We tell ourselves stories in order to live, Joan Didion once famously wrote. Didion’s point is that we impose a narrative on life in an attempt to make sense of—and perhaps to curb the bewilderment caused by—life’s essential randomness. To make a story of life’s chaos, both by putting events into sequence and by reducing the individuals at the center of these events to characters, is to assert order and, in some cases, causality; this organizing of incident provides us reassurance.
Such crisis management seems to be at work in writer and performance artist Mike Albo’s hilarious and moving debut novel, Hornito: My Lie Life. Written in the form of a memoir, Hornito juxtaposes a character named Mike Albo’s present-day life as a gay New Yorker who is in a perpetual rut with that same character’s account of growing up in ’70s and ’80s suburbia amid various sources of homophobia and pop-culture overload. The author’s mixing of metafictional technique with references to Solid Gold dancers and T.J. Maxx outlets makes for an unusual brew; Albo is like a Hawaiian-shirt-wearing Dale Peck.
The difficulty of owning up to his homosexuality is the chaotic element in the young Albo’s life that prompted his construction of a narrative. He tells his grade school pals that he is “definitely” going to marry his horse-loving friend Christi (who, when Albo pretends to feed her sugar cubes and carrots, licks his hand and talks about getting “lathery”) and then is overcome with guilt for having tried to pass himself off as heterosexual; he spends much of his high school years sublimating his desire for various hunky straight male friends. Once Albo is an “out” adult, though, he continues to create narratives and guises in an effort to stave off emotional violence—when Eric, a go-go boy that Albo has trysted with, rebuffs one of Albo’s sexual advances by reminding Albo that Eric has a boyfriend named George, Albo is chastened and suddenly thinks of George “and how every time I see him I become hyperanimated to powder over my guilt and anxiety. Hiya, George! Woweee! I am a Little Bubbly Tugboat! Honk! Honk! I am a Bubbly Tugboat!”
The precision with which the author describes such moments of emotional distress is vintage Albo. Albo’s greatest achievement in this book is his precise cataloging, in original and witty prose, of the various stages and vicissitudes of amorous love. As a boy, one of Albo’s first infatuations is the doll version of the Bionic Man, Steve Austin: “If you pry out the detachable robot control panels embedded in Steve’s arm and legs, he will look weaker, sympathetic, in need of care,” Albo writes. “I unsnap his flimsy snaps, touch his soft and giving plastic back, and finger the Mattel Braille on his butt. Then, quickly, I put his head into my mouth and suck.”
As Albo ages, however, he comes to realize that infatuation has a limited shelf life. “I’ve made him a little caricature,” he writes about a lover, Jack. “Jack is a sellable dippy Top 40 song to me—burning and broadcasted and doomed to slip down the charts after it reaches its highest mark, but I bought him. . . . He came in, penetrated me with his penis power chords, and then fizzled.” He’s a contrast to “the beautiful, sweet, unattainable Eric, the crossover hit, the hot new single, the bubbling-under remix.” Infatuation can be exhausting (Albo’s unrequited crush on a dreamy straight boy in high school finds Albo “perfecting my ‘Hey, what’s up’ head nod. Like a mountain climber I will use this meeting as a precious wedge. I will dig my fingers into this small crevice and climb into familiarity with Jason Hazer with all my strength”) and may require maintenance (one friend has “a huge, juicy crush on [Eric] that he has been trying to dehydrate into the smaller, prune-sized emotion of fellowship”). And then, of course, there are those objects of affection who don’t even remember your name: “He either forgets he even met me or has no sense of progress in meetings. . . . [He] is at least supposed to say, ‘Hi, I’m sorry I forgot your name . . .’ but he doesn’t—he drifts off like a moan.” With these people, Albo writes, “It’s okay to stand silent as cornstalks and wave in the wind.”
By novel’s end—through the process of describing and codifying the whirls and undulations of love and heartbreak—Albo the character comes to terms with his inability to sustain a relationship. Having transformed the chaos into a narrative, he is less in thrall to that chaos. “Nothing is wavering in me,” he writes, having decided that he no longer needs unattainable Eric or closety Jeff. “I am free. I am a veteran with my tattered flag.” He’s battered, but still walking. He has told his story in order to live.