For all the down-and-dirty gay sex in his novels, Paul Russell is an old-fashioned storyteller. His Genet-inspired id always threatens to topple his E.M. Forster superego, though the latter inevitably has the upper hand. Even in his raunchy Boys of Life, narrated by a young man convicted of killing his exploitative filmmaker lover, the emphasis is on the coming-of-age story. “I don’t want you to think I’m just writing a bunch of porn, though if it gets you off, fine,” the murderer genially remarks. Russell, however, would rather turn us on through his narrator’s quest to wrest meaning from the X-rated chaos of his life.
In Russell’s most Forster-esque novel to date, The Coming Storm, Tracy Parker, a 25-year-old gay man worried that he may be HIV-positive, takes a teaching job at the Forge School, an institution dedicated to placing the troubled children of the rich and powerful into decent colleges. Noah Lathrop III is one such student, the 15-year-old son of a high-rolling corporate executive who’s too busy taking over Third World countries to notice the emotional damage underlying his boy’s low grades and antisocial behavior. While it would be wrong to call what transpires between Tracy and Noah a love story, the book explores in a daringly nonjudgmental fashion the wildfire of longing and intimacy that ignites between them, and the ghosts their extracurricular passion smokes out of the academic woodwork.
Perhaps the most haunted character of all is Louis Tremper, the school’s married headmaster and closet homosexual, who has taken a shine to Tracy, treating him to private, scotch-filled tutorials on Wagner. That is, until he finds out that his hunky new hire is not only indiscreetly “out” but getting a bit too close to one of the students.
Told through the shifting perspectives of four characters (Tracy, Noah, Louis, and Louis’s kindly feminist English professor wife Claire), the provocative story occasionally gets bogged down in Russell’s compulsively detailed prose. His is a realistic style that doesn’t always know when to quit. Somewhat surprisingly, the book is more
effective in portraying the wan comforts of
marital life than in cogently depicting his
protagonist’s modern gay limbo.
The question emerging from the illicit
affair— Is an essentially immoral act any less
immoral when the motive isn’t entirely corrupt?— leads one to concur with Claire’s observation that “there’s always something sly about any act of education.” The powder keg
situation also sheds light on the clutching, anarchic need of love born out of loneliness. What remains sadly only an afterthought in this otherwise sensitive study is the right of a gay teenager to receive
unsexualized attention— even if it’s the last thing on the kid’s one-track pubescent mind.