Bear Me Safely Over
London: Virago Press, 2003.
£14.99, 282 pages, ISBN 1-86049-975-9 (hardback).
New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2002.
$23.00, 272 pages, ISBN: 0-87113-841-7 (hardback).
New York: Grove Press, 2003.
$13.00, 272 pages, ISBN: 0-8021-3984-1 (paperback).
Université de Rouen
Sheri Joseph is a Southern creative writing teacher. Bear Me Safely Over was
published in the U.S. in 2002 and is her first novel, but she had won various
prizes for short stories before. Indeed some of the ten chapters that compose Bear
Me Safely Over previously appeared in a handful of Southern journals. The
reference is obvious, and unmistakable: one of the characters pointedly reads
Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio (1919) at some stage in the novel
and delivers a splendid comment. But I myself am not convinced that they are
so effective as self-contained pieces. They do, however, form a very interesting
novel when thus assembled.
The other referencesapart from the not-so-pertinent nod to Voltaire's Candideare
more subtle; they are the welcome result of Joseph's excellent literary influences:
one thinks alternately of Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers, or Tennessee
Williams. At times one even perceives shades of Eudora Welty and Katherine
I am not so surepace preceding reviewersabout John Steinbeck
and William Faulkner. I am quite aware of the general tendency to fish for
such traces in every new Southern writer who comes along, sometimes quite artificially
and often purposelessly, but in Joseph's case it is justified.
Bear Me Safely Over is centered mostly around two characters: Sidra,
a horse-loving young woman who lives with her mother and grandmother in Georgia;
and Paul, a gay teenager who is eager to discover the world. "Where I
come from is country, and I mean kuntry. I don't know anyone else in
Greene County like me." (22) Sidra's fiancé is Paul's step-brother Curtis,
a homophobic musician in a frat-house rock band. Sidra's runaway junkie sister
died of AIDS. There are other characters, more or less indispensable to the plot
(depending on the chapters), such as Lyle and Jeff who play music with Curtis,
Paul's father, and Curtis's mother. And there is Kent, the fourth band member,
who looks like he has just escaped from an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue.
More or less straight when the book begins, he eventually begins an affair with
the gorgeous Paul: "He was still waiting for the crisis to hit, when he
would finally wake up to the realization that he was openly pursuing someone
who was not a girl. But Paul hadn't fully resolved for him into a gender. He
was simply a fascination. A beautiful person." (217) Curtis practically
hero-worships Kent and is of course devastated. "Curtis was half afraid
if he listened too closely, he might be infected with whatever had made Faggot-boy
the way it was." (16) I will not spoil the reader's enjoyment any further.
Like McCullers's novels, Bear Me Safely Over deals with difference.
Even at the beginning of the twenty-first century Greene County can be hell
who do not conform. Paul is the freak of the piece, the Other, the one who
makes some uncomfortable and others violent. And he's not just gay, he's bright
cultured and eccentric and wild and reckless. If he placidly settled into a
long-term discreet relationship he would be tolerated more easily. But he even
for solicitation, and in the court room the judge asks him: "Are you aware,
son, of the laws against sodomy in the state of Georgia and before God?" (139)
He feels freer when he moves in with Sidra and can explore the nightlife of Athens.
Several critics have called Paul "effeminate" (whatever that means),
which I believe is reductive. At no point in the novel does Joseph actually present
him as such, in so many wordseven though Paul at 8 is certainly a bit of
a queen and even though some people in his entourage will see "the girl
in him" and even though the decoration of his car is hilariously camp. What
the novelist explores is the disruptions in the redneck order of things that
are caused by Paul, certainly, but also by some of the female characters who
rebel to varying degrees against the dictatorship of clichéd Southern
gender roles. I also disagree with the reviewers who saw Curtis as somehow
involved in countercultural pursuits. The kind of rock he plays is totally
in that part of the world. Indeed Joseph looks at the extremely heteronormative
groupie system and cleverly shows how the arrival of Paul on the scene upsets
it. Joseph knows that sexuality is fluid, not immutable as smalltown Georgia
would have it.
None of the characters are entirely sympathetic, which makes them all
the more believable. One does, nonetheless, easily develop a liking for Sidra
and her compassion, which far from being simple and plainly "humanistic" stems
from a myriad of feelings and regrets and resentmentswhich in no way hampers
its efficiency. La Rochefoucault had a few interesting things to say about the
matter. In this context, I felt Joseph's musings about Christianity were perhaps
not as satisfying as the rest of her themes. At times she is closer to the Tennessee
Williams of the short stories than the playwright. His plays tend to start after
and be the result of the demise of the freak/poet/homosexualit's what I
call my "dead queer theory" (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar
Named Desire, Suddenly Last Summer)whereas in his stories
the queer is still alive. In Bear Me Safely Over, the queer is very
much alive, and that is what bothers the local community, which at times seems
like it is
about to pull a Matthew Shepard on him as he ponders his existence: "All
of this, everything, must mean something, and maybe one day I'll figure it out." (32)
There has to be more to life than compulsive promiscuity and self-imposed white
The best scene of all comes in Chapter 7, amusingly entitled "Boys' Club",
when Sidra impersonates Curtis for a bewildered Paul who brings a little bit
too much of himself in his impersonation of Sidra. Disturbing stuff, in the best
sense of the word. One of the strong points of the book is the way Joseph reminds
the reader now and again that nothing is ever as simple as it may seem, as when
Sidra's mother extraordinarily declares: "[Curtis and Paul are] so much
alike. I could mistake them for real brothers." (168) The structure is occasionally
puzzling, as the narratives move from past to present, from (changing) first
person to third person, and it takes the reader a few paragraphs to identify
the object/subject of the focalization. Nine chapters out of ten offer at least
one consistent narrative device, but Chapter 9 in particular, fittingly entitled "Rapture," moves
maybe a bit unnecessarily from device to device. The sense of closure varies
according to subplot, and I was left slightly frustrated by the interrogation
mark non-ending of the Paul and Kent affair. However, I have just learnt with
pleasure that Joseph is working on a novel which will allow the reader to find
out what happens to them. I can't wait. Maybe Paul's definition of love will