The conventional narrative often positions friendship between men as preliminary child’s play – ancient, exploratory and dispensable. Once a certain goal is achieved – to identify and secure the lover – the friendships break loose like so much burning scaffolding around the base of the rocket.
I wanted to evoke and explore the male friendship that is gravitational – not just influential, but life defining. My people are men whose minds intertwine, whose feelings for each other are powerful and who mark each other forever.
The primary relationship in my book native air is between Joe and his climbing partner and lifelong friend Pete. Other climbers cite them as husbands; more than a few homophobic taunts. Another central friendship, 20 years later and marred by heartbreak, is between Will, the adult son of Joe and Pete.
Deep, passionate, co-dependent, more or less reciprocal, they are neither companions nor buddies. They are men in love. Several books made me progress.
William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!
This novel traces the misguided “design” of Thomas Sutpen to build a plantation and a legacy on the foundations of racism and slavery. But another, very different reading centers on the two college roommates who construct and reconstruct Sutpen’s story in the service of “trying to get inside.” Quentin is from Mississippi; he rode horseback to “Sutpen’s Hundred” to see the graves. Shreve is Canadian and would seem sheltered, but nothing abrogates the nativity (and space and time) like loving friendship and earnest storytelling. Their intimacy – their “happy marriage of speaking and hearing” – is musical, playful and profound.
Norman Maclean, A river flows there and other stories
“It’s the ones we live with and love and should know that are slipping away from us.” Brotherhood, religion and fly fishing merge to form the eponymous river that runs through this amazing novella. Paul and his measured, elder brother Norman seem more friends than family to me, mostly because they choose each other. Meditative asides abound and delight, but the tender stuff is about memory, acceptance and forgiveness, affirming Emily Dickinson’s adage: “The soul selects its own society.” Go with it.
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
If Ishmael and Queequeg quickly assume the status of intimate friends, this “cozy couple in love” seems composed of opposites. Ishmael’s etherization is grounded in Queequeg’s pragmatism, while Queequeg’s new angles on all things known expand and soothe the buzzing, anxious mind of his pagan-presbyterian friend. Their friendship is one of relief, probably sex, and survival, all clouded by the delirious obsessions of their mad captain.
Jack Kerouac, The tramps of Dharma
Even though the narrator Ray and his mentor friend Japhy didn’t immediately set out to scale Matterhorn Peak in Yosemite, I would cite this novel for what it expresses through the tension, pain, and longing in the primary relationship. Ray worships Japhy, and while Japhy finds Ray something more uplifting than entertaining, her affection seems temporary. Their friendship must be appreciated, internalized and digested in the service of non-attachment and other higher callings.
Marc Helprin, A soldier of the Great War
One of my favorite novels and a curve ball in this category. Alessandro and Nicolo’s friendship appears primarily as a vehicle for Alessandro telling his extraordinary life story, but the honest confessions and tender gestures they exchange belie the brevity of their journey on foot through the Italian countryside. They are at opposite ends of their lives, and yet we feel that each is now under the influence of the other.
Marlon James, A brief history of seven murders
The wedding rings in this mammoth, gorgeous novel run on a dime (or a brick), but several deep, life-changing bonds. On the one hand: the Jamaican concessionaire Weeper defies all categories; he is both violent and tender, both gay and revolted by his homosexuality. When he falls in love with another man after prison, he must both confront and conceal his panoply of contradictions – which becomes excruciating, and ultimately impossible, when boss (and friend) Josey Wales arrives to inspect the Operation Bushwick.
Annie Proulx, Close Range: Stories from Wyoming
Pake Bitts and Diamond Felts are unlikely partners on the rodeo circuit of “The Mud Below,” but in the end, driving all night to their next gig in South Texas, they have no one as much as one. the other. In now famous Brokeback Mountain, the sex between Ennis and Jack may be transgressive, but it’s the love they have for each other that is devastating. Proulx’s colorful evocation of topography – exterior and interior – engraves these beautiful and sad stories in craggy relief, signature slices of distant mountain against a dark sky.
by Jonathan Howland native air is available now from Green Writers Press.