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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Gay Fiction Given Applause By Reluctant Reviewer

Title: BenedictionA Novel
Genre: Gay Fiction
Author: Jim Arnold
Publisher: BookSurge
301 pp. $13.99
Kindle, $7.99
ISBN 9781439248577
Genre: Gay Fiction
Benediction Trailer:

Reviewed by Victor J. Banis for

If I were to describe this novel in one word, it would be "earnest." And if I were to name its chief fault, it is that it wears its earnestness on its sleeve.

In all honesty, I am really not the best reader to review Benediction because it is exactly the kind of read I try to avoid. This has nothing at all to do with the merits or failings of the book, and everything to do with my own personal biases. I don't care for stories of catastrophic and/or terminal illness. For instance, I avoid AIDS novels, for reasons too complicated to get into here; and, really, this is an AIDS novel in which AIDS has been switched to prostate cancer.

Thus, in established AIDS novel fashion, we follow the fortunes of Ben Schmidt from early detection through the various stages of the illness and its treatment, with each step described in earnest, often clinical, detail. Men tend to not talk about prostate problems. It's probably a good thing for some to experience this with Ben. There's scarcely anything left unsaid.

So, why, you're wondering, am I writing about a book I didn't like—except, that I did, putting my personal preferences aside, and for what it is. And what it is, for the most part, is very well written.

The author is at his best in describing his settings, and the armchair traveler gets a lot for his ticket: an often lyrical San Francisco; raunchy New York club scenes; tacky giddy West Hollywood; Sydney, from sex dens to sand dunes; even Turin.

The plot—well, the illness mostly dominates that, though there is an off again on again relationship with the hunk next door; ditto with an internet trick; ditto the sexy doctor, and…hmm, might as well say it, Ben Schmidt is a slut. Also, once he falls off the AA wagon, a heavy duty lush and druggie.

Which brings up characterization. The people in the book are mostly well drawn, if mostly not very sympathetic. There just isn't anyone to root for. Certainly not poor Ben, who seems to have no fun at all, not even when he's having—often—sex. But I did come to admire him, and he has the good sense eventually to figure out where he needs to be; and that, too, is a tribute to the author, because I found myself thinking of Ben as I would of someone I know. Okay, someone who aggravates me no end, but still, my point is, the character does come alive.

The prose is literary. I'm surprised Kensington didn't jump all over this. As I was reading, I kept checking the cover, convinced I was reading a Kensington release. It should have been a shoo-in for a Lammie. It's the kind of thing they love. If I'd gotten it in time I'd have nominated it for a Publishing Triangle Award—there's one for debut novels, and this would have been worth their consideration.

All of which is to say, this is a really a fine book, and Jim Arnold is obviously a writer of considerable talent and a welcome addition to the glbt genre. Highly recommended, but with this caveat: it's a grueling journey, not only for Ben, but for the reader as well.

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