by Jendi Reiter
Saddle Road Press
Reviewed by T.J. Banks
Julian Selkirk gets under our skin. Immediately. When we first meet him, the hero of Jendi Reiter’s Two Natures is waking “from another nightmare about photographing a wedding. The bride was very loud and everyone’s red lipstick was smeared across their teeth like vampires, except vampires would never wear lavender taffeta prom dresses. It’s always the wrong people who can’t see themselves in mirrors.”
Okay, so it’s not “Call me Ishmael” or “Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” but it is funny and engaging. And so is Julian, who sees himself and everyone around him all too clearly. We follow him with interest as he pursues both his dream of becoming a fashion photographer and Phil, a personal trainer at the local gym.
Two Natures, winner of the 2016 Rainbow Award for Best Contemporary Gay Fiction, is set in New York City during the 1990s. There’s no way for Julian to escape the emotional fall-out of the AIDS crisis. A very lost weekend—well, very lost night—of anonymous drug-fueled sex leads to a long terrifying wait for his test results. His fear dogs his every step, “suck[ing] the air out of my lungs and turn[ing] my tongue to sandpaper. Permanent wounds are for other people, you think; you don’t believe that you could be the one whose story goes He never…Never walked again, saw the ocean, left the neighborhood, blew out 25 candles on his birthday cake.”
He escapes an HIV diagnosis, but is devastated to see Phil, his on-again off-again lover, suffering from advanced AIDS complications. Julian moves Phil into his apartment and takes care of him. The fear of what could be waiting around the corner for them is always hovering nearby, inserting itself into their conversations. And all the while Julian is hoping against hope that Phil will “hang on long enough for them to find better drugs, a cure even….His arms were the most solid thing in the world. How could they vanish, how to conceive of a time when all of us would become unreal?”
Julian suffers, and we suffer with him. That’s because Reiter has created a funny, astute, self-deprecating hero, and we care tremendously about what happens to him.
T.J. Banks is the author of Sketch People, A Time for Shadows, Catsong, Houdini, and other books. Catsong was the winner of the 2007 Merial Human-Animal Bond Award.