Monday, June 30, 2014

Now is the Hour by Tom Spanbauer

I want to talk to you today about a book I should have reviewed several years ago when I first heard of it. The book is Now is the Hour,  written by a local author, Tom Spanbauer. Walking with one of my oldest friends and walking partner, I was introduced to Tom and immediately asked him if the name of his novel had anything to do with the song of the same name; it was the very first song I ever learned by heart from listening the radio. As you will see if you read the book, it has a lot to do with the song of the same name. 

Although this is a work of fiction, it reads very much like memoir, and I would be very surprised if it were not quite closely autobiographical. The lead character, Rigby John Klausener, like Spanbauer himself, grew up in Pocatello Idaho. His mother is a staunch Catholic who holds a tight rein on Rigby John, and his farmer father is a stern and tough man whom Rigby John describes as one ornery bastard. “Cold, irritable, impatient. One ornery bastard.” Spanbauer dedicates the book to his mother, and the deep love Rigby John has for his mother is apparent from the first page, and that he almost always disappoints her causes him to suffer greatly. A younger brother, Russell, is born with severe birth defects and lives for only a short time, and when he dies, a light goes out of his mother’s eyes. 
Russell came home screaming, and he screamed for a hundred days, and no one could sleep, and then he died. Mom was never the same. The music stopped, and she locked herself inside her room with Dad, and me and Sis were outside her room, and her eyes were never the same. I couldn’t find her anywhere in them, couldn’t find me, she was so far away. 
The highlights of his young life are the times when his mother, sister and he dress up in fancy clothes and jewelry from a large trunk in the attic, and as Rigby John tells the reader over and over, all three when dressed up were “scintillatingly gorgeous.” But, of course, they couldn’t let his father find out about the dress-up game. 

When the reader first meets Rigby John, he is seventeen and hitchhiking to San Francisco, hopelessly alienated from his family because “My family and the sex-shame-guilt thing. Sex and my family just don’t mix, like Mormons and Coca-Cola.” Bad enough that his mother has caught him literally with his pants down, masturbating, leading to a frenzy of confession and Hail Marys. His love affair with his own penis is enough to condemn him in his mother’s eyes, but that he is also gay is so over the top that he has no choice but to run away.  

I happen to have also read a short time ago Wallace Stegner’s autobiographical coming of age novel, Big Rock Candy Mountain. Both books are wonderfully honest accounts of growing up, and I would have to say that I think Spanbauer’s is the better book, partly because it is such a subtle and insightful exploration of homosexuality and of prejudice against native American people. I also preferred it because I think Spanbauer is so much more understanding of his parents, even his stern onery father than Stegner, whose hatred of and vitriolic rants against his father taint the last sections of an otherwise lucid and interesting story. Spanbauer seems to understand and forgive his parents, despite the grief they cause him as he struggles to discover himself and his sexuality. Even on the road to San Francisco, intensely sad and having to flee, he is able to at least partially understand their reasons for treating him as they have. 

Like so many young people who find themselves in tight, repressive communities with condemnation seeming to come from all sides, often enough leading not only to confusion but self-hatred, Rigby John finds solace in reading—his path into a larger and more open world. 
Mom and Dad wanted me reading only good Catholic stuff. The only good Catholic stuff to read are your daily missal and the Bible and The Lives of the Saints, so anything that was good I had to hide. I had to smuggle Steinbeck and Willa Cather and Hemingway inside my pants. Reading made everything different. I was no longer stuck in a world with my mom and my dad and my sis and Catholics and Mormons on a goddamn farm out on the Tyhee Flats. Before books, my secret places were just places I could hide. Now my places were where I could go to read and find out about people who were like me. Of Mice and Men, My Antonia, Winesburg Ohio, A Moveable Feast.
Like Rigby John (and Spanbauer), I grew up with a self-righteously religious mother (Mormon in my case). As I came to learn, she knew very little about Mormonism or even Mormon texts; she simply knew that it was THE TRUTH, and that any who doubted it was  lost. Spanbauer’s Pocotello was probably even more politically conservative than the Salt Lake I grew up in in the 40s.

Spanbauer captures the diction and customs of the country people he grew up around. He tells us over and over that they are differnt (not different, but differnt). He tells such a good and convincing story, capturing both the humor and the heartache of trying to grow into one’s sexuality, especially when faced with criticism on almost all fronts. The friendship of one girl (as differnt as he is from those around her), and then of two Hispanic farmworkers and later one very colorful gay Native American man saves him from his isolation and encourages him to find a world not so hostile to his beliefs and his body.

I read Spanbauer’s wonderful book, The Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon, many years ago and loved it for many of the same reasons that I love Now is the Hour. He is a truly gifted writer, and one who helps us to see that it is not bad to be differnt. I recommend him to you, especially those of you who found yourselves in a strange and foreign and cramped space as you grew up. His liberation is one that we can all learn from.

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