Title: Junior Willis
Author: Richard Natale
Publisher: Bold Strokes Books
Pages/Word Count: 84 Pages
Rating: 5 Stars
Blurb: From the moment he leaves the Midwest in the early 1950s, Tom Larson is forced to confront his sexual and romantic desires at every turn. His awakening begins in Korea where he has an affair with his commanding officer. On a trip to pre-Castro Havana with his then fiancée, he embarks on a star-crossed romance with a young Cuban zealot. In Los Angeles, during the life-altering summer of 1969, Tom, now a successful film/TV writer, is consumed by shame by his unrequited love for Junior Willis, a handsome young man who taunts him with vivid tales of heterosexual prowess. Tom’s tortured journey from self-loathing to self-acceptance and happiness mirrors the slow but steady evolution of gay consciousness from the post-War War II years to Stonewall. But when he finally stops questioning his nature and his yearning for affection, love finds its way to Tom’s doorstep.
Review: Richard Natale’s Junior Willis is a beautifully subdued account of a man’s sexual maturation during some of the most tumultuous decades in the 20th century. The novella begins in the 1950s, when Tom Larson’s first tour of duty in the Korean War places him in the path of Colonel Philip Dore, a married and closeted gay man who awakens Tom’s true nature. From here on, the story follows Tom through the years as he not only falls in love, but also gets himself hurt again and again, the miserable laws of the times compounding the pain by forcing him to suppress his needs and lose himself in work, if not seek comfort and questionable companionship in brief and unsatisfying liaisons.
Tom has learned early on to fight hard to keep himself from falling in love with another man – not only because of the law, but also because of his belief that real love for men like him doesn’t exist and is, at best, transitory. Of course, his resolutions suffer a bit of a shake up when Junior Willis enters the picture, forcing Tom to face certain facts about himself, his needs, and the inefficacy of his desperate efforts at rationalizing away his heart.
There’s an ongoing theme of being born at the wrong time. Tom’s friend, Harold Easterbrook, is an aging gay man who’s enjoyed the wilder, freer times of the Prohibition and goes about his late years at ease with his loss of youth and beauty. And then there’s Junior Willis, who comes of age in the late 1960s, when the Stonewall Riots marked the dawn of the gay rights movement. In between those two generations is poor Tom, who can only listen and watch. He’s naturally withdrawn and laconic, but he’s also very much a product of the times – a double-whammy of a burden (of suppression) for a gay man who’s trying to come to terms with his sexuality.
What makes this novella a remarkable read isn’t so much the historical context against which we can see Tom’s struggle unfold, but Natale’s narrative style. Junior Willis is free of melodrama; it’s a very restrained and lyrical account which calls to mind Andrew Holleran’s gorgeous, elegiac gay novels (Dancer From the Dance, The Beauty of Men, and Grief). Natale doesn’t deviate in any way, doesn’t bog the plot down with too much angst, even when Tom grapples with his heart again and again. Everything’s laid out in clear terms, the plot itself a pretty straightforward one.
And it’s this restraint and economy that give the novella a certain melancholy air. It’s almost like watching a life unfold through the lens of an old camera, or it’s like looking at a collection of black-and-white or sepia photographs in an album just discovered hidden in an attic. The distance caused by the author’s restrained style softens the deep emotions resonating through the book, and what we’re left with are echoes of a man’s fears, joys, desires, and so on. And yet – we still feel deeply for Tom, grieve for his losses, wish for him to be happy, and break down in relief the way he does when he finally, finally allows himself to be loved by another.
That was the strongest effect the novella had on me as I read it; it’s one of those experiences that I can’t logically explain because it goes deeper than anything rational. A highly recommended read.
You can buy Junior Willis here: