There are two things you need to know before you read my review of Tom Spanbauer’s fifth novel, “I Loved You More” (Hawthorne Press). Thing one: I was in Tom’s Dangerous Writers writing group up in Portland, Oregon for a year and a half, and Tom was my fiction writing teacher for six years. So I’m biased, I admit it; I think Tom’s a damn good writer, one of the best.
Thing two: I’m straight. It’s important you know that, given the story Tom, who is gay, tells in “I Loved You More.”
Tom’s book – which spans 25-years starting in the mid-‘80s — is about a gay man, Ben Grunewald (Gruney), who falls in love with a straight man, Hank Christian (the Maroni), and then, years later, in the third and final part of the book, while still in love with Hank, becomes emotionally involved with a straight woman, Ruth Dearden. Ben is devastated, and feels totally betrayed when Hank hooks up with Ruth and those two get married.
OK, that really doesn’t do it, so let me try again.
Tom’s book is 466 pages of heartbreak. Think about the love affair that went so wrong for you, the one that tore you down, left you devastated and in pieces. Yeah, that’s this book.
When the “I Loved You More” starts, everything that Ben is going to tell us has already happened. And Ben reveals right up front, in the first nine pages, that this story is about a love triangle, and that Ben ended up the odd man out. Tells us right at the start that Hank married Ruth. In other words, tells us upfront that this is a tragedy, and things are not going to end well.
The rule of three.
More than likely, you’re like me and think that something like this could never happen to you. That you could love a man, then love a woman – two extraordinary people, two unique ways of loving, from different decades, on different ends of the continent, and then somehow, through an accident of the universe, or a destiny preordained – either way you’ll never know – what’s important is that what happens is something you could never in a million years have planned, and there you are the three of you, dancing the ancient dance whose only rule is with three add one, if not, subtract. If three doesn’t find four, three goes back to two.
Add or subtract, that’s the rule.
So we know at the start how it ends. Well sort of. Not exactly. Tom makes us readers think we know how it ends, but of course we don’t.
Really though, we do know the big picture, the story arc, and what’s weird is how that makes us want to know what’s gonna happen even more than if we didn’t. And that’s an interesting thing about human nature. If we care about people then we can’t get enough. We want to know all the details. We want to know exactly how it went so bad for Ben, how it was that his two best friends betrayed him.
If I would’ve said anything, it would have sounded like I was just jealous. And hey! I’m here to testify. I was fucking jealous.
But the story is only part of what makes this book great. Ben is fucked up emotionally when the book starts, and Tom is able to let us watch as Ben works hard to conquer his demons and step into the light. This book is about people, men and women, and how they relate to one another. And this book is beautiful, passionate writing. Man, Tom writes fantastic sentences. Each one is a kind of poetry, or music.
Here’s a random paragraph:
Hank rips open the bag of peanuts, chucks the whole bag of them into his mouth. His bare hands in the cold night. Chews like he’s way too hungry, then downs the Pepsi, two big gulps. We’re way too young, too healthy, to know about blood sugar. Above us on the left, the top of the Empire State Building is Christmas red and green.
The whole book is like that.
Sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph, words making vivid pictures. Moving pictures. One intense scene after another.
Ben and Hank first meet in 1985 while taking a writing class at Columbia University from a Gordon Lish-like teacher, referred to only as Jeske. Ben and Hank eventually both get books published; a decade later, Ruth is one of Ben’s writing students.
This book is about love, and trust, and betrayal, and the ways we humans fuck things up so bad. It’s also Tom doing what he wants all his students to do, taking a deep breath, and in a distinctive, first person voice, talking, as if to a friend, about how his heart got broken. The blood and guts of all that Tom’s narrator Ben has been through is in the voice telling the story, on every page.
Here’s Tom having Ben tell us about the breakthrough he experienced in Jeske’s class:
I took the knife, put it to my chest, punched hard in, cut down and around, pulled my throbbing heart out and laid it down on the page. But I wasn’t bleeding enough. The words sounded stupid. My voice in the fluorescent amphitheater did not project, was too high, cracking like an adolescent whose balls had just dropped. Fuck. There was no getting away from it. I sounded the way I always sounded, a Catholic boy with a big apology. Then the long pause. The long pause of silence after where all there was, was my breath. A drop of sweat rolled down the inside of my arm. Everything gets bright and hot and full.
The eleventh hour! Jenske cries out, Way to go, pal! Grunewald’s pulled it out of his ass on the eleventh hour.
Looking back on that day, I wonder. Maybe that was the first time for Hank. That he really looked at me.
As a straight guy, there are parts of Tom’s book that were difficult for me to read. I can’t relate to how Ben feels about Hank. I mean intellectually I can say, well, Ben feels about Hank the way a straight guy feels about a woman he loves. But on an emotional level, I didn’t feel it. It made me uncomfortable reading about a gay man in love with a straight man. And it was hard to read the gay sex parts – though there aren’t many of them.
Because the book is written in the first person from Ben’s point of view, and because Ben is recalling what happened decades later, we never know where Hank is coming from. Hank kisses Ben a couple of times. One night Hank goes with Ben to a gay bar. Hank is curious, wants to know what goes on there. Well it freaks Hank out, and months go by before Ben and Hank meet up again. Theirs is an unknowable friendship; there’s mystery to it. It’s like Hank doesn’t know what he wants, and his ambivalence comes across as very real, very human.
Ben on the other hand, well we know every single thing of importance to him that happens. We are inside Ben’s brain, seeing what he sees, feeling what he feels, and it’s very very intense.
Because Tom tells the story from Ben’s perspective, we never know what Hank really thinks. We never know what Ruth really thinks. And Ben isn’t the most reliable of narrators – everything he tells us is so colored by emotion.
At the beginning of the third section of the book, in Portland where Ben has moved from New York, Ben gets AIDS. He’s hospitalized but somehow survives, and when it’s time for him to split the hospital, Ruth picks him up, and takes him home. Soon enough she moves in with him and they become lovers – sort of. (Meanwhile Hank is teaching writing at a school in Florida.) For me, this was the most interesting part of the book because once Ruth showed up, I really wanted to know about Ben and Ruth’s relationship, how it developed, and then how Ben fucked it up. I’m just more interested in relationships between men and women. But don’t misunderstand, the rest of the book is really good too.
“I Loved You More” is very right now, and yet it’s also timeless. I thought of Hemingway’s unfinished novel, “Garden of Eden” — a book about a young married couple who bring another woman into their relationship, and before long the marriage is in pieces – as I read Tom’s book.
After I finished “I Loved You More,” I started to think about what I want from a novel. It’s pretty much never good to generalize, but some of what I want includes being pulled into a world I’ve never experienced before. I want a fresh voice talking to me about the world in ways I haven’t thought about. I want to see things I haven’t seen, or see them in new ways. I want terrific sentences; writing that rock ‘n’ rolls. And when I reach the end, I want to feel like I could read another 500 pages, no problem.
Tom Spanbauer’s “I Loved You More” gave me all of the above, and plenty more. It’s a hell of a book. Yeah, I was uncomfortable while I read some of it, but you know, that’s probably a good thing. Bottom line, I look forward to the next book with Tom’s name on the cover.
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