I Loved You More
by Tom Spanbauer (Kenya 1969–71)
Hawthorne Books & Literary Arts
April 1, 2014
Reviewed by Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963-65)
I began reading Tom Spanbauer’s new novel, I Loved You More, with high expectations. When I Googled him I had found that he was an acclaimed author with four previous novels. When I read the French flap of the beautifully produced book, I was even more intrigued. It was a story of a triangle, two men and one woman, two of whom are straight and one a gay man who at times loved women. It was also partially set New York City in the 1980’s during the first confused whisperings of the AIDS plague, a time I remember all too well, when fear and later terror permeated all our lives. We didn’t know what was happening, why friends, lovers, neighbors, and family were getting sick with an unknown disease. When one after another they wasted away, dying by the dozens. We went to funerals seemingly every week. I had a special funeral outfit that I kept at the ready. We were angry to be losing all those talented young men.
So I started reading, pulled in immediately by the narrator’s vivid voice, by the author’s exceptional ability to hold the reader’s attention as he reeled out the story of Ben, a writer besotted with another writer, Hank, whom he met in the MFA program at Columbia. From the first paragraph Spanbauer establishes the conflict.
Got to go pal were the last words on the page of the last letter I wrote to Hank Christian. Soon as I wrote them down I knew they were the words that hurt. The words that could turn his heart against me. All those years, twenty-three of them, how Hank and I joked back and forth, got to go pal now were the words lying on the page. That old litany in this strange new place, how it made my heart stop.
Looking back with hindsight from 2008, Ben begins his love story, one marred by unrequited sexual love. Ben is gay and Hank resolutely straight, though he wavers enough to give Ben hope.
Hank Christian is a man who attracts attention. He’s young, big, handsome, and a talented writer, the darling of the writing professor, Jeske, whose insult style sounds much like Gordon Lish. At first Hank seems to be the dominant one in the relationship. Ben is terrified to read his own work in class. Jeske gives him no encouragement. Ben is uncomfortable about being older than the others having come to graduate school at thirty-seven. “I’ve always been a late bloomer,” he says. But then one night at a party he reads his work aloud. He’s trembling, but he keeps going. When he finishes he’s met with silence from the audience of other writers. Everyone gets up and goes to the food table, except for Hank.
Hank walks right up to me. Big and beautiful . . .
“You see what you did?” Hank says.
Some kind of mint aftershave. His eyes that should be blue but aren’t, they’re black. His straight Roman nose. Mustache. Those sweet lips that someday I’m going to kiss.
“What?” I say.
“We had to break,” Hank says. “After what you read, none of us could breathe, let alone speak.”
Their friendship begins, two guys palling around New York City’s Lower East Side of the 1980s, where Ben serves as guide to Hank. Ben knows the territory of those mean streets from the inside out; his twenty-four-hour-a-day job as the super for five tenements includes cleaning out filthy floods in the basement bowels of the crumbling buildings, a metaphor of sorts for the underworld of leather clubs where their journey eventually leads. In all of this, there is the undercurrent of sexual attraction, manifest in Ben, and teasingly possible on Hank’s part.
It’s Hank who initiates a visit to the Spike, the heavy duty leather bar that Ben frequents on Manhattan’s far West Side. Hanks shows up that night, dressed for the evening, much to Ben’s amusement and distress:
When I open my apartment door, I can’t believe my eyes.Hank’s dressed in clean jeans, a black belt, white tennis shoes, and a button-down, long sleeved blue Oxford shirt tucked in his pants . . . His hair is washed and shiny . . . he looks like he was going out on a date. A heterosexual date.
“What?” Hank says.
“Nothing,” I say.
“Don’t I look like a gay?” Hank says.
“Come in and sit down,” I say. “I’ll get us a beer.”
That evening Ben is gentle and protective of his friend, even as he exposes Hank to shocking sights. But Hank has asked for it; he gets more than he was prepared for and finally runs from the club to vomit on the sidewalk. The scene in the bar as Spanbauer has written it is extraordinary, intense and provocative with nothing held back. But it gives pause, at least for this reader — as it should in a book as strong as this one that “serves as an axe for the frozen sea within us” — especially in regard to the history of sexual and gender liberation. It raises questions about why the sexuality got out of hand and went to such extremes, why the oppression of gays seemingly led to acts of destruction to self as well as to others in the name of freedom, erotic acts that were on the far, far borders of sadomasochism. Reading this section, I was saddened by what I viewed for the first time as demonstrations of self hatred and hatred of ones own group, an internalization of the vicious forces of homophobia. I thought about how one rarely sees the leather guys in New York these days and wondered if it’s because the explicit posturing of S and M has faded somewhat, or because so many of these vanguard once-young–men are simply, tragically, long dead.
After the visit to the club Ben and Hank don’t see each other for a few years. Neither of them picks up the phone to call. When their first novels are published at the same time, they accidentally meet up again in a downtown bookstore. Ben seizes upon the opportunity. Out of whole cloth, he conjures up a book tour to his home town in Idaho and invites Ben to come along. The story moves on from there as Hank leaves to study with Barry Hannah in Florida and Ben relocates to Portland, Oregon where he settles in, begins teaching a writing class, and meets the woman who will become the catalyst in the final falling out between Ben and Hank.
Spanbauer is one of the most honest writers I’ve ever read, daring in what he exposes of his main character. I Loved You More has the palpable feel of a Bildungsroman, closely following the particulars of Spanbauer’s own younger life. The structure and artistic control of the text feels novelistic, but the raw urgency of the emotion is more like a memoir. His courage in revealing Ben’s insecurities, envy, ambivalences, lust, anger, and narcissism is remarkable and part of what keeps the reader glued to the book. Ben lets us know over and over that he has trouble rousing his penis and how insecure he is about his own masculinity, fearing that he doesn’t know what it means to be a man in the world, even a gay man. Ben is explicit in his longings for the men he loves and in the scenes of sexual acts themselves with both men and women. He is unapologetic about the way he hurts the woman in Portland, Ruth Deardon, who nurses him back to a modicum of health when he goes from being HIV positive to the ravages of AIDS. She is deeply in love with him, and has been led to believe theirs is a monogamous relationship, until he cruelly humiliates her by publicly flaunting a raunchy sexual coupling with a man who is part of their writing community.
In the end, Hank comes to visit Ben in Portland. When Ruth, as the third side of the triangle that includes Ben and Hank, falls in love with Hank and the love is returned, Ben is beside himself with jealousy, feeling betrayed by both his dearest friends. The writing in this section is extraordinary. He exposes his conflicts to us in a way one isn’t accustomed to seeing on the page and as a result you rear back from his selfishness, until you begin to recognize your own paradoxes and contradictions and the embarrassingly self-centered impulses in your own feelings about the people you love, almost to destruction.
There were times in the book when I wished Spanbauer would have broadened the scope of his lens and taken in more of the outside world, pulling away a bit from the obsessive focus on graphic bodily functions and sexual organs, though I had to laugh at my own limitations, when I came upon one charming scene of the two men in bed, peeking under the sheets, giggling like boys to compare their penises as though they were entities with lives of their own. I thought, face it, girl, men and women live in separate sexual, gender-determined realms. For all Ben’s doubts about his masculinity, this is a very male book.
Spanbauer teaches a course in what he calls Dangerous Writing, and judging by I Loved You More, he must be his own best student. He’s one of kind as a novelist, and a stunning one at that. Reading him is like riding a wild bull; if you don’t get thrown, the reward is pure exhilaration.
Marnie Mueller’s Peace Corps book, Green Fires: A Novel of the Ecuadorian Rainforest, was a winner of the Maria Thomas Award for Fiction and an American Book Award. The Climate of the Country, her second novel, is set in the Tule Lake Japanese American Segregation Camp, where she was born. My Mother’s Island, which takes place in Puerto Rico, was a BookSense76 selection. She is at work on a non-fiction book, Triple Threat: The Story of a Japanese American Showgirl.