“Paper White Narcissus” by Tom Baker— Coming to Terms with Life and Death

paperwhite narcissus

Baker, Tom. “Paper White Narcissus”, iUniverse, 2014.

Coming to Terms with Life and Death

Amos Lassen

Set in 1966, Tim Halladay is discovering his sexual self as he reaches his senior year at William and Mary College. We go back in time with him as he experiences the darker side of gay life in Washington D.C. During the week he lives at his aunt’s in Georgetown in a basement apartment in her home but on the weekends he explores the gay neighborhoods of the nations’ capital. It is there that he feels at home with the remarkable people who populate the areas. Throughout most of the book Tim is a student in Williamsburg, Virginia at the College of William and Mary and most of the story tales place there.

When Tim was thirteen years old, he was told that he had been born a twin and that his brother Jeffrey never made it home from the hospital having been born prematurely. Naturally Tim is curious about this, so much so that he almost obsesses about his twin. Death worries him especially now that his mentor in the theatre has recently died and he is worried about the draft once he graduates. (As I read, I remembered myself at the time, facing graduation and the draft; being sent to Viet Nam to fight an unjust war. But I did one better and moved to Israel thinking that if I had to fight for someone it would be better to fight for my own people). Tim wants to go to Yale graduate school in drama but he cannot seem to make himself do anything about that. He is so preoccupied with his twin brother that everything else takes a back seat.

Tim is on a journey—one of self and sexual discovery that includes learning about his dead twin. This journey includes places as well as states of mind. Here is a book that looks at the nature of narcissism, identity and the fact that there might be someone else just like Tim and he needs to know this. Tim is a complicated young man who sees his family as a negative influence on him. He feels that something about Jeffrey has been left unsaid and he means to find out what it is.

Tom Baker once again brings us an unforgettable character in Tim. This is the third time that we have met Tim and Baker has each book go backwards in time. In “The Sound of One Horse Dancing”, Tim was twenty-seven years old and rising in his career in advertising. In “Full Frontal”, Tim appears in vignettes that show his emotional and sexual development and these stories weave in and out of time. “Full Frontal” details Tim’s sexual and emotional development. It is not until this new book that we see Tim so concerned about his twin brother.

Everything comes together in “Paper White Narcissus” and while I think the object of the book was to make us understand Tim better, for me it did just the opposite (not that this is a bad thing. Characters who are so fully developed that we understand every move are really no fun). Baker’s prose is lovely and the story holds us—in fact I was turning pagers faster than I had with Baker’s other two books. We do not often get an author who needs three books to bring a character to life and I am glad we have had these three. I can only wonder what will be next for Tom Baker.

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