The Forever Man by Stephen Kessel
Wanting “forever,” Allen leaves New York and follows his Australian lover back to Sydney. But when he arrives and reunites with Daren, he discovers that their relationship is not what he had thought. Instead he finds that a word chalked on the sidewalks of Sydney is what tugs at him, urging him to stay.
On the streets of Sydney, young Corey has found what he didn’t even know he was looking for and has his “forever,” a strange one for a young gay man, but one that satisfies him anyway.
The life and writing of a long-dead famous Australian poet brings these two men together in a most unexpected way, but it is the power of “forever” that also keeps them apart.
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
"The Forever" Man layers multiple romance stories into one narrative. The story is somewhat convoluted with a twisting sense of time but the individual elements really shine. The first narrator is American Allen, who heads to Australia after his lover. Allen’s convinced himself the lack of communication from Daren is nothing and decides to surprise his erstwhile lover in Sydney. Of course things don’t work out as well as Allen would like and he’s left heartbroken. Determined to stay in Australia, Allen soon discovers an old man obsessively chalking the word “forever” on the sidewalks. The old man is accompanied by a much younger man and the duo attracts Allen’s attention and interest.
Told in third person Allen’s journey to Australia and his overly optimistic ambition are offered to the reader. We find out how desperately Allen wants to be with someone forever and have a long term relationship. When the truth about Daren is revealed, Allen realizes how many signs and clues he willfully ignored in the pursuit of love. Allen is a sympathetic character, a man struggling to find and hold onto love and happiness. He’s by turns disgusted and painfully yearning for a “forever” with someone. He does come to appreciate the love and dedication of the other couple in a way that transcends even his journalistic curiosity.
About halfway through the novella, the viewpoint changes to Corey’s first person voice. Corey is the chalk man’s young assistant. The chalk man is never named in the story, only referred to as “he” or “The Forever Man.” Corey tells the story of how he was homeless, penniless, and considering selling himself when he comes across the old man being assaulted. After Corey helps the man to his home, Corey moves in and takes care of the man. They become friends and lovers with Corey very dedicated to the man. While living together, Corey discovers journals from a very famous Australian poet and realizes the poet and old man had been lovers for thirty years.
The story then tips into the first person account from the poet, Shawn Martell, as Shawn talks about the first love of his life, a doctor named Morgan. Shawn and Morgan are separated in world war one and Shawn ultimately makes a life with the unnamed Forever Man. Yet the journal narrative talks of how Shawn never recovered from losing Morgan and how the Forever Man was somewhat of a consolation prize. A fact the Forever Man knew and accepted. This is perhaps the best aspect of the novella as it narrates Shawn’s life and deepest thoughts. Shawn wasn’t always a good man, something even Shawn knew intimately, yet he is by far the most compelling character of the cast. His complexity and self awareness is interesting and the unconditional love of the Forever Man is a driving, necessary force in Shawn’s life.
The novella attempts to weave all these stories together and is somewhat successful but also creates confusion. The time frames mentioned are fluid and never quite make sense. There are mentions of time ~ such as a year since Allen had been in Australia, or weeks since Allen first met Corey, then a year and a half between this ~ so much that there is no linear idea of when events take place. Even the journals seem to dance forward and backwards from the time Shawn meets Morgan and later to before then and how Shawn was involved in the war. This creates a very disjointed feeling to the story, which is compounded by the multiple viewpoints that transition awkwardly.
On the one hand, the story is incredibly romantic and realistic. The men never quite end up with the love of their lives, but they do end up with someone they can love and respect. There’s a feeling of settling to all the couples but also a feeling of genuine care and love. The writing has some technical mistakes, such as prostrate for prostate, and some awkward, clumsy prose. Yet the real strength of this writing duo comes from their complex characters and able to tap into genuine emotion. These men feel authentic, real, and affecting. I always enjoy reading this collaboration and Forever Man is no exception.