This review first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore.
Paul Drucker is a middle-aged preacher and psychology professor with a thriving gay conversion ministry, a successful book called Saving Our Boys from the Gay Menace, and a secret–he’s gay. His world begins to unravel when photos are leaked of him with Julian, the strapping rent boy he’s hired from an online escort site to accompany him surreptitiously on a speaking tour. Suddenly Drucker has a lot to answer for–to his wife, his teen son, his church, and the gay men and women who have come to him (or been forcibly sent) to be “healed” of their homosexuality. Rather than answer honestly, he doubles down for one last hurrah as an ex-gay minister before everything crashes down around him for good.
Saving Julian, the debut novel by Mason Stokes (Wilde City, 2015), is an irreverent, humorous, and at points touching novel about the way various lives are hurt and, in mostly unintentional ways, helped by religious bigotry against members of the gay and lesbian community. The novel is told from a variety of first-person viewpoints. Some chapters are told by Drucker himself, some by his wife, some by his troubled teen son. Some are told by Julian, the male escort Drucker is caught with, and his roommate Aaron, a graduate student with a convoluted idea for a thesis and a non-existent sex life. Through these varying perspectives we discover the brokenness hiding underneath both the damaging religious rhetoric of folks like Drucker and the reckless bravado of folks like Julian. Ultimately the reader is enticed (not always subtly) to feel empathy for every individual represented, even Drucker, who by book’s end is discovered to be even more reprehensible than his hypocritical and unhealthy “ministry” already show him to be.
Stokes’s attempt to see the humanity in people who are doing damage to others is admirable, though some of the revelations of empathy these characters arrive at don’t feel completely earned by the narrative. Still, given the generally lighthearted tone of the book (despite some of the heavy topics explored) Stokes does a good job making his readers think about the hurts suffered by those who in turn inflict hurt on others.
I wasn’t entirely sold on the multiple-narrator format of Saving Julian. The disproportionate page counts given to some narrators makes the book a bit unbalanced structurally, and the voices of very different characters do not always vary as much as seems likely. Aaron’s sections, which together comprise the largest portion of the book, are the strongest, and one assumes Aaron is the closest thing the book has to a proxy for Stokes as the author. A long middle passage (80 pages) in which Aaron infiltrates a small group undergoing Drucker’s conversion therapy and reports on the personalities in the group and the slow disintegration of its goals is the book’s best stretch. This extended episode is a sublime melding of comedy (one character strides into the first meeting and asks, “Is this where they’re giving out the heterosexuality?”) and insightful observation. Stokes writes cuttingly about the hypocrisy behind fundamentalist zeal and how bizarre much of conservative religion appears to the uninitiated.
(As an aside, I have a complaint for Wilde City, Saving Julian‘s publisher–what the hell is up with that cover? It looks like a lame religious fiction title from 1995. Is that intentional? Is it supposed to be ironic, meta? Is this supposed to mimic the cover of Drucker’s book about the gay menace? Whatever the case, I never would have picked this book up from a shelf based on that cover without already knowing what it was about. Do better, please.)
Saving Julian is far from perfect, and I could imagine individuals with certain hurts in their past could make legitimate complaints with how Stokes handles abuse and assault, and the anger and forgiveness that may or may not come after those terrible events. If we resist the urge to read Saving Julian as prescriptive and instead treat it more as an abridged and often funny parable of what it means to be queer in a world where some people will tell you God hates you for it, the book is a delight. If you’ve been looking for a book about a gay escort who names his, ahem, biggest moneymaker, a closeted gay conversion pastor who gets glitterbombed to Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, and a butch lesbian who has to fake being bad at sports in order to please that same pastor during a how-to-be-straight-at-sports session, this is probably a good book for you. Despite its flaws, I enjoyed it quite a bit.