I Loved You More
by Tom Spanbauer
Reviewed by Sally Hessney
Tom Spanbauer’s latest novel, I Loved You More, is about a writer, Ben Grunewald, who is left bereft and brokenhearted after a rift opens up between him and his best friend, Hank Christian. The rift is caused by Ben’s other friend, Ruth Dearden (“Fucking Ruth Dearden, man.”), with whom Ben once had “a thing.” Told mostly in flashback, the story about Hank—and Ruth—spills out of Ben in a torrent of words as if he’s opened a vein “that’s pulsing truth.” The language is impassioned, funny, and profane, while the narrative boomerangs back and forth in time. The same phrases recur throughout the novel in an insistent, almost argumentative way, the way they would during an all-night conversation. It’s as if Ben is sitting across from Hank in a burger joint telling him all about, well, all about Hank, a man whom he describes as “friend, lover, hero.” Not only does Ben have a point to prove, to wit that he loved Hank more, but now he has nothing but words with which to bridge an unbridgeable chasm.
When Ben Grunewald tests positive for HIV, the doctor tells him he is going to get sick and die. It is 1988. He is living in New York City and knows a handful of men who have died of AIDS but realizes there are more “in a city of thousands and thousands of men sick and half-dead…full of fear and dread and alone with their fear.” He describes walking down a hallway in St. Vincent’s Hospital, “room after room after room, young men who look like old men with oxygen masks and IVs, tubes coming out of every orifice.” Twenty-two years later, Ben returns to Manhattan on a pilgrimage. He’s sixty-years-old, wearing baggy Bermuda shorts, white socks, and black tennis shoes. He has his reading glasses, a pocketful of anti-anxiety pills, and a wad of toilet paper (just in case). Since Ben’s still standing after twenty years, albeit with the help of a knee brace and foam rubber sole supports, he knows it is incumbent upon him to tell the story. Not only the story about the “epidemic of fear, the purple sores, the wasting, the dementia,” but the story about Hank Christian and the “love affair” that spanned more than two decades.
Known for his Dangerous Writing workshops in Portland, Oregon, Tom Spanbauer encourages writers to probe the “sore spot.” In I Loved You More, he makes it clear that while you’re gingerly exploring your “sore spot,” there’s someone in your life—someone who loves you—who already knows where your “sore spot” is and is capable of using a few well-chosen words like a bolt gun to bring you crashing to your knees. The characters in I Loved You More prove themselves to be more than proficient in using words to cut each other to the quick. “I can hurt you, and because I know I can, I will.” Not surprisingly, wordsmith Ben Grunewald is a heavyweight who knows how to deliver a knockout punch, and the novel starts with the very words he uses in a letter to Hank to deliver the killing blow to their friendship. I Loved You More is about the power of words. There are many passages in the novel that achieve dizzying heights of unabashed beauty and lyricism—passages describing Beethoven’s Fifth groaning on a turntable during an electrical storm and snow drifting across a room with a wrought-iron wedding-ring bed—but sadly, for Ben Grunewald, words can comprise a requiem for a lost friendship, but they cannot resurrect one.
Sally Hessney is a program assistant at a nonprofit organization, where one of the educational missions is to educate teenagers about the dangers of binge drinking, prescription drug abuse, distracted driving, STDs, and other consequential issues.