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Bear Me Safely Over Paperback – March 17, 2003
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From Publishers Weekly
The lives of two troubled Georgia families intersect in Joseph's debut novel, a gutsy, realistic and lyrical portrait of country people struggling to find meaning in their constricted lives. The narrative touches on many contemporary issues, including AIDS, homophobia, racism and religious fundamentalism, while chronicling several problematic love relationships. Horse trainer Sidra Ballard is the tough, beautiful 20-something protagonist in love with Curtis, a redneck homophobic bass player in a local band. Though an unlikely pair, the two can't keep their hands off each other and decide to marry. But relationship trouble comes in the form of Curtis's younger step-brother, Paul, a troubled homosexual teen with a penchant for picking up older men. Curtis is disgusted by Paul's behavior, but Sidra, who earlier lost a sister to AIDS, longs to protect Paul. Meanwhile Kent, a member of Curtis's band, is unexpectedly attracted to Paul and a love affair begins between the two men. A large cast of characters takes turns narrating the story, their identities often obscure to the reader, who must concentrate to distinguish them. Joseph works hard at making all of them sympathetic despite their limited views of the world and their inbred prejudices. Her prose can be stiff in places, but the chorus of voices eventually coalesces into an affecting narrative that explores the way people accept or reject the responsibilities of nurturing and love.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Library Journal
Pushcart Prize nominee Joseph aims for a winner with this debut about two quirky Southern families brought together by marriage.
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
Although each character develops a distinct and believable personality, the two step-brothers, Curtis and Paul, rivet the reader's attention. It is through their dynamic that "Bear Me" creates dramatic tension and thematic resolution. Both men are broken and searching. The manly Curtis despises and is threatened by his step-brother Paul's promiscuous homosexuality. The former never achieves clarity as to exactly what his feelings are: rage, envy, frustration and revulsion compete with attraction, jealousy and acceptance. In turn, Paul wears his sexuality like Joseph's coat of many colors. At once deeply monogamous in attitude, he flaunts his numerous sexual partners in the face of both parents and his one consuming love. He is a broken young man, acutely aware of his familial status, despondent at the repressive, regressive rural Georgia social environment in which he must survive, shattered that he is not able to connect with Curtis.
As one of the women in "Bear Me" tartly notes, "Men aren't always fixable." This becomes one of the central metaphors of the novel. Paul's loving step-mother, perhaps the only older character who truly yearns to embrace him, is repulsed by Paul's tormentors, who "give her the creeps." These oft-violent cruel homophobes, "contained, self-righteous, humorless," include her own son, Curtis. This knowledge buries her under an intolerable weight of guilt and responsibility, yet she is unable to either reach Curtis or repair his own frozen heart. Nor can Curtis' vibrant, independent fiance, Sidra, control events with any more talent. Despite her open and refreshing friendship with Paul, one crafted to assuage the hurt of her own broken heart, she cannot open Curtis to the possibility of connection with Paul.
The structure of "Bear Me Safely Over" tends to diminish its power, however. Each chapter is told through a different character's point of view. While this provides a refreshing and dynamic series of perceptions to the narrative, it also saps the novel of cohesion and energy. Much of "Bear Me" reads as self-contained short stories, interlinked but independent. Nevertheless, this minor qualm pales in comparison to the integrity and beauty of Sheir Joseph's writing. Her brave examination of the dangers and possibilities of loving relationships has no easy answers, no pat resolution. It does, however, illuminate the terrible consequences of spurning affection and rejecting hope.
I think the main character is Sydra, who is in the middle of almost all the other characters' interactions and tries her best to mediate. (But maybe I think this because I am a middle child and that is supposedly the role of such people--though Sydra is not the middle child here.) She is dealing with a homophobic boyfriend who is Paul's stepbrother, a mother who is grieving over Sydra's dead younger sister, and Paul's new lover, who is in a rock band with Paul's homophobic stepbrother.
The story is set in rural Georgia in the '80s. I found a few things missing. For one, perhaps some reference to the so-called Atlanta child murders, especially in connection with Paul's black friend who is also gay and hitchhikes, as Paul does. The other thing missing is a chapter about Paul's relations in high school. There is a brilliant chapter about the religious enthusiasm of evangelical Christians and how young people get caught up in that. And another one portrays the frustration of Paul's stepmother who doesn't understand his "lifestyle". But another character/friend who is Paul's age, straight or gay, male or female, would have improved the book, I think.
Perhaps the most puzzling thing about the book is that the Paul character is portrayed as a promiscuous little slut, seeking meaningless sexual encounters in parks, rest stops, restrooms, etc. I don't find that believable, as I don't think that most gay people are like that, and it certainly does not make this character more likable. It borders on stereotyping. Paul's attempts to explain his behavior are not convincing.
Since Sydra's younger sister has died of AIDS, I kept thinking that there would be some kind of tension about this issue, maybe from a close friend who is the same age as Paul. Yet despite his evident intelligence and talents, he doesn't seem to have friends other than his family and their friends, so we do not get their perspectives on him.
As it is, a lot is left to the imagination, which is not necessarily a criticism. One does get to know the characters well enough to imagine what is not explained, for the most part.
The writing is elegant, yet simple. Despite the reservations I express above, I highly recommend the book.