of First Exposure
Alan Chin paints a captivating story of friendship, love, betrayal, and homophobic violence as the path of a straight family man converges with that of a gay sailor. I thought it was extremely well-written, and as riveting as any of Alan Chin's books to date. Loved the character mix as well, and the different variations of "family" relationships. This is Alan Chin at his best. -- Ed Harris, author of the screenplay, The English Veil
The level of emotional honesty is unavoidable, it’s so real.
At some point during all of this, I realized I wouldn’t be able to ever forget these characters. Beautiful, sweet, carrying their burdens, frightened, hopeful and working to survive. Again, it’s the writing. It brings inspiration and darkness to life. -- Prism Book Alliance
Straight, married Petty Officer Second Class
Skyler Thompson battles homophobia from his Navy
buddies, the military, and his wife when he takes
a job creating flower arrangements at a gay-owned
florist. But rather than yield to pressure and
quit, he refuses to give up the joy of creating
beautiful arrangements, battling homophobia for
artistic expression. His dream is to leave the
navy and open his own florist shop.
Ezra Dumphy—his shipmates all call him Dumpy because of his obesity—is a gay sailor who likes to dress in drag. He is shunned by his shipmates, tragically lonely, and uses drugs to cope with his solitude. What he wants more than anything is someone to share his life with.
Can these two men, opposites in every way, help each other achieve their dreams?
Reviewer: Lirtle at Prism Book Alliance
Rating: 5 of 5 Stars
“Life, friendship, love, was a crapshoot.”
After just two chapters into this book, I had bought into this story, to Ezra and Skylar, to their lives, to this author’s writing.
On the surface of things, it may appear like these are trope-worn characters with trope-worn backgrounds, but this is not the case. Chin has given these people lives through their struggles and the crutches with which they try to deal with those struggles. He’s given to them talents and the joy they feel when they get lost in them. The level of emotional honesty is unavoidable, it’s so real.
Ezra and Skylar share a connection, though through different media. The result is a door that opens practically on its own.
To him, art was somehow sacred, the way you gaze up at a night sky and wonder if you’re standing on an electron that revolves around a proton in a series of infinite universes, and suddenly your mind expands and you experience your reality in a new and more significant light.
Anyone who has ever gotten lost while looking at a photograph or watching a playing musician or reading a passage in a poem, or anything of the like, will understand that feeling. There’s no turning back from it, either.
This writer has a healthy comfort level with language and knows how to use it. It’s such an interesting juxtaposition, his use of what I can only call celebratory prose in writing about difficult things taking place in complicated, uneasy lives. The styles aren’t all similar but I got the same feeling from his writing as I do when reading Harper Fox or Edmond Manning. The words the words the words.
There are a few cases of what feels like overindulgence in that language, but when it’s this enjoyable, I let it go like a two-day old bagel.
At some point during all of this, I realized I wouldn’t be able to ever forget these characters. Beautiful, sweet, carrying their burdens, frightened, hopeful and working to survive. Again, it’s the writing. It brings inspiration and darkness to life.
“Flowers are more delicate, more ethereal than the plants they emerge from, and they have scent, which is amorphous. They are the bridge between the physical and the formless, body and spirit. Flowers are a metamorphosis of the plant in the same way spiritual awakening is to a human.”
Hollister, one of the supporting characters and co-owner of the flower shop with his partner Miguel, says this to Skylar as they work on creating some arrangements for an event. This is one of many, many turns in this story for multiple characters. I have to say, as well, that in this kind of story, I almost don’t like to use the term “supporting”, as if they aren’t important all on their own. Believe me, every character in this book is meant to be there.
Unpredictable characters making unpredictable choices. I like that I didn’t always agree with those choices or that they didn’t always feel right for the characters. Whenever that happened, it forced me to reexamine my understanding of them. How great is that? Highly involved reading is the name of the game here. Love it.
There are all types of relationships explored in this story: friendship, co-workers, married couples, child/parent, long-time companions, lovers, and all of them feel very real. Real means emotional, relatable, they made me think, stayed with me, and I couldn’t wait to get back to reading about them each day.
“Honey, did you ever have a kite pull you right off the ground when you were a kid? If so, then you know the thrill I get when I work with flowers.”
There’s a nostalgic feel to this book. I’m not even sure how I can “prove” that, except that it does. Maybe it’s the overall style of the storytelling Chin has. I think that’s what it is. I want more.
This is not an easy read given the wide array of tangled, difficult subjects examined and experiences revealed. Despite all of that, I felt peaceful when I was finished. Looking back at everything that happened, everything these characters put themselves through, I never would have predicted peace being my final reaction. Just like the story itself, it was unpredictable.
This is a novel that, frankly, defies categorization. It left me utterly satisfied. It’s very personal. And that last scene? I still can’t find the words to adequately describe how it made me feel, all of these days later. I do know that I want more of Ezra’s story.
I could not recommend this book more even
if ‘more’ meant… more. Read it.
Rating: 5 of 5 Stars
Alan Chin is a writer who never disappoints. His plots are always carefully thought out, his characters smartly and creatively drawn and his prose is always beautiful. In his book he takes on several important issues including homophobia.
Skyler Thompson is a married Petty Officer Second Class who takes a job creating flower arrangements at a florist shop owned by a gay man. His wife and his Navy buddies find this strange and taunt him but Skyler does not give in to pressure and refuses to listen to them. He dreams of opening a florist shop once he leaves the Navy.
We also meet Ezra Dumphy who is very heavy and is a gay sailor who enjoys dressing in drag. His shipmates both abhor and shun him and he leads a lonely life that forces him into drug usage in order to deal with being alone. More than anything else he wants to find someone to share his life and love.
Granted this theme is not new and in fact many would say it is “tired”. However, let a good author take hold of an old theme and breathe life into it and we get a wonderful, sensitive novel. Alan Chin writes about emotion so well that we actually feel what his characters feel. There is a distant connection between Skyler and Ezra and Chin uses the way they each deal with their situations and suddenly their feelings of loneliness become unimportant as they find the way to deal with them.
All of us have dealt with this issue in some way and once we overcame it, we shoved it to the back of minds. This book will bring it forward and remind us that not everyone is fortunate in knowing how to deal with life. Loneliness is terrible on its own but it also leads to other emotions that are difficult to deal with.
Obviously this is a topic that is not easy to write about and it takes a very special vocabulary to be able to express the feelings that these characters have to deal with. Chin has that vocabulary and knows how to use it. This could have very easily been a very depressing story but it isn’t at all. His characters also are responsible for getting that vocabulary into the story since they are the ones who use it. Chin chooses to celebrate his characters’ feelings of loneliness and in doing so shows us something about the art of juxtaposition and that it can be used to work in situations like this. I had a feeling upon first meeting Ezra that I was not going to like him very much and that if he really wanted to find what he felt he needed, he would have to be willing to change himself. Instead, I grew to love him and I rooted for him all the way through.
Skyler became heroic and in him, Chin has really created a character that we so badly need in gay literature. He is a patron of beauty and this adds beauty to his personality. Too often we succumb to peer pressure instead of standing up for what we believe in. Skyler is a man who is determined to be himself regardless of cost.
Chin also takes a serious look at the nature of relationships. He looks at all types of relationships and I was reminded of a poem written by Zelda, a Hebrew poet who wrote that everyone has a name that is given to him by God, that is given to him by his parents, by his friends, by his coworkers, by his landlord and so on. Each of us has many different names depending on differing situations. I look at this and compare it to the coming-out process. We come out everyday and every time someone new enters our lives we weigh the decision as to whether to come out or stay hidden.
There is a lot to read here and I have only skimmed the surface. I have barely said much about the plot. Let it be enough that I say that is a book that cries out to be read and reading it is an experience that you do not want to miss. It is an “upclose and personal” look at how we live as gay men and how we relate to those around us.
The majority of the ship’s three-thousand-man crew and twenty-five-hundred-man air wing made their way to the flight deck to hear the president’s speech. Skylar, however, hustled to the squadron’s enlisted lounge where he found a dozen of his shipmates sipping beers and watching Bush’s speech on the television attached to the bulkhead. The screen showed Bush on a podium below the “Mission Accomplished” banner. “In the Battle of Iraq,” the president said, “the United States and our allies have prevailed.”
The crew on deck cheered; so did the men in the lounge, raising their beers in a salute. A bottle of whiskey passed from man to man, and from the little fluid left in the bottle, Skylar realized his shipmates were already halfway to shitfaced.
As Skylar sauntered across the compartment, he nearly choked on the aroma of warm beer, cigarette smoke, and human sweat. He snatched a beer and cranked off the cap, then perched himself on a chair in a corner where he couldn’t see the damned monitor. He removed a sketchpad and charcoal pencil he always kept beneath his shirt, and began sketching the image of the Viking jet. He softened the lines with his fingers, shading where needed. Skylar had a feel for drawing. He considered himself an artist, albeit an untrained one. While aboard, it was the only thing that gave him true pleasure.
“Why fly him here anyway?” Skylar asked no one in particular. “We’re thirty miles from San Diego, for christsakes.”
Shushes echoed from the men.
Dunphy wandered into the room holding a yellow writing tablet and ballpoint pen. He studied the remaining empty seats with a troubled scowl, as if trying to find the safest spot available. Skylar’s and Dunphy’s eyes met from across the room, and Dunphy rambled toward him and squeezed his bulk into the next seat over. Without a word, he bent his head over his tablet and began writing a letter. A minute later, he glanced up at Skylar, as if noticing him for the first time, and offered him a relieved grin.
Skylar returned the gesture. He scanned the room again. Smitty played bridge at the next table with Stokes, Kelso, and Nash. Hudson perched himself on a table in the center of the group of spellbound crewmen, chewing on a half-burned cigar and his eyes glued to the tube.
Skylar and Dunphy worked side by side, Skylar sketching and Dunphy writing. The first time Dunphy’s arm brushed Skylar’s, he hardly noticed. The second nudge was longer, almost sensual. It caught Skylar’s attention. He glanced down, noticing Dunphy’s hands for the first time, shapely and hairless, showing a particular beauty. Skylar moved his arm, giving Dunphy an inch more room, and began to draw those fingers wrapped around the pen.
The third brush convinced him it was deliberate. He pulled his arm well away and turned to stare into those liquid, unreadable eyes.
Before Skylar could begin to fathom Dunphy’s intentions, the hatch slammed open and Petty Officer Third Class Travis Bolton, the Brutus of the navy, charged into the room. His crew cut was the color of scorched grain; skin shaded a creamed coffee hue. Bruises adorned his face, and one of his muscular arms was bandaged and supported by a sling. Travis was two years older than Skylar, but when they hung together, Skylar felt like Travis was his little brother—someone who needed looking after.
Their shipmates had nicknamed them, the Evil Twins. They didn’t look alike, but Travis loved practical jokes, regardless of who they offended, and Skylar always backed him up when things went wrong, which was often. This bad boy role gave them both a certain amount of capital in this tough, unforgiving environment. It also awarded them a lot of solitude.
“It’s a fuckin’ zoo on deck,” Travis drawled in his baritone, Baton Rouge accent. He shook his head like a wet schnauzer. His black eyes blazed with restless energy.
“Look who they let out of the brig,” Smitty bellowed. “The mouth from the South walks among us once again. They even let him keep a stripe.”
“Christ, have you seen what’s going on up there?” Travis said, turning his back on Smitty. “There’s more press on deck than fags at a West Hollywood Gucci sale.”
“You’d be the one to know,” Hudson said. He let out a bark of laughter as he and Smitty did a high five.
Travis snatched a bottle of Jack Daniel’s from the crate and shoved his way toward Skylar. He cracked open the bottle, took a hot swallow, and wiped his mouth on his sleeve.
Skylar sipped his beer while he watched Travis stampede through the room with the lithe delicacy of a heavyweight prizefighter. Travis wore one of his hand-tailored uniforms that he had bought in Honolulu and upon which the three stripes of a petty officer first class had been hand-embroidered. Skylar inspected the fresh pale lines on his friend’s sleeves where two other stripes had accompanied the one there now. His eyes shifted to Travis’s damaged face. “Owww, Trav. Fightin’ with your cellmate to see who bends over?” he said, and chuckled. “Hope you boys used protection.”
“Don’t be jealous, Skye; he doesn’t have your boyfriend’s puppy dog eyes and big, cushy ass.” He nodded his head at Dunphy.
They smiled, clinked their bottles, and both took another swallow. This competitive banter became a delicate situation for Skylar, and he felt he had to restrain himself. Even though Travis was his buddy, it seemed their conversations always became delicate situations, both of them flirting with that invisible no man’s land between amusing and affronting. Delicate situations irritated Skylar. Who was it that said that Hell is being locked in a room with your best friend, forever? He thought of that moment of freedom he had experienced on deck, his arms spread and his face into the wind, just him and the horizon, and he wanted desperately to recapture that feeling.
“If bullshit were money,” Skylar said, “we could buy our way out of this suck-ass job and do something worthwhile.”
“Give up slavin’ for minimum wage, bein’ away from home for months at a time, brown-nosing the brass, and riskin’ our lives for God and country? Are you nuts? What’s better than this?”
“Right, what was I thinking?”
“So, Skye, what’s it like to flag the president’s bird? Bet you peed your tighty whities.”
Skylar glanced at his sketch of the Viking. “Same as any other. He’s just cargo, only dumber than most.”
“Yeah, but I’ll bet you put some extra Tinker Bell flair into it for the cameras.”
Smitty huffed at Travis, “Which makes you Captain Hook?”
“Naw,” Hudson said, “with that big mouth, he’s got to be the crocodile. What’s his name?”
“Tick Tock,” Dunphy said. “Who doesn’t know that?”
“Shut your piehole, fruitcake,” Travis said. “Nobody asked you shit.”
Skylar thought about all the enlisted men who, almost to a man, were thin-skinned, loudmouthed, and shallow. More and more, he felt out of place in their company. He wondered if the navy deliberately allured individuals who were, well… crude, or if they became that way after they joined as a defense mechanism to this testosterone enriched atmosphere. The question was moot. There was no way to change them or the environment. Whenever he thought about it, however, he felt an inkling of concern that their loutish ways were rubbing off on him.
Dunphy leaned closer, uncomfortably close, to peek at the sketchpad. “Hey, that’s amazing. You went to art school?”
“Naw. Got sidetracked.”
“Yeah, didn’t we all. But, man, if I had your talent I wouldn’t be here shucking orders and eatin’ runny eggs and burnt Spam.”
“Takes more than talent.” Skylar knew how arduous the hardscrabble art world could be for an unknown artist. He had friends that ate or starved on the whim of reviews, art fairs, and group shows, and who only dreamed of sales to collectors. Some had MFAs and adjunct teaching posts, but most produced sketches for third-rate advertising firms. Not one of them made the kind of money from painting that could support a family.
Skylar lifted his beer toward Travis. “You organize this? Pretty risky considering who’s aboard. You must really love brig time.”
“Aw, shit, Skye, the brass’ll be on deck all day, listenin’ to that lying sack of turds. By the time they finish lickin’ each other’s buttholes, there’ll be nothing left but empty bottles in the trash chute.” He took another swallow and nodded at Dunphy. “But wouldn’t you have wet your panties if the brass saw you unloading this?”
Dunphy’s face blushed the color of a ripe peach. He dropped his head, intent on his letter once again.
“Hell,” Travis continued, “Eighteen months at sea, we deserve some party time.” Travis became more animated with each mouthful of Jack. He snatched the pad from Dunphy’s hand.
“Hey, give that back, you Neanderthal.”
“Lookie here, boys,” Travis said, raising his voice, “Dumpy’s writing a love letter to his sweetheart.”
Dunphy stabbed for his pad. The wattle of fat under his chin shook.
Skylar shot Travis a look. “Give it up, Trav.”
“Tommy,” Travis read in a loud voice, “I got your letter, and I’m thrilled you’ll be in Washington when we dock—”
Skylar swiped the pad from his hand. “You’re such a dick,” he said, and handed the pad back to Dunphy.
Travis displayed a full set of dingy teeth. “Sounds like Dumpy has two BFs.” His voice held no trace of humor this time.
Skylar’s stomach spun a slow somersault. He laid his sketchpad aside and stood eye-to-eye with Travis. “Say that again, asshole. I dare ya.” He used the vehement tone that he always found startling, like thunder on a cloudless day, and that he had intentionally developed for situations like this.
The room fell silent.
Skylar made his eyes go hard, enhancing the challenge. Travis bunched up a fist and pulled his arm from the sling. Skylar bent his knees to lower his center of gravity.
Before Travis could make his move, Captain Jake Blake rambled through the hatchway, looking stern, unflappable, and fit for his fifty-two years. Beneath his salt-and-pepper crew cut and hiding behind his tortoiseshell glasses were his piercing hazel eyes, which revealed his self-assured temperament. His dress white uniform was crisply pressed and his shoes buffed, communicating respect for his position and underlining his attention to detail. He smiled, but it seemed more the result of a paralyzed face than a cheerful disposition.
Hudson yelled, “Attention on deck!”
The men snapped to attention. A bottle tipped over and rolled to Jake’s feet, leaving a trail of beer in its wake. Jake stepped over it as if it were a landmine.
Travis glanced at Skylar and mouthed a silent, “Fuck!”