by Alan Lessik
Chelsea Station Editions
Reviewed by John Francis Leonard
The Gods are a fickle lot. In Alan Lessik’s imaginative new novel, they reign over man both with an iron fist and a tender hand. The narrator of this piece is the Roman emperor Hadrian, deified upon his death and mourning the loss of his great love, his soldier Antinous, who sacrificed himself for the sake of Hadrian’s glory.
He finds a surrogate in a young boy in Castro’s Cuba of the sixties, Antinio. He watches Antinio grow into a man of great beauty on the post-revolutionary island. Antinio lives in Havana, (“Havana, more so than any other Cuban city, had sex in the air all the time. It was languid, thick, hot, and moist.”) Antinio is filled with sexual longing; he is different, however. He longs for the beauty of other men above all. His homosexuality and the constrictions of living under Communist rule eventually drive him to flee Cuba at the age of twenty.
He begins his American life in Minneapolis, where he meets the second of the fated three great loves of his life. There he contracts HIV (“And in this first meeting, a group of tiny beings made their escape from Laquesio to Antinio. Neither were aware of this, and no humans knew anything about them.”). Antinio is not only watched over by Hadrian and other Greek and Roman deities. The Gods of Santaria, who rule over his native land, exert their heavy influence. In his mind always are the voices of a Greek chorus, Reason, the Lamenters, the Shriekers, and finally the Siren’s call.
The Troubleseeker is a novel imbued with sex, sensual and often erotic. Antinio is a prolific lover, with many pleasurable encounters. The author’s use of the Spanish language to describe acts of passion add another layer of eroticism. Of course, as with any narrative of the time, the AIDS crisis looms large. Its mystical gods provide a context for the pain and loss that Antinio encounters. Some are the cause of suffering; other gods provide relief and succor. It’s a mystical and effective device and makes for a rich story.
AIDS, in this narrative, is not only presented as an end to life. Also explored are the pain of survival, surviving the death of people you love and the damage it and living with HIV can do to oneself. How did we, as a community survive such a pandemic? How does it continue to affect our lives today? Since there are no easy answers to the hows and whys of HIV/AIDS, a colorful and fantastical explanation is something that can be quite cathartic.
John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for thirteen years and he is currently at work on his first novel, Fools Rush In. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.