Amen's Boy: A Fictionalized Autobiography by Jacob Campbell
and William Maltese
by Jacob Campbell and William Maltese
206 pp., paperback, $14.99
Amen’s Boy By Jacob Campbell And William Maltese
Review by Edward Dutton
The reviewer Amos Lassen recently introduced me--via Facebook--to a writer called Jacob Campbell, who lives in Louisiana and writes confessional “fiction” about his time as a minor seminarian, and later, as an out-gay resident of the French Quarter.
The relationship between Campbell and myself has been rewarding from an artistic perspective (we both write about similar themes) and it’s also exposed me to incredible works of queer fiction: Campbell’s own. First among these has to be his novel Amen’s Boy, which is similar in many ways to Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, only queer and just as powerful.
Despite being labeled as a “fictionalized memoir” about sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, Amen’s Boy isn’t simply a book about abuse. If it were merely a novelization of current events, it could hardly deserve to be called “literature”; and Amen’s Boy is a highly “literary” novel, as I’ll explain.
The abuse described in the novel--mainly perpetrated by priests against boys or by teenagers against younger boys--plays a major role in the adolescent narrator’s psycho-sexual and spiritual evolution. But it never comes to define the novel as simply a “text about abuse.”
Rather than understanding Amen’s Boy through the lens of current events--which many of its readers, on Amazon and elsewhere, seem to want to do--encouraged by the publisher and, perhaps, their own experiences--I think it’s important to respect the book’s integrity and read it for what it is: a literary narrative that draws on elements of mysticism, modernism, and coming-of-age, gay literature.
One aspect of the book’s “literariness” that transcends the documentary genre is the powerful voice of the boy-narrator, Thaddeus Merton (“Tad,” or “Tadpole,” for short), who experiences everything through the lens of a kind of transcendent, Joycean aestheticism. Thaddeus’ abuse is explored, at first, from a child’s point of view–not capable of deep reflection–and in a way that focuses on rich, sensory and instinctual experiences. It’s only later in the novel that a series of epiphanies and self-revelations reveals the true nature of what has happened to him.
Whereas Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man seems conditioned in his Catholicism--and Joyce’s rejection of his church is conclusive at the end of the novel--Thaddeus seems to live his faith profoundly and Campbell never opts for black or white answers. This is reflected in the ending of the novel, which could represent a spiritual redemption for Thaddeus--the rejuvenation of his vocation–or a psychotic breakdown.
By allowing spirituality to remain a possibility for Thaddeus, and by refusing to “overcome” religiosity in favor of pure aestheticism, as Joyce does for Stephen, Campbell creates a novel that lends itself just as much to spiritual autobiography as it does to modernism.
At times, Thaddeus’ first-person narrative transforms into a highly-wrought, mystical text--akin to the writings of Teresa of Avila or John of the Cross rather than a gay novel. And perhaps this is the most post-modern thing about the novel: the difficulty one experiences trying to explain it in terms of generic conventions and its refusal to give up exactly what its ending means.
The author shows us how an adolescent can find a damaging comfort in the “secret closeness” of an abusive priest–in this case, a sad, balding character called Fr. Terry. The insidious, soothing intimacy Thaddeus shares with Fr. Terry is experienced as a grateful escape from the brutality he suffers at home–at the hands of his sadistic brother and his weak parents.
This is true not only of the abusive relationship with the priest but of Thaddeus’ entire relationship with his church, which includes his duties as an altar server, and his conversations with Fr. Terry in the Sacrament of Reconciliation–which the priest uses, shamefully, to groom the boy for both sex and the priesthood.
This paradoxical blending of heavenly and hellish themes culminates in the author’s haunting portrayal of “Mettray,” a minor seminary where Thaddeus pursues his vocation to the priesthood.
Named after the penal colony in which Jean Genet was incarcerated for 3 years in the 1920s, the Mettray of Amen’s Boy becomes Thaddeus’ home for an equivalent 3 years. Its name evokes the irony that a child can experience “home” as both a heaven and a hell.
Similar to Proust’s “Combray,” Mettray is Campbell’s greatest achievement, if only because the descriptions of the seminary ground Amen’s Boy with such a vivid sense of place one often feels transported while reading, returning with a sense of sadness about the horrors that occur there and, confusingly, with a longing for the joys.
When Amen’s Boy is over, the aura of Mettray remains. You may even wish to return there–despite the fact that horrible things occurred. For nothing is black and white at Mettray: the soul-crushing brutality one experiences there exists side by side with the possibility of redemption.
Edward Dutton is the author of Norceuil's Garden: Queer Fiction and Erotica. His work has been published in Chroma, Best Gay Romance 2009, and Best Gay Bondage Erotica.
French Quarter Knights
Leaving behind a reluctant master in Linden and exploring a new lover in Sandy, Tadpole has adventures into a sensual drug- and alcohol-rich world of gay bars, drag clubs, baths, porno theatres, arcades, and hidden sex venues. Yet he also works with a yoga teacher and Zen guide, and questions himself in light of a world beyond the merely physical.
Tadpole seeks friendship and love, a home, and independence. But exploring steamy sensuality seems to counter his romantic need for true love, and he struggles with himself and his desires.
Will he be able to transcend the empty promises of easy sex and sick relationships to find true love? Tadpole knows he needs to settle for nothing less than complete freedom and independence. But can he overcome his own emotions and move on to a better life as a gay man?
ByJ. Onealon August 20, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition
NOTE: this novel contains explicit same-gender sexual scenes. So if you are offended by that, this book is not for you.
Thaddeus (a.k.a. Tadpole a.k.a. Tad) runs a fine line between being lovers with several men while figuring out he likes being single. The story is set in the French Quarter of New Orleans in the early 1980s. Tadpole is in his mid-20's and has adopted a flexible approach to life: one man at a time or several all at once, but all of them always in sincerity.
Tad's story is a tale of discovery. He discovers that sometimes hiding in the offers of sex and intimacy is a need on the part of others to control and own him. He dislikes the part of himself that's vulnerable to those efforts to dominate him. Fortunately he also finds a few people who offer real love--along with the sex of course.
The book is like a sexual travel log: from one-on-one encounters to three-ways and from group sex to the wild Full Moon Night Orgy at one of the most famous (or notorious depending on your point of view) of the gay sex bars on the lower part of Decatur St.
The orgy scene alone is worth the price of the book because it reveals something I'm sure many have experienced about group sex but few talk about. Something happens to ego boundaries and egotistical needs. Concerns about who is good-looking or desirable and who is not dissolve. Very interesting and very surprising. Makes you wonder if the so-called "pagan" religions that incorporated sexual rites in religious practices knew something that's been lost in our (historically) repressive culture.
This is a book that's upbeat, fast moving, plenty of sexual and romantic action, and a plot that twists and turns surprisingly and happily. There are some very serious scenes too, of course, since the book is a realistic depiction of a certain stratum of gay life in the French Quarter during the early 1980s. But ultimately, it's a book about hope--hope for a healthy identity as a gay person, hope for real friendship, and hope that somewhere in all the sex one will find true love.
Remember this is gay metropolitan society before the advent of AIDS changed everything. The bath houses, the sex bars, the orgy rooms--it's all quite authentic. If you ever wondered what went on in the pre-HIV era, wonder no more. You can experience it like it was with Tadpole as your guide in this book.
I became interested in the book because I read and enjoyed the first novel of the series entitled AMEN'S BOY (search Amazon for books by Jacob Campbell). Tadpole was an abused young man in a Catholic seminary in that book. This book--FRENCH QUARTER KNIGHTS--is a continuation of his story. I hope to see further installments in the near future.
Gay Erotic Romance about the two loves in the life of the 19 year old protagonist. Steamy. Explicit sex and drug use. Not for easily offended. Some scenes are three-ways. Joey’s first love flourishes albeit in the closet together, and with some sexual kinks, and yields another deeper love, mature, and hot.
Growing up, Joey has no gay role models. In the dim light of the early 1960s, Joey only knew what he picked up on the streets, at magazine stands, and in public restrooms. In his senior year in high school, he falls in love with Ross, a beautiful athletic “straight guy.” But once in college, his love life takes a turn.
Ike, a flamboyant college freshman, turns Joey on to gay sex and the newly formed gay lib movement. But things don’t go well for Joey, and he fumbles through a few one-night stands and semi-relationships. After nearly losing Ike to a gay bashing, Joey gives up on love and turns his motorcycle toward New Orleans and the French Quarter, where he moves in with his bohemian cousin, Judy.
Joey likes the gay scene in the Quarter but he is lonely, missing intimacy, and flails through life. The sexual nights in the French Quarter aren’t enough to satisfy his real needs -- but his resourceful cousin magically opens the door for him to have the best of both worlds.
A Review by Amos Lassen.
“Two Loves”, JMS Books, 2014.
Back to the ’60s
Jacob Campbell (Amen’s Boy and French Quarter Knights) takes us to New Orleans in the 1960s, a time before gay liberation when being gay was secret. The same beautiful language that we loved in his earlier books, still characterizes Campbell’s writing and character creation.
Joey grew up in a world without gay role models and all he knew about being gay was based on man/man sex—what he picked up on the streets, at magazine stands, and in public restrooms. When he was a senior in high school, he fell in love with Ross, a beautiful athletic “straight guy.” But then there was college where everything changed. There Joey met flamboyant Ike who not only turned him on to gay sex but also to the newly formed gay liberation movement.
Joey, however, has a difficult time and he has a few unsuccessful one-nighters and a couple of semi-relationships. To make things even worse, Ike is gay bashed and was nearly gone. Joey decides to give up on looking for love and turns his motorcycle toward New Orleans and the French Quarter, where he moves in with his bohemian cousin, Judy.
Even though he likes the scene in the French Quarter, Joey is lonely and there is no intimacy in his life. The sexuality of the New Orleans nights in the French Quarter isn’t enough to satisfy his real needs. Judy is able to help him by opening the doors that will provide him with the best of both worlds.
Thanks to Joey, we are taken on a sensual exploration of a young gay man’s love of a straight classmate, with all the complexities of sex with “a straight guy” and the ultimate frustration of trying to develop a rewarding emotional relationship. The eighteen year old “boyfriends” go through many of the traditional rights of passage but ultimately, Joey, the protagonist, has to face the facts about loving a straight guy. Joey then meets Ike and romance ensues with the two guys discovering their homosexuality with each other.
The prose is gorgeous and at times poetic. Joey is a wonderfully drawn character who is torn between the sex trade and love for another man. We must remember that at the time this novel is set, homosexuality was taboo in many places in the world but especially here in America. Joey and Ike had not turned 20 years old when they began to act on their sexualities.
Jacob Campbell, with poetic prose, and many vibrant images shows how Joey struggles to discover a way of life as a homosexual man in a world that is not open. As they learn who they are, they find themselves on a journey of life— from dancing in musicals on the college summer stage together in a chorus line, to riding Joey’s motorcycle to redneck bars in the hillbilly countryside of 1960’s Little Rock, to actually working as a team hustling guys they pick up in dark so-called “gay bars”—these young men discover that violence, misunderstanding, and lack of family or social support plot against them and their desire to be a lasting couple.
It was only when Joey’s bohemian, “beat” or “beatnik” cousin, Judy, takes him in to live in her French Quarter home that Joey finds there is a larger world of openly homosexual men from whom he can expect to gain support. It was only through her loving support that he could find supportive means to set out on a mission to be both a faithful lover to young Ike. Joey also fulfills his life’s dream of becoming a writer working in the gay movement. This was where he discovered himself the early gay underground of New Orleans in the 60s.
I have watched Campbell’s writing mature with each book and he has hit a peak with “Two Loves” yet I am certain that there is still more to come. He has the ability to combine our history with his fiction thus allowing us to enjoy a read and learn something at the same time. There are not many authors I can say that about.