Saturday, April 11, 2009
Advance Review: "Deconstruction" by Kit Zheng
Author: Kit Zheng
Publisher: MLR Press (print) and Aspen Mountain Press (eBook)
Release Date: Forthcoming, summer 2009
Everyone likes something for free, right? In Kit Zheng's new book (due out this summer), you pay for one story but you get three: the love story of two men at a crossroads in their longtime relationship, in which the decisions they make, separately and together, either will strengthen and deepen their bonds or sever them entirely; a murder mystery in which our hero must try to stop a killer who is targeting male hustlers; and a man's journey of self-discovery, delving into the darker side of his desires as he comes to terms with who he really is and what he really wants. Zheng's book is not a triptych but a single story woven masterfully from these threads: Deconstruction.
It may seem crass to start this review with such blatant mentions of commerce, but that is one of the matters central to Deconstruction: a stripper by profession, Tomas is not above taking a little extra cash from customers at the club in exchange for his off-hours sexual favors. "For the gentleman," Zheng tells us of one such encounter, "it was two hours indulging appetites he could never satisfy; for Tomas, it was a car payment taken care of, one less bill to worry about." With deceptive simplicity, Zheng draws a line--one of many that will be blurred and even erased in the course of the story, between fantasy and reality, between payer and payee, between desire and action.
Although this is how Tomas and his boyfriend, Vic, met--and recountings of these private exchanges even served as foreplay for the two in the early days of their relationship--the thrill has worn off for Vic. Aggravating the tension is the string of murders that police detective Vic has been assigned to: someone is killing young men who, like Tomas, offer sex for money and who lately, also like Tomas, are blond. The resemblance may end there, but that's more than enough to escalate Vic's wish into a need for Tomas to stop doing what he does. But it's not that simple for Tomas: it's not just what he does, it's what he is, how he defines himself.
The heart of the matter, though, is not this disagreement over how Tomas lives his life and how that affects their relationship: it's the gap between what each man thinks and what he says, between what he says and what the other hears. It's everything that is spoken and even more, it's in everything that isn't. Zheng sets up the story beautifully: from the beginning, I was willing to invest in this relationship between two guys I didn't know much, if anything, about, because the emotional push and pull between them was laid out so well. From those first moments between Tomas and Vic in the bedroom, simultaneously and subtly awkward and comfortable in the way that only long-term lovers can be, I wanted them to make it. And as the narrative unfolded, I started to see why I wanted them to make it: because they need each other, and they're good for each other; they could be as close to perfect as two people can get--if only they could talk and trust. Which is no small thing, of course. Zheng walks the line of using words to illustrate their failure for these men with heartbreaking clarity.
The emotional connection between the two central characters is not only clear but compelling. In fact, it's this connection, the problems they're having and their desires to overcome those problems that kept me reading as much as the "whodunnit" aspect of the serial killings, which seem to hit closer and closer to home, clouding the judgment of both men in different ways, with different reactions and potentially disastrous effects.
The third thread, the journey of self-discovery, is Tomas's. Without giving too much away, Tomas has festishes that Vic knows about, and fetishes his lover is unaware of (except in peripheral ways). It even seems that Tomas himself is unaware of the depths of his desires. His one rule, after all, is to remain in control of situations and of himself. As Tomas becomes more involved with one of his customers, Jon (who is such a strong secondary character that I'm tempted to call him a primary one), he begins to do things that he doesn't do even with Vic; things that, by his own rules, he hasn't even allowed himself to imagine or fantasize about.
The way that Zheng entwines Tomas's desire with his shame so that each heightens the other is gorgeous, agonizing, and compulsive. It's also crucial to the story. The question brought up by the realization of these desires splits in two: will Tomas be able to accept himself, and will he give Vic a chance to accept him. During one session with Jon, Tomas wonders if "he should be enjoying this more, somehow. If it were Vic standing here instead of Jon, playing a game, just playing--would it be such a fucking turn on? Would Vic even do this, let him be this? Now he just didn't know. Might never know."
At this point in the story, we don't know if Tomas will be able to give Vic the chance to give him what he needs, or if Vic will be able to do anything with such a chance. But Zheng has painted the characters with such vivid emotions and sucked us into their lives so thoroughly that we know they need to try.
In Deconstruction, Kit Zheng has given us three stories--and three profoundly human characters, each full of hopes and fears and desires and flaws. Zheng challenges and rewards us, giving us men who might be difficult to like at times (most especially Jon, whose thoughts and actions verge on crossing the line) but who also tug at our hearts and make us think. This is provocative romance at its very best.
- Mallory Path
In accordance with the new FTC Guidelines for blogging and endorsements, Kiki Howell of An Author's Musings, would like to advise that in addition to purchasing my own books to review, I also receive books, and/or promotional materials, free of charge in return for an honest review, as do any guest reviewers.