Songs for the New Depression
by Kergan Edwards-Stout
Reviewed by Larry Buhl
If you know Songs for the New Depression is also the title of a Bette Midler album from the 1970s, you’ll have a hint about the tone of this debut novel by Kergan Edwards-Stout. Like the Divine Miss M, it’s funny, and, like her early musical work, it has a wellspring of darkness and pain and bittersweet longing.
AIDS features prominently in the novel, but it’s like a character that informs the narrator’s relationship to others before it ends his life. It’s a graphic memoir of Gabriel Travers, a fictional gay man who reflects on his life through three time periods: 1990s, as he comes to terms with his choices in life and his imminent death; 1980s, when he sought love, unsuccessfully, through many sex partners; and 1970s, as he bursts onto the gay scene.
We follow Gabe’s relationships with his pal Clare from high school, his mother, Grace, who explores some sexual liberation that surprises him, and the man who becomes his final partner.Edwards-Stout takes some risks by making Gabe deeply flawed and sometimes a downright pain. Gabe can be distant, self-absorbed and caustic right up to the end—yet recognizably human. The laugh-out-loud humor helps to smooth over Gabe’s rough edges—it’s told from his point of view—and keeps the book from being just a two-hanky weeper—though there are tears to be shed—or merely an “AIDS book.”
The structure is clever. Edwards-Stout uses reverse-chronological order to build sympathy for Gabe as he faces his own death, before showing us the young and careless man he was. Near the end, an incident from his youth puts the story into a new context. The laughs make the book deceptively breezy. Songs shines with psychological truth and historical accuracy.
Larry Buhl is a radio news reporter, screenwriter, and novelist living in Los Angeles. His young adult novel, The Genius of Little Things, debuted in January 2013. His comic mystery novel, We’re Here to Help, will be available later in 2013.