The Dahlia Field: Stories
by Henry Alley
Chelsea Station Editions
Reviewed by John Francis Leonard
Every American city and town, every region, every state possesses its own unique beauty and character both in its surroundings and in its people. In this exceptional collection of stories, Henry Alley delineates an endearing picture of the Pacific Northwest as well as some points beyond. In his precise yet vivid prose he gets to the heart of both a physical setting and the emotions of its inhabitants. These inhabitants, more often than not, are gay men of a certain age who are still at the height of their sexuality and draw. Many of them are just coming to terms with their orientation, and they have wives, ex-wives, girlfriends and children who are very much still in their lives. This new awareness may have its struggles but Henry deftly avoids the cliché of shame; some of them may be reluctant, but more often than not they are embracing their newly born selves. They are house painters, failed professionals, baseball umpires, musicians, actors in regional theater, athletes, and long distance runners. Their experiences are typically American yet wholly unique.
Alley writes of the gay men outside of the New York City or San Francisco diaspora. He says, “Gay men did not live, most of them, in isolation out in the country but amongst one another in the cities—amongst their own proneness—if you will—and that made them crazy, because they tried to protect themselves by practicing distances on one another.” But the men Alley writes of are of the smaller cities and towns—they don’t have that luxury. They crave communion and closeness and often actively seek it. They find it in unexpected places. The men he writes of are waking up to the possibilities of their sexuality and striving to break free of society’s limitations. But the problems of those cities, especially the scourge of AIDS—the very fear of it—still touch their everyday lives.
In some of these stories, especially the eponymous “The Dahlia Field,” AIDS is a central theme that Alley writes of beautifully. The loss wrought by the plague ended up visiting every corner of this country and Alley reminds us of that here to great effect. In other stories, it’s merely in the background, never far from the minds of these modern-day American gay men.
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.