Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Intrigue, mayhem and controversy: Hold Tight by Christopher Bram

Hold Tight is one of my favorites from among Christopher Bram's books -- and I know I'm going out on a limb when I say this, because he's written some very good books, and readers and critics are very divided about Hold Tight.

I know of about ten novels by Bram, and he's one of the incredibly rare writers of gay fiction who's had a book actually filmed -- not "optioned" or planned, but actually filmed. (It was Father of Frankenstein, which was filmed as Gods and Monsters, starring none other than Ian McKellen and Brendan Fraser!)

Hold Tight was only Bram's second novel in print. The first was Surprising Myself, which came out the year earlier (1987). Readers and critics were in agreement on Surprising Myself -- it's a great novel. However, it's also another novel about a young man finding himself, discovering he's gay ... coming of age if not coming out ... which is not quite the kind of reading I most-often go for. I guess I surprised myself by liking Surprising Myself ... but I also think Christopher Bram himself would tell you, it was the "safe" gay novel, with "bulletproof" subject matter. A true-blue American coming of age novel. There was nothing daring or adventurous about Surprising; it was beautifully handled, but it covered largely the same ground that has been covered about a hundred times before. In other words, it was the perfect subject for a debut gay novel: nothing risky. All the author had to do was write well (which he did) and craft the novel like a professional (ditto), and he was home.

But Christopher Bram's next book, Hold Tight, took all kinds of risks -- and therefore got all kinds of response! The reviews are all over the spectrum, from two stars to five stars. So it's one of those books where you have to read it and make up your own mind. I liked it for several reasons, but I do also know that not everyone did!

It's a World War II espionage and intrigue story, for a start ... ie., it's different, which to me puts it ten points ahead at the get-go ... and the subject matter, and the way the subject is handled, has a daring that I admire.

Start with an utterly delicious hero -- a young sailor called Hank Fayette -- and land him in the world of gay hustlers, in 1942, on the orders of the secret service. He's doing undercover work on the orders of the US Navy (in today's world it would be the secret service; the FBI), working to catch spies.

So far, so good. You'll soon come to love Hank, and many of the other characters in the novel are well drawn. A couple are a tad bit stereotypical, but I didn't find this too jarring (some reviewers did though: again, make up your own mind). The plotline is tight-knit, involving spies, Nazis, murder, secrets -- the works; to me, it was quite the page-turner.

One of the things I liked most about Hold Tight was the way Bram evoked the 1940s. Now, this decade was way before my time, but if you press me, I'll admit the era fascinates me so much that I've not only seen a lot of movies set in the time of WWII, I've also watched a lot that were made in those years. And boy, did Christopher Bram get it right.

Another thing I genuinely appreciate about the novel is that Bram's writing style has a kind of "edgy" quality that brings to mind Daschel Hammet. It has the abruptness that makes you think of Sam Spade, Mike Hammer ... the "voice" of the times, perhaps? Being two decades too young to remember it, I know the era from movies and books!

(Some readers can't stand this. I've heard Hold Tight called trashy because of the "voice" in which it's written ... but the same reader/reviewer would tar The Maltese Falcon with the same brush, so I'd be cautious about awarding demerit points to Hold Tight because Christopher Bram used the same "device" of the '40s "voice" that worked for Daschel Hammet! Also I have a strong feeling that the reviewer who calls Hold Tight trashy probably doesn't even know who Daschel Hammet is, and has probably never seen a movie made in 1942 -- not the Hollywood reconstruction with the CG effects, mind you!)

One of the most difficult aspects of the novel -- and Bram handles it with aplomb -- is the 1940s attitude toward racial differences. The author manages to depict the period's racism with candor and without suggesting hatred, because in those days racial different wasn't usually about "hate" so much as about the white-fella's automatic assumption that he was on top of the pecking order and giving the orders, and belonged there, probably because God was Caucasian! (It's so difficult to define and describe here: I hope you follow me.) The racism of the era is unavoidable in context: you can't get past this point, and if you ignore it to make a book sound better, or more PC, to modern ears, you'll be rewriting history!

I also admire Christopher Bram for having the courage to tackle this because he must have known some readers would either misunderstand, misconstrue, or be ignorant enough of American history to assume the book is racist (which is sad). I would say Bram walks a very narrow tightrope with a lot of skill and delicacy.

As I said, reader response to this novel is all over the spectrum, and it does rub people the wrong way. For me, the supposed cliches didn't bother me, the "voice" entertained me, I liked Hank Fayette a lot, I know enough about American history to admire how the really delicate matters of racial differences were written; and the end of the book ... which is a big sticking point for some readers! ... didn't strike me as being unrealistic or "awful" at all. Dark, gritty, sure, and in the context, perfectly believable.

To me, the novel is irresistible for its sheer difference and audacity, and Christopher Bram deserved a round of applause for taking on something that was never going to be easy. The project was filled with risk, which the writer accepted. Did he pull it off? I think he did, which is why I'm listing Hold Tight among my favorite novels.

I'm not actually a writer myself (this blog is the most actual writing I've done since I gratefully walked out of college a very long time ago), but I know several writers and have learned a hell of a lot about writing from some very talented people. Hold Tight is a novel I have to admire -- though I acknowledge the fact you might not agree ... and that's your prerogative too! Relish the controversy ... as they say, "it makes horse races."

Recommended, because it's a challenge on many levels and it's good to get snapped out of your complacency now and then! I liked it a lot. AG's rating: 3.5 or 4 out of 5 stars depending on my mood. You can get good deals from Amazon ... and I recommend that if you're brand new to Christopher Bram, you also get Surprising Myself and perhaps In Memory of Angel Clare, which will give you a better look at his range and talent than just this one book.


4 comments:

Mel Keegan February 11, 2009 at 1:59 PM  

That's a hell of an intereting review, AG. This novel has had some stinkers, yet I enjoyed it ... maybe because I could get in tune with the era.

It's difficult past your imagination, writing a historical and tweaking reality to fit the modern "ear" or moral expectation. Attitudes to sexuality, race, religion, age of consent, war, violence, capital punishment -- it was all different, even a few decades ago. The further into the past you dig as a novelist, the more different it gets.

I think Christopher Bram did an admirable job, taking on aspects of the era which are often utterly ignored by writers and directors who, frankly, don't know how to handle such UNpolitically correct matters and who are (quite understandably) nervy about what can and will happen if you get it wrong. In this business, when you get it wrong (and we all invariably do, sooner or later), critics will take a great delight in toasting you.

Good review, kiddo. Keep 'em coming.

Do you mind a commercial here? (Go on, indulge me...) I just launched THE LORDS OF HARBENDANE and LEGENDS in the same week. Got a couple of blog posts I'd like to point to, if you don't mind.

http://mel-keegan.blogspot.com/2009/02/lords-of-harbendane-welcome-to-book.html

and

http://mel-keegan-legends.blogspot.com/2009/01/1.html

Thanks!
Mel Keegan

Andre February 13, 2009 at 8:03 PM  

Hello Aricia,

(Sorry I'm posting this here. Couldn't find a private e-mail address)

This is to let you know that since I was tapped for a "Premio Dardos" about a week ago, I'm now passing the award along to you.

I'm not sure who came up with this Dardos idea, but my understanding is that the Dardos Award is given in "recognition of cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values transmitted in the form of creative and original writing. These stamps were created with the intention of promoting fraternization between bloggers, a way of showing affection and gratitude for work that adds value to the Web."

The rules (I'm quoting what was sent to me):

1) Accept the award by posting it on your blog along with the name of the person that has granted the award and a link to his/her blog.

2) Pass the award to another five blogs that are worthy of this acknowledgement, remembering to contact each of them to let them know they have been selected for this award.

-------------------

Now, I did what was expected of me and I was happy to pick your blogs for obvious reasons. It's up to you if you'd like to proceed with this or not. Absolutely no expectations at -- and absolutely no pressure from -- my end.

On the other hand, this might be a good chance to mention a few blogs that you enjoy. If you decide to proceed, the Premio Dardos badge can be copied from the Alternative Film Guide on this link:

http://www.altfg.com/blog/film-movies/premio-dardos/

Best,

Andre'

Aricia Gavriel February 15, 2009 at 2:06 PM  

Andre --

Wow ... I'd be delighted to participate in this project, and I know just the blogs to pass this honor along to. It's an extremely good idea, and I'm so pleased to be selected ... thank you!

I'll get this organized next week. It'll take a little time, and I'm at "flat chat" at this moment.

Again, many thanks -- I appreciate this!

AG

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