitzvah service with the trials of negotiating selfhood that the protagonist undergoes.
In “Fire Year,” the seventh and final story (a number associated with “completion” in Biblical numerology, which bears mentioning in a story with a significant numerological obsession, particularly with the number seven), Friedman deviates from his typical Southern setting, opting instead for a nameless, superstitious town with a collective consciousness consumed by a series of destructive fires. In a town of many rabbis, the protagonist Zev and his brother Isaac live and study with their father Reb Aryeh. Isaac, the older boy, shows little to no interest in religious life, which plays an interesting role in the story in so far as his declaration of unbelief weighs heavily on Zev. At 14, Zev, like the protagonist in the first story, is awakening sexually and finds, as the object of his erotic fascination, his brother Isaac. Zev’s desire for Isaac is matched by his devotion to studying the Torah, and he is frustrated by the failure of his father’s methods for dealing with lust. The cocktail of guilt, desire, devotion, and want for belonging compels Zev to crucial decisions and makes for a resonant, gorgeous ending. The endings in Fire Year are consistently fantastic. Friedman’s endings cling to — cleave to — the reader’s imagination in the way that a great poem’s perfectly executed, surprising conclusion redirects the reader back to the beginning for new consideration of the whole.
Southern queers will easily identify with the collection’s exploration of intrafamilial culture wars. At the end of “Reunion,” as the protagonist wrestles his brother Ray, one wonders if the clinging is motivated by violence, love, frustration, or redemption. In a story that features Confederate flags at a karate contest and a New York queer returned South having sex with a high school quarterback years past his prime, the relationship between the gay protagonist and his insular-minded brother is beautifully rendered and appropriately represented.
In the penultimate story, “There’s Hope for Us All,” mystery surrounds a series of 15th century paintings by a relatively unknown artist. The Harrington Collection, a small museum in Atlanta, is gearing up to feature the paintings in a coming exhibition, and the job of art criticism is left to Jon, the associate curator, who is the quintessential academic trying to function outside of academia. The curator of the collection is a beautifully-wrought character, Adger Boatwright, for whom there seems to be no closet big enough to hold. Friedman describes particularly well the social mores surrounding homosexuality, particularly among the South’s older, arts-loving gentry in describing Adger’s treatment by the patronesses of the museum: “The Ladies loved Adger most especially because he never brought it up.” His fey grace becomes his survival skill, his charm, and his success in fundraising. While Adger is the belle of the ball for the monied bluehairs, Jon is obsessed with understanding the indecipherable paintings.
The key to the mysterious paintings comes from a most unlikely source and serves as a window into the complicated nature of Jon’s relationship with Ali, his retail-working boyfriend. Eventually, Jon’s interpretation of the paintings inspires an art opening like none I’ve been to: pissed off Italian professors, drag kings, drag queens, CNN anchors, plenty of disbelief, and a dash of infidelity. This story, amongst its many laudable strengths, shows how a young, gay relationship negotiates a geographic move, cultural differences, and significant gaps in interests. Similarly, the attitudes of uppercrust Southerners towards their “different,” “creative” gays and their “friends” is another well-executed side note.
Status, and the obsession surrounding it, is another key concern of the collection. Solomon Blaustein’s is constantly grieved over income in “The Golem,” fueling his skewed, yet comical, harping on “personal cosmology.” Ray, in “Reunion,” pines to receive an invitation to join the Boat Club. He even spouts off, pathetically, items on the menu there (though he’s never been) to his brother when he learns of his brother’s invitation to dinner. And, in “The Cantor’s Miracles,” the protagonist suffers not so much from his financial poverty, but from a belief that meager finances lead to a lack of respect. His longing for status ultimately leads him to compromise his goodness and undermine his work. Finally, in “All the World’s a Field,” familial relationships break apart when a Jewish family, concerned with assimilating into the culture of the American South, silences the family’s matriarch along with some difficult memories. In the pursuit of “upward mobility,” many characters experience a fall from grace.
Friedman has assembled a memorable posse of misfits in his debut collection; and, in case you’re under the impression that misfits always get along with each other, heed his line from “Blue”: “a comradeship of outcasts is no comradeship at all,” and that’s particularly true when these outcasts are constantly negotiating the wilderness of the self and their communities are in states of becoming. You’ll read these characters and find them appealing and repulsive, but none is squarely one or the other. They’re real and complicated and handled with empathy. You’ll think of Flannery O’Connor’s disgusting characters and that experience of judging them only to be reminded that — ah, yes — you, too, are despicably human. You’ll be reminded, reading these stories, of Eudora Welty’s revelation and declaration in her opening essay to her book of photographs One Time, One Place: “My wish, indeed my continuing passion would be to part a curtain, that invisible shadow that falls between people, the veil of indifference to each other’s presence, each other’s wonder, each other’s human plight.” Friedman works in that same O’Connor-Welty tradition, and in light of 2013’s Nobel Prize going to short story writer Munro in recognition of a life’s opus, I am thrilled for this new voice to join the genre with Fire Year.