Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Some enchanted dreaming


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Another Enchanted April, Woke Up in a Strange Place, both by Eric Arvin, Dreamspinner Press, $16.99

The fiction of author Eric Arvin often guarantees a lighthearted touch, romantic gay intrigue, and at least one affable muscular hunk or two. While Arvin's novels frequently rely on films and TV as story inspiration, his divergences from the source take on new dimensions. In one of his two latest works, Arvin maintains that light air, but he goes down a darker and stranger path in another.

If you've seen the 1991 film Enchanted April (the adaptation of Elizabeth Von Arnim's novel about Englishwomen who rent an Italian villa), you know the premise. Friends rent a summer cottage, and surprising romance ensues. What a lark! But instead of setting his story abroad, Arvin sets this villa in Beechwood, a fictional U.S. seaside town not unlike Provincetown, complete with a resident hunky Italian gardener. That geographic flight of logic is quickly forgotten as the three gay friends, Tony, Jerry and Doug, avoid and eventually confront their various attractions and problems with each other.

Tony's dealing with a leg injury, soothed by his growing intimacy with Sal the gardener, relieves him of scolding Doug the bodybuilder that their pal Jerry is desperately in love with him. Indulging in each main character's self-absorption and denial, Arvin keeps the tone light and the personal relationships mildly catty without going overboard. While not a lot happens early on as the trio settle in, the summer slacking builds up to a Midsummer Night's Dream-style party/orgy, and a few true loves emerge amid the showers, group sex, and mythical, organically-induced inebriation.

Expecting another innocuous comic adventure like some of Arvin's previous books (the Subsurdity series took Desperate Housewives to an even gayer neighborhood), his latest, Woke Up in a Strange Place, is a departure indeed. While comparisons to the Robin Williams film What Dreams May Come are easy to make, particularly in scenes where the landscape melts like an Impressionist painting, Arvin once again takes his story into an entirely new realm.

Joe is dead. We understand that soon enough, so that's not a spoiler. In this phantasmagorical afterlife, his epic journey to revisit his life's heroes, childhood pals, crushes, romances, and torturers is long but never boring.

Joe is led by an angel of sorts, his guide, through forests and rivers and oceans, to meet and hopefully spend eternity or a reincarnation with his one true love; that is, if only he can remember his name and avoid the numerous tortured souls and flying monsters that inhabit this dreamy afterworld.

With nods to The Odyssey and The Lord of the Rings, Woke Up gives the classic hero's vision quest a gay angle without overdoing it. Well, the frat house full of incredibly muscular, incredibly horny and hung men may be one amusingly overdone scene. But even that excess eroticism is shown as another flawed potential "heaven" or "hell."

Arvin's descriptions differ from his other work with a mature and rich use of descriptive passages, a nostalgic sensibility that shifts as the adventurer veers off course, and a colorful contemplation of guilt, shame, sin and redemption. Would that the journey to posthumous nirvana were so colorful. Arvin, who survived near death via brain surgery, may have just given us a preview.

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