Review by Grady Harp
Now and then a novel comes along that is so rich and so satisfying that after reading it once for the mesmerizing story, the natural order of things is to immediately read it again to luxuriate in the splendid prose, the sensitive insights, the perfect craftsmanship of construction that bears memorizing in spots. Such is Richard Alther’s THE SCAR LETTERS. Perhaps part of the degree of impact this novel creates is due to the times – the significant changes that are happening in Equal Rights especially evident in the country’s reversal of rules, if not altered opinion, about same sex relationships. But no, this novel can stand alone in any literary company and still be dazzling. It is without a doubt the finest novel of the year for this reader.
One aspect of the theme is that it addresses love and the search for same in middle aged protagonists, instead of yet another coming of age first love story, or a marriage on the rocks with attendant devastation and the journey either down or hopefully up for the two people involved. Another theme is the scars of abuse from peers, scars that may physically fade a bit but impact the psyche in such a manner that growing beyond them can be permanent – or not. And even another fresh aspect is the telling of passionate encounters without ever slipping into the trough of R rated now too popular soft porn or beyond.
Rudy Dallman was raised by his grandparents, unwanted by his birth parents, was slightly portly as a kid, came to recognize his gay self around age twelve but couldn’t act on that directly – only with normal ‘guys acting out’ sessions. At age 20 he seeks company in a gay bar, notices a couple of young lads, leaves the bar and is attacked in the park where he has gone to cruise. The two boys beat him, cur two Fs on the skin of his chest (for Fairy and Faggot) and sexually assault him with a toilet plunger handle. This is noted by the police who do nothing to the boys – nor do they come to his aid. Life just proceeds. Rudy becomes a flower tender and lives alone with only a good friend, the buff and sexually promiscuous Tex, and a therapist named Jack who has issues of his own as friends. Rudy, at Tex’s encouraging, attempts dating through internet, meets the sexy Blake who is available only for temporary times, and finally decides at both Jack’s and Tex’s bidding to look back into his always submerged sexual assault of the past, discovers the locations of the two lads who are now men, and how Rudy meets the adult versions of his assailants and relates to them is far too well sculpted and considered to say more. That is the bare bones of this intricately complex and immensely satisfying drama – the bones being housed in the flesh of a master writer whose skill bears watching and deserves applause.
Every chapter of the book is introduced by some stated facts of how gay men have been punished through history – terrifying to read, difficult to ignore. It is a catalytic agent that drives the book forward. Yet for all the negative history of both these unfortunates and the psyches of almost all the characters of this story, a consistent philosophy rises. ‘So either-or is a falsehood. Perception like life is a cornucopia of options, as in circling a traffic rotary and exiting here and there, always a tentative new turn.’ ‘You can lighten dark.’ Jack sighs, not with impatience now but the reverse, a calming exhale that embraces. ‘That’s why you’re here. And as you said once before, Rudy, some bad with the good is essential for and defines the other. Makes us whole.’ THE SCAR LETTERS is a profound autopsy of bruised lives from the past and an offering of a reassuring hug that life can indeed go on.
Grady Harp, September 2013
TITLE: THE SCAR LETTERS
AUTHOR: RICHARD ALTHER
PUBLISHER: CENTAUR BOOKS