The Jack Bank
Every few years, reproach is served to those who claim that the gay coming-of-age novel has run its course, that the genre has played out its ability to deliver a fresh take on familiar themes.
In Glen Retief’s "The Jack Bank", such rebuke is served in many memorable forms, including a harborside luncheon of anchovies and goat cheese offered to a pre-pubescent Retief by his paternal grandfather. While his younger sister Lisa spits out her first bite, Glen feels quite differently: "I love it... an explosion of salty fish flavor on my tongue and palate... the piquancy of several fish packed into a pale sliver of flesh the size of a monkey’s tongue... it’s exquisite."
Grandfather proclaims the boy a "gourmet," a "paragon" of taste, words that Glen has never heard before but cherishes nonetheless: "How long have I suspected that I am not quite like other people--that there is something strange in me that makes me somehow alien," he writes. "Now I have actual concepts for this discongruity, specific vowels and consonants I hold inside myself."
This quick snapshot of a scene has intricate nuances that typify the expert craftsmanship that Retief employs throughout his book. The linking of emerging sexuality with the appreciation of unfamiliar cuisine works not only as a metaphor, but as remarkably untrod ground in the literary exploration of young gay men. How many times have we been asked to see ourselves in embarrassed boys trying on mothers’ clothing or floundering at athletics? And how seldom have authors like Retief given us the chance to revel in those individuating aspects of ourselves that carried no shame--and even gave us a measure of pride--before we even realized we were gay?
But as the book continues, that praising gourmand Grandfather--a professional actor--turns out to be a molester of young girls, throwing a wrench at matters of pride and identity.
And then there’s that monkey’s tongue. In most memoirs, this particular measure of an anchovy filet would be a ridiculously florid attempt at Literary Style. But the boy who makes the observation here knows of what he speaks: Retief grew up in a game camp in South Africa’s Kruger National park, where rhinoceri and warthogs wander into the yard on a regular basis, and where his family once finds itself in imminent danger of being devoured by lions (a tale that Retief renders with nail-biting suspense).
If "The Jack Bank" gets the attention it deserves, it’s this wilderness upbringing--and the Lord of the Flies-like boarding school hazing scenes that give the book its title--that will surely get the, uh, lion’s share of ink. They’re intriguing, not to mention marketable, angles. Yet Retief notes that to him, and the children he grew up with, these were normal aspects of childhood. The most provocative, and potentially controversial, aspect of the book is another "norm" that Retief unpacks with keen intellectual and emotional retrospect: The process of growing up under the segregation of apartheid and the ways in which sexual outsiderdom may have driven his empathy for, and sexual attraction, to black men.
In the end, though, it’s much more than the specific circumstances of Retief’s growing up that make "The Jack Bank" stand apart from the bulk of novels about gay men’s childhood and adolescent experiences. It’s his ability to apply unflinching analysis to his own past and to articulate complex thought processes in language that, like that long-ago anchovy lunch, is simply exquisite.
St. Martins Press
by Glen Retief
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press. Publication Date: April 12, 2011. Pages: 288. Price: $24.99. ISBN: 978-0-312-590-932