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Bear Me Safely Over
Sheri Joseph
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).

Georges-Claude Guilbert
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 references—apart from the not-so-pertinent nod to Voltaire's Candide—are 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 Anne Porter. I am not so sure—pace preceding reviewers—about 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 for those 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 and 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 gets arrested 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 words—even 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 mainstream 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 resentments—which 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/homosexual—it'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 trash mores.

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 change…


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