I almost took a pass on The Guncle, by Steven Rowley, after the first 30-some pages. Rowley started out writing Patrick as such a gay cliché (not to mention that he’s an actor, with all that implies), that I couldn’t see a possibility of liking, yet alone identifying with, him as protagonist.
Lest you think this is because I am a “mature” hetero white woman, let me set you straight (pun intended): I worked for more than four years as a typesetter at The Advocate, the national gay and lesbian newsmagazine, during the 1980s at the height of the AIDS crisis. Believe me when I say that I have met and, in some cases, befriended for life, every gay cliché in the book.
I couldn’t quite see what Rowley was trying to do. He invented Patrick as superficial, pretentious, cynical, and almost completely self-involved; and then put him in charge of a six-year-old boy and his nine-year-old sister and let him play out all those annoying attributes in condescendingly coy conversations with the kids, who are already in shock from the death of their mother and the retreat of their pill-popping dad into rehab, leaving them with Gay Uncle Patrick (GUP) in a strange, otherworldly place (Palm Springs in summer). (They normally live in Connecticut.)
But once Patrick gives up a certain percentage of his showboating and settles into a daily routine parenting Grant and Maisie and seeing them through the beginning stages of their grief, the story shifts. Patrick had suffered a loss of his own several years previous, when his lover, Joe, died in a car crash and, in the process of trying to be authentic and present for the children, he realizes simultaneously what they need now and what he has needed all along—to talk, to feel, to be in the moment no matter how painful, and to come to terms with life as it is now, on the other side of this cataclysmic event that has deprived them all of someone so vital.
The other advantage that kept me reading was that Rowley knew just how to write these two children. He got the fears, the naïveté, the bravado, the scorn, and all the other emotions and personality traits of children at these ages down pat, and the conversations they have with Patrick and with one another are the meat of the book, containing humor, pathos, practicality, banality, and wisdom.
The tone of the book was mostly light, but there were passages and events that packed some punch. It was also nice to see the effect serving in loco parentis had on Patrick’s long-term self and goals, provoking a willingness to assume more responsibility for his life and theirs. By the end of the book I had mostly forgiven Patrick his self-conscious snobbery and fallen for his undeniable charm, and I wanted to pack up the two kids and take them home with me. There were also some nice interludes between Patrick and one of his neighbors, as well as meaningful interactions with his two siblings (his sister, Grace, and his brother, Greg, father to the kids) that raised the tone.
This kind of book is one of the reasons that I object to the term “women’s fiction” and have rechristened it, at least in my own classification system, as “relationship fiction.” This is a prime example of that kind of novel that celebrates the relationships among families, friends, and significant others, and it is neither written by nor primarily read by women. I would say, if you have the same initial reaction that I did, give it another 30 or 40 pages and see if it doesn’t begin to draw you in and give you the experience for which you were hoping when you picked it up.
(Can I just say that the cover is perfection?)