Surprising Myself

Joel Scherzenleib has a European education, a father who works for the Central Intelligence Agency, and a mother who escaped from marriage to raise chickens. Joel’s dislocation and misery when his father abandons him (and fails to provide money for college) are resolved in a loving gay partnership with Corey Cobbett, a relationship which stands in sharp contrast to his sister Liza’s unhappy traditional marriage. When Liza leaves her husband and brings her baby to New York to stay with Joel and Corey, both brother and sister are forced to reexamine their relationship to their parents and come to terms with the ambiguous interplay of independence, love, possession, equality, and caring.

Christopher Bram’s novel is warm without being sentimental and manages to avoid a great number of cliches. The partnership of Joel and Corey provides an intriguing lens into the possibility of egalitarian relationships; their problems are much the same as those of heterosexual couples who strive to abandon traditional roles and question the meaning of romantic love. Since the flavor of the 1970’s permeates the novel--making it seem already a story of a time that is irrevocably gone -- Joel’s parents are involved in their own self-discovery and are also capable of change and surprise. Bram has a sharp ear for dialogue and a knack for allowing Joel to have sudden ironic insights that reveal his innocence. The story thus intriguingly delineates the confusion, pain, and sweetness of inventing new kinds of families and partnerships.