This Cleaving and This Burning. Guernica Editions
Inspired by the lives of Ernest Hemingway and Hart Crane, J. A. Wainwright has created a parallel story of two writers, two friends, and, most importantly, two men. The novel opens with a prologue in which Miller, a loosely disguised Hemingway, retreats to a small island off Cuba, destroys years of letters from his friend Hal (a poet and Hart Crane surrogate), pours himself a whiskey, and realizes, “They were lost to each other and he’d never see the bear again” (11).
The bear in question takes us back to the boys’ superficially idyllic childhood in the woods outside of Chicago, and an occasion when Miller chided his friend for “blow[ing] a shot” and wounding, rather than killing, a bear they were pursuing (15). The trope of masculine engagement with the wilderness forms a subplot to the novel, and hereafter, the plot proceeds quite predictably: Miller volunteers to fight in World War I, along the way establishing himself as a Pulitzer-award winning short-story writer and journalist by producing gritty accounts of his experiences in the war, while Hal moves to New York and immerses himself in the arts, working on an epic poem about the American experience which he began in high school while trying to recreate his first romantic experience (with a young sailor in San Francisco). Miller’s macho heterosexuality blinds him to his friend’s equally clichéd homosexuality, and through their shifting narrative perspectives, the novel moves ploddingly towards an inevitable confrontation. After Hal has forced the insensitive Miller to recognize his (Hal’s) non-heterosexuality, and to revisit more subtle nuances of their childhood relationship, Miller responds in a predictably angry outburst—“Shut-up, shut-up you faggot!” —and breaks Hal’s jaw (315). At sunrise the following morning, on a boat back to Florida, Hal “leapt into the wake. The inscribed sea broke over him like a cry” (318). Miller, by implication, will follow soon in a Hemingway-style suicide as the novel closes with the line, “In a cupboard behind him the old Winchester stood waiting” (320).
This Cleaving and This Burning (the title is taken from a Hart Crane poem) is undoubtedly a sincere work and, as it develops, the narrative becomes somewhat less forced and more compelling. Wainwright attempts to explore some of the subtleties in the youthful relationship between his two main characters, including an unguarded moment when Hal kisses his unconscious friend, whom he believes is on the verge of death. However, these (and other, similar) scenes come across as heteronormative explorations of what it means to be “different,” and seem as self-conscious as the repeated textual allusions to the lives of Hemingway and Crane.
The novel seems anachronistic, a work which might have appeared daring and exploratory in 1965, but in 2021 simply feels dated. The characterization of female characters is sadly predictable, from the clinging single mother of a gay son, to the wife who immediately recognizes the secret of her husband’s childhood friend, and the representation of male sexuality lacks the more convincing rawness of sexuality depicted in a work like Brokeback Mountain.
Ironically, the Guernica Prize awarded to this novel was created to recognize “the best literary fiction novel that pushes boundaries and is cutting edge.” One can only wish there had been a little less formulaic writing, and a lot more edginess to this work.
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