Brass, Perry. “King of Angels: A Novel about the Genesis of Identity and Belief”, Bellhue Press, 2012.
“Listen, do you want to know a secret? Do you promise not to tell?”
We all have our literary heroes and I have several—Edmund White, Christopher Bram, Felicia Piano, Andrew Holleran and Perry Brass are authors for whom I will stop whatever I am doing when I hear they have new books out. I usually run out to get them right away and then spend the next few days reading what they have written. Not only do I get good stories but I get lots to think about and for me, this puts them a rung above the others. I love a book that forces me to consider who I am and my purpose in life. Thinking is perhaps what makes us different than other species but stop and think about how many LGBT writers have caused you to think—about yourself and about what they have written.
Simply by virtue of the fact that Brass’s subtitle contained two words that I love—“identity” and “genesis”—let me know that even before I opened the covers of “King of Angels”, that it was going to be a very special read. It is set at a time that I lived through, in the South where I lived and is about a boy who has Jewish blood which I do. How could Brass go wrong with me? The time is 1963 and the Civil Rights movement is just catching on. At the same time, the gay men of the world were coming forward and looking for both acknowledgement and acceptance. Savannah, Georgia is an unlikely place for Civil Rights for Black and/or gay men but nevertheless it is where out story is set. Benjamin Rothberg lives in one of the suburbs of Savannah and he is twelve years old. His home is located in what is known as the Isle of Hope and he lives with his mother, Caroline, a beautiful Southern White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) and his father, a dark Sephardic Jewish salesman. Robby is not exactly sure who he is. Religion wise he does not know if he is a Christian or a Jew and psychologically he wonders if he is real or only a boy who is pretending to be real. He goes to a Catholic school, the Holy Nativity Military Academy which is strictly yet compassionately run by monks and it is here that he finds his closest friends. You must understand that it is not strange for a Jewish boy to attend Catholic school in the South, especially during this era in history when public schools were being segregated and education was on a stop-go continuum. The private and parochial schools withstood the movement as they were private and at that time were not yet forced to integrate.
Benny also meets one very special boy a school, Arthur Gomez who steals his heart. Benny is a boy who can change to fit the mood and at the same time keep his own unique features and if you have ever lived in the South, you know why this is sometimes necessary. Benjamin is forced to shift from Jewish to gentile, from being intelligent and precocious (two of his qualities that I did not mention earlier) to acting like a “normal” (I hate that word), regular boy. While he is quite probably gay, he must act as if he loves girls.
Many of you may not know but the Jews played a very important role in the desegregation of the South. We have known discrimination and will not allow others to experience it if we can help. Racial explosions were quite common back then and racial consciousness was something everyone of every race and religion was aware of. At the same time, as I stated previously, gay men were climbing onto the battle of Civil Rights and were demanding acceptance. I can only remember what it was like as a Jewish gay man in Louisiana in the 60’s and the look on my parents’ face when I told them that I wanted to transfer from a private university to an integrated public college. Thus was a time when both Jews and gays were not totally open with whom they were and I realize that this is somewhat contradictory to some of what I have already written. But we live as a series of contradictions and we change with he mood. As young gay men, there was a lot of fibbing going on and it was not until people like Benny reached adulthood could they be open about their sexualities.
If I seem to be rambling, it is because this book is such a recollection of how I lived and I have begun to remember so much of what I had put in the back of my mind. Brass takes a good, strong look at race relations and at bullying in schools as well as the role of organized religion in the way we discover who we are. Benny was fortunate to have a handsome young monk help him to find himself and it worked that way for the monk as well. While at school, Benny learned about what he had to know but he also learned about seduction, attraction and the sexual secrets that were part of the school. He found himself attracted by the Catholic concept of the Spirit but most of all he discovered himself.
Oy—so much of this book rang true for me and so much of what is here have I also experienced. I have always wanted to write about it but Perry Brass has beaten me to it and has done so in eloquent and beautiful prose. This is not a short book but I sat down to read and did not stop until I all devoured all 360 glorious pages. I laughed and I cried but most of all I thought and I remembered how it was growing up in one of the most turbulent periods of American history when communities tried to come together. I think we forget sometimes hat America is a melting pot of many different groups, Jews, Southern Jews (yes, there is a difference), African-Americans, Catholics and Southern Catholics, gays, Hispanics and so many more and the gumbo that includes them all has not finished cooking. Will we ever see a day when we can all sit together and eat from the same pot? I don’t know and I doubt any of us do but we can all hope that there will be a day like that. Accepting ourselves is part of it all and Perry Brass helps us with that in his brilliant new book. Now back to read it all over again.